Live From Final Four: How Esports Is Changing the Way March Madness Is Produced

Turner Sports’ Craig Barry brings lessons from ELEAGUE to the NCAA Tournament

When Turner Sports became a major player in the burgeoning eSports business with the debut of ELEAGUE last year, the question across all ends of the business was, what would a traditional broadcaster bring to the digital-first world of competitive gaming?

Craig Barry has learned from his work in eSports that it’s critical for content creators to listen to and participate in the conversations going on around their digital properties.

Craig Barry, EVP/chief content officer, Turner Sports, has been busy flipping that question on its head: what could he take from his lessons working in esports to influence the traditional sports in the Turner portfolio. We’re talking properties like Major League Baseball, the NBA, and, yes, the NCAA Tournament and this weekend’s Final Four.

For Barry, it boils down to having a more direct relationship with your audience and not treating sports and content like a one-way street.

“Traditional sports content — away from the live stuff — always consisted of evergreen, historical, lifestyle features,” he explains. “Now we are in this age of the conversation; the current, relevant conversation. If you are not in that conversation in that 48- to 72-hour window, you are not contributing to what’s most topical and what’s relevant. That becomes imperative, whether we are starting the conversation, extending the conversation, or just participating in the conversation in the most relevant and topical way — whether that’s team-related, player-related, or school-related — and making sure that whatever content is bubbling up is fresh and topical and that we are taking advantage of the platforms that help facilitate that.”

Turner’s digital expertise is a key contribution to its joint partnership with CBS Sports on March Madness. Since coming on board to support the tournament in 2011, Turner has pushed the event’s coverage to become more digital, more social, and more engaging overall, and that fact has only accelerated over the past half decade. March Madness Live, in its various forms, spotlights social conversations and pushes behind-the-scenes and interactive content to the forefront, and Bleacher Report helps give the tourney added credibility with younger audiences.

Currently in its third season, ELEAGUE (which this time is programmed around Street Fighter V) has turned folks like Barry and Christina Alejandre, VP/GM, esports, Turner, into bona fide power players in the money-laden environment of eSports.

The competitive-gaming world has built its momentum on the back of a highly engaged community, one that lets anyone watching at home feel like they have a voice and can learn a thing or two from the experts to improve their own game. The community is one that screams for authenticity and tends to have a discerning eye for anything that doesn’t meet expectations.

In Barry’s eyes, although sports fans are communal and sports are “tribal,” there’s something very different about the esports community.

“It’s easy to pick production up and move it over to esports,” he says. “The philosophy of being authentic, building and serving a community is native to esports and not necessarily native to traditional sports. Building and serving a community around specific teams and specific schools is, but not so much around the [NCAA] Tournament.

“I think what esports has taught us is that authenticity, this ability to connect directly in this evolving content conversation [is critical],” he continues. “[We are] letting fans interact and listening to what they have to say, engaging the fans on these platforms and giving them a voice. You could have a lot of fans barking about the Knicks or the Lakers or whatnot, but the strength of the community or the fandom never shifts the outcome of what we do. Whereas, in esports, the strength of community definitely shifts what we do. So, as we try to innovate around content, that voice that’s coming from the community and from the fans is becoming much more influential.”

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