Todd Sitrin's been in the gaming industry for close to 30 years, and he's got a confession to make: "I don't understand League of Legends."
Sitrin, who heads up EA's competitive gaming entertainment group, is far from the only one. Despite its immense popularity among both players and esport spectators, League is a notoriously complicated game. For League, as with most esports, Sitrin thinks that "in order for you to enjoy it, or even understand it, you have to be a player of that game — or certainly a pretty darn hardcore player of video games." That, Sitrin thinks, limits many esports' potential. "Their audience is capped by the size of the popularity of their games," he said. "There is a huge population that finds what the entire industry is doing as completely inaccessible."
For Sitrin, that presents an opportunity. "Our vision is to take competitive entertainment mainstream," he said. And EA has a particularly specific definition of "mainstream": People should be able to enjoy watching competitive gaming without being players of the games. Sitrin pointed to "The Great British Bake-Off" as an example. "I do not bake, I do not cook," he said. "But I watched that religiously, because it is entertaining as hell." In the same way that "GBBO" created a baking show that anybody, even non-bakers, can watch, EA wants to make competitive gaming shows that people will watch even if they don't game.
EA might have an advantage over other publishers in doing that, because its esports strategy is driven by traditional sports games, such as the immensely popular Madden NFL and FIFA titles. For FIFA, Sitrin said, "the lowest-hanging fruit will be the core FIFA video game player," followed by the rest of FIFA's 100 million-strong player base. But he thinks there's scope to grow the audience much, much more. There are around 4 billion soccer fans in the world, he said, and Sitrin counts those as potential fans of FIFA esports, too: That's "the big prize."
Part of EA's strategy for reaching that 4 billion involves deviating from the traditional way of making esports content. "Esports, historically, has played from the exact same playbook for 20 years," Sitrin said. "It's two people behind a broadcaster desk, one person is going to do play-by-play, the other person is going to do the color analysis." In other words, it's "a traditional sports presentation." EA thinks that format is ripe for disruption.
Sitrin and EA might be right. ESPN, which started covering esports in 2016, pulled the plug last year. "Esports on ESPN.com was by far our lowest-trafficked section," ESPN said when explaining the decision to end coverage. If traditional sports broadcasters can't make esports work, EA's gamble to try something completely different might pay off.
The best example so far is "The Sims Spark'd," a reality competition show based around The Sims. The show, which aired both digitally on BuzzFeed and linearly on TBS, was a big departure from traditional esports content, but still fits in with EA's expanded idea of "competitive gaming entertainment." It's "a prime example of how we are approaching it through an entertainment lens," Sitrin explained, pointing to how the change in format helped increase diversity, too. "Almost 90% of the competitors were female," he said. "That's the most diverse thing this industry's ever produced."
EA hopes to make money from more entertainment-focused products themselves, through sponsorships and media deals. But it also hopes to use them as a way to bring viewers "farther down the marketing funnel." Sitrin pointed to another entertainment-focused series, Derwin James vs. The World, which featured NFL player Derwin James playing various online and offline celebrities at Madden. "We acquire you with the entertainment property," Sitrin said, "because maybe you're a fan of ... some rap artist that's going to be on the broadcast. You watch it, and then we introduce you to the fact there's this other thing where professional players are playing esports. We try to sequence things to bring a non-viewer to becoming a viewer, and a viewer to becoming a fan."
So far, it's still early days. EA says its FIFA 21 Challenge, which paired top soccer players up with FIFA esports players, had an average minute audience of 254,057. That's EA's most-watched esports broadcast in history, but still minuscule compared to last year's League of Legends World Championship Final, which had an audience of 23 million. Sitrin might not understand League, but plenty of others still do.