Subscription TV service Hulu have purchased the rights to ESL premium esports content ranging from talk shows to behind-the-scenes looks at events which will air later this year. The press release states the partnership "will showcase the diverse nature of esports through high quality storytelling".
TBS, NBC and Disney all have a stake in Hulu and have each been involved in esports coverage in recent years. TBS launched their own Counter Strike league ELEAGUE in 2016, which has hosted a major tournament and will host the next major in 2018. The Universal Open launched by NBC for Rocket League while ESL had Street Fighter V programming air on Disney XD.
Other channels have also been involved in esports. In the UK, Sky and ITV relaunched Ginx TV as GINX Esports TV which is the UK's first 24-hour esports channel. BBC Three signed up with Gfinity Elite League Series One earlier this year and broadcast content online. ESPN has also covered esports content on their website.
In short, a big company dipping a toe into the pool of esports is not unique. However, Hulu is the first streaming service to specifically commission content, rather than create a league or play host to content already being made.
The most interesting of the four commissioned shows will likely be Bootcamp. The six-part documentary series will follow Immortals on their journey to IEM Oakland in November. Immortals has suffered recently following controversy. Vito "kNgV-" Giuseppe and the twins Henrique "HEN1" Teles and Lucas "LUCAS1" Teles were late to matches twice at DreamHack Montreal, including the grand final which forced the team to forfeit the first map and left fans waiting for only a single map of CS as Danish team North only needed to take the "second" map to win the tournament. An explosive Twitter exchange with a Counter-Logic Gaming player FNS led to kNg being removed from the roster and the Teles twins wishing to be released, and Immortals losing their major spot due to three-fifths of their players departing.
A programme which shows Immortals building themselves back up and potentially shedding some light on the past issues, showing the organisation and players responses to them and what events led to the rebuilding of the team could definitely draw esports audiences. It will also be a chance for Immortals’ three new signings from October, Lucas “destinyy” Bullo, João “horvy” Horvath and Caio “zqk” Fonseca, to be introduced to those who don’t already know them or those wishing to how they ended up on the team and what threat Immortals might pose at Oakland and in the upcoming major in January.
One further development could be the rumour of Ricardo "boltz" Prass leaving the organisation to join SK Gaming. This would leave only one member of the major runners-up Immortals roster left under the organisation: Lucas "steel" Lopes. The documentary may be emotional if it ends with steel being the last one standing, ironically embodying the name of Immortals, while leading an entirely new team.
Two of the programmes, Players V. Player and Defining Moments, are set to be talk shows. PvP will have a game show element based on esports personalities knowledge, while Defining Moments will be more discussion, looking at specific moments and trends with a mixture of experts and fans. ESL Replay will give a behind-the-scenes look at various ESL tournaments, recapping the events while also documenting the areas fans might not otherwise see.
The global nature of esports provides its own opportunities and challenges. One major issue that Hulu’s original content presents is that the content for the CS scene, primarily seen as an EU dominated affair, is on a platform only accessible from the US and Japan. Fans across the world will be unable to access the content. To those in the US and Japan, it is unlikely many esports fans will purchase a Hulu subscription just for ESL's shows. The main audience the content will reach is the fans already using Hulu who might see it and be interested.
ESL broadcasts their matches on the free streaming platform Twitch, with many other organisations choosing online broadcasting platforms for their content. Expecting fans to pay for content that is not too dissimilar to what is already out for free might backfire. At PGL Major Krakow, PGL produced short videos called Player Skins, which involved players and personalities talking about their tattoos, with around 50 minutes of content made. While these made for interesting segments on stream and as YouTube videos, it is unlikely anyone would chose to pay to see it as an episode on a paid platform. Many esports figures already have shows and podcasts which seem to cover what Hulu hopes ESL's content will.
When content is not able to be accessed, people will find a way around it or to get the information they need. An Immortals fan outside of the US and Japan cannot watch the documentary about their favourite team directly, so is likely to go onto Reddit to get the details or wait for an upload onto a website like YouTube by a third party in order to view it. While this kind of access works for big shows and networks who can rely on a solid audience live, or merchandise to sell, it will not work for Hulu and ESL if people are not actively viewing the content on the platform.
The likely outcome
Esports is growing and it is no surprise broadcasters and streaming services are wanting to get involved. However, failing to understand the audience and target market could prevent the success of these early attempts at original content. While it makes sense for ESL to sell their content to a keen partner, Hulu doesn't seem like the best partner for the fans who might want the content. Exclusivity in esports rarely works, with many other businesses and ventures attempting to be premium failing to stay around for any great length of time.
The backing of a company like Hulu means the content will be high quality, but the demand for such content doesn't seem to be present yet. For international fans, the only hope is that future partnerships allow for global access rather than an exclusive US market stuck behind a pay wall.