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Esports is getting its primetime network moment. For the first time, The CW is partnering with digital network Machinima to bring its web docuseries "Chasing the Cup" to its digital platforms and broadcast television.
"There could be an interesting opportunity for us, as we are seeing our digital and broadcast audience migrate back and forth (between platforms)," said The CW executive vice president of marketing and digital programs Rick Haskins. "We think that this model could be interesting where we do a pregame on digital and move the actual event to broadcast. We can move people back and forth within our ecosystem."
"Chasing the Cup" follows competitive gamers as they vie for a eSports championship. The upcoming third season will focus on "Mortal Kombat X" players, who are attempting to win the ESL Mortal Kombat X Pro League Finals.
The first four episodes of the third season of "Chasing the Cup" will air on CW Seed, the network's digital platform. It will culminate in a one-hour special finale that will air on The CW at 8 p.m. ET on Feb. 15.
ESports has started to make its mark on television. In December, Turner Broadcasting announced it was forming an eSports league with agencies WME/IMG, and would air television content on TBS. ESPN has also increased editorial coverage, as well as airs some competitions on its networks. Earlier in 2009 through 2010, SyFy ran two seasons of the "WCG Ultimate Gamer" reality competition.
The idea to bring an eSports series to The CW began about two years ago, according to Haskins. Internal research found that network viewers who watched its shows "The Flash," "Arrow" and "iZombie" were also up to 300 percent more likely than the average citizen to be into eSports.
On the Machinima side, "Chasing the Cup" was already being produced in a 22-minute per episode format, making it an easy transition. The show is the first Machinima property to get a spot on broadcast. Episodes for CW Seed however, will run a little shorter in maxing out at 15 minutes.
"The stories are there if you have great characters," said Machinima chief content officer Daniel Tibbets, a former Bunim/Murray Productions executive. "It's really a great series, and a great format that translates to TV. Mortal Kombat X is also a game that I think anybody can understand. It's a fighting game."
The CW had worked with Machinima on different advertising initiatives, especially during the launches "The Flash" and "Arrow." Haskins also sees the opportunity as a way to reach out to new advertisers that might not have considered The CW.
"Machinima understood the gaming world far better than we did, and we understood the TV world far better than they did," Haskins said. "We merged those two skill sets into something that would work out for both of us."
Lewis Ward, research director for gaming for advisory firm International Data Corporation, projects there will be over 200 million regular eSports online content viewers by 2019, doubling 2014 numbers.
"It's an interesting experiment that could open up a much larger opportunity within a few years," Ward said of the CW deal.
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Ward noted that Machinima's YouTube series only got about 300,000 viewers per episode at its peak, making it unlikely to be a ratings juggernaut for CW. He also pointed out that Mortal Kombat X is very violent and graphic, so it may be controversial for parents of young children.
Still, Ward said that the TV network was smart to start programming eSports content given how gaming resonates with teens and young adults.