Facebook’s Giant Step Into Esports May Be a Look At Its Future

Facebook may have decided it doesn’t want to be a media company, but it might just want to be a gaming platform. The company announced today that it will be the exclusive destination for multiple leagues from esports federation ESL. Look out, top-down cooking videos and insane Russian dashcam clips: you may soon be competing with 360 no-scope headshots for users’ “meaningful interactions.”

Starting January 23, ESL One, which features tournaments for both Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournaments, as well as ESL’s dedicated CS:GO Pro League, will broadcast through Facebook Watch, the social network’s streaming-video component. That means tournaments, but it also means recaps, highlights, and a week-in-review show—all of which are already hugely popular on streaming platform Twitch.

That fact raises an obvious question, though: If you’re ESL, why not just sign with Twitch? The platform, which Amazon owns, is already a destination for this kind of partnership. The Overwatch League—Blizzard’s ambitious challenge to conventional sports leagues—will exclusively host its broadcasts on Twitch for the league's first two years.

“We look at Facebook as the best of both worlds,” says Ken Hershman, the commissioner of the World Esports Association, an industry collaboration between top teams and ESL. “It’s a tremendous streaming platform, but it’s obviously a social and engagement platform.” Using Facebook’s targeting capabilities, ESL will be able to extract highlights from the broadcasts and cross-post them on the pages of individual teams. These videos will live in Facebook Watch and surface on users' news feeds as well.

The two companies have already tested out the dynamic. Last year, they partnered to bring 5,000 hours of ESL’s content to Facebook—and ESL’s reach on the platform grew. And grew. And grew some more. Before that deal, ESL was reaching 750,000 people on Facebook each month; now, that number is more than 25 million. And it stands to grow even more.

And what about Facebook’s side of the equation? Can watching digital crosshairs flick around drive the sort of engagement Mark Zuckerberg seems to have made his new year’s resolution? More than you might assume. ESL has outposts in over two dozen countries, each with their own roster of recognized analysts and broadcasters. In CS:GO-crazy Brazil, fan engagement on Facebook was so high—even when the tournament broadcasts were appearing across different platforms—that the Portuguese broadcasts became part of today’s partnership.

There’s more, though. This isn’t just a glimpse at where esports will be viewed, but how. Remember that 2016 photo of Mark Zuckerberg walking throughout a roomful of Oculus-strapped journalists? That’s where the viewing experience is headed: ESL will be broadcasting matches in VR, using Facebook 360. Forget about squinting at your phone, a computer screen, a TV or even a stadium Jumbotron to make out what’s happening on the minimap; now, you’ll be able to watch it all in glorious surround (at least when 5G helps 360 streaming video be less of a blocky mess).

While Twitch has become an increasingly popular home for VR streamers, it simply can’t match Facebook’s VR strategy. Not only does Facebook already have teams dedicated to social VR and live VR experiences, but it owns Oculus, which will be releasing its standalone Oculus Go headset in "early 2018." (And that headset's $199 purchase price may have just gotten significantly more attractive to a few esports fans.)

On paper, it feels like a bet on the future for both companies. In Facebook, ESL gets a global reach that far eclipses Twitch’s—over a billion people scroll through Facebook each day, close to ten times Twitch’s daily user base—the importance of which can't be overstated as esports continues to court mainstream entertainment appetites. In ESL, Facebook gets a prominent esports league with a huge following that can help establish Facebook Watch as a game-streaming destination in one giant leap. In a market that was projected to bring in $4.6 billion last year, that's a potential windfall for both parties.

And for esports fans, Facebook’s recommendation engine means that the company may be able to cross-pollinate esports communities like never before, turning fans into even more engaged fans. Follow a CS:GO streamer on Twitch? You’ll get more CS:GO streamers. Like CS:GO on Facebook and watch a Pro League match? You might just end up binging Dota 2 right after.

GG, everyone. GG.

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