By John Gaudiosi
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - CBS Interactive, the gaming wing of CBS Corp, has locked up exclusive advertising deals with six major professional leagues, capitalizing on a sport that is rapidly growing in popularity while managing to run under the mainstream radar.
Executives for CBS Interactive told Reuters on Wednesday that they had signed agreements to stream pro competitions with the North American Star League, Dreamhack, Electronic Sports League, Global StarCraft II League, EVO Championship Series, and Major League Gaming. CBSi also has a non-exclusive deal with a seventh, IGN Pro League.
"We've locked up 96 percent of all the advertising inventory around eSports, and now we have an opportunity to take that to market and turn this pond into an ocean," said Simon Whitcombe, general manager of CBSi Games.
Professional gaming, also called eSports, has become a huge draw for men 18- to 34-years-old across the globe. Fans tune in to live Web streams of tournaments to watch pros play games such as Blizzard Entertainment's "StarCraft II", Riot Games' "League of Legends" and Activision's "Call of Duty: Black Ops" for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and prizes.
Whitcombe said a pro gaming event like June's Major League Gaming (MLG) Spring Championship in Anaheim, can attract between 1.5 and 2 million unique viewers over a weekend - on par with some TV shows.
CBSi Games also has partnered with Own3D, one of the world's largest live streaming companies to expand its reach. Own3D already attracts over 10 million people a month to watch live streaming game competitions and events.
The deal with Own3D comes on the heels of a separate CBSi partnership with TwitchTV, which attracts another 17 million gamers per month through its streaming game content.
Whitcombe said through these deals, and with its own original content, CBSi now offers more than 3 billion minutes of live gaming and eSports content monthly.
The dedication mostly that male audiences have with eSports helps push it high up the list of social networks that advertisers currently are seeking.
Web audiences tune in an average of 23 minutes to view a pro game event, according to internal TwitchTV data. By contrast, Web watchers take in three minutes for a typical on-demand video clip, according to February 2012 comScore MediaMetrix data.
Moreover, gamers are often simultaneously engaging with each other and the event through social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The more avid fans will spend up to 40 minutes at a time during live streaming of game tournaments.
Whitcombe said live streams of CBS Sports 2012 NCAA basketball tournament peaked out at 650,000 concurrent users watching four games at the same time.
The most recent MLG tournament in Columbus this past March had over 350,000 concurrent users, and Whitcombe believes the upcoming Anaheim MLG competition could eclipse 500,000 concurrent users.
Michael Pachter, video game analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities, believes that the audience for eSports will double every two years over the next decade.
"We are at the infancy of eSports, and right now CBS is making a significant investment around online streams, broadcasting those streams to a large audience and monetizing around them," said Whitcombe.
"Sooner or later, if we're successful, the conversation will evolve to, ‘Does this content work on TV?'"
(Reporting By John Gaudiosi; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)