Tobias Sherman is the Global Head of eSports for WME | IMG and one of the minds behind Turner's ELEAGUE. During the league's media day, Sherman chatted with theScore esports and revealed how much it meant for him seeing ELEAGUE become a reality and what it took to get it there.
Editor's note: The writer, Dennis Gonzales, began this interview by gesturing towards the ELEAGUE stage.
Sherman: Yeah, this is obviously a dream come true. Like I was saying earlier, concept is one thing, but bringing it from concept to creation ... I think that there was maybe a lack of faith on both sides. Traditionally, I think there's a lack of faith from the esports side in TV, and I think there's a lack of faith from TV in the esports side. So it was sort of mutual. When we aligned with Turner, I knew right away that they were up to the task. I had no idea they were up to this.
So they far exceeded my wildest dreams, and I can only hope that the content and everything goes as well as the setup has. You've heard it time and time again: it's all about authenticity. Authenticity and listening to the community, and listening to the talent that's been in it for so long.
And I think that that's going to be reflected in the end product. I said, when I first walked in and saw the studio, I welled up, of course. I'm fully expecting to cry tomorrow at the first match, so yeah.
I'll be looking out for it (laughs). But this has been something that's been a long time in the making. I remember reading a press release about your company [Global eSports Managment] ...
It evolved, obviously. My lineage through the scene, I started at the very bottom, obviously. Before I wanted to invest in the scene, I wanted to get a good view of the landscape. So I started as a beta caster at MLG, just producing and just trying to figure everything out, meeting the talent, and I just fell in love with the space.
And then from there, I was really big into advocacy for players and teams and talent. And it grew, when Min-Sik Ko came on board and we grew even further. And then IMG eventually hired us two years ago now.
You know, it was great, because they allowed us to be as entrepreneurial as we wanted to be. And they just were able to feed us tools, whether that was Academy or Turner, and some things we also have in store that I think are exciting ... really having the full power of WME | IMG is one thing. But when you align it with the full power of Turner, and the commitment on both sides, ELEAGUE is just magnificent.
So to start in the broom closet and end up in this studio right now is, for me personally, is magic.
It's interesting because, and this is probably just an observation myself, but if you were proposing something like this five or ten years ago, you'd probably be laughed out of the room. What's changed since then, to today where it has been possible?
Well, I messed up enough pitches to know how to pitch better, maybe? (laughs) Look, I think that it took the right timing and it took the right group of people. And Turner had the guts to do it, and I think our pitch was pretty compelling. It was aggressive, it was bold, but that's what we do. We like to be ahead of the curve, and here we sit.
To your point, you're absolutely right: it does boil down to being the right time. And listen, a lot of people want to make editorial comments about CGS [Championship Gaming Series] and TV and how it didn't go well. But you know what? Kudos to them for trying, first of all.
There wasn't the infrastructure of Twitch at the time. You're never going to hear me badmouth them. Because you know what? If it went well, they were heroes, they were champions, they were brilliant, geniuses, ahead of their time, right?
It just didn't align at the right moment. But you know what, we were able to learn from it, and improve, and hopefully come up with a product this time that is more than viable. And I think, for me, my biggest concern was sort of a hybrid pitch: what was the Twitch component? For me, that was very important, obviously. We had to have viewership on Twitch coupled with what Turner can do.
And Turner loved it from the start. I had a 40-minute dissertation ready on why we needed to do it, and the first minute in they said, 'Yeah we're good with it.' So I was caught off guard, and I thought, "What am I going to talk about for the rest of the 44 minutes I've got left?'
From there we went literally to creation mode, which was good.
What was that moment — because it seems like there were a lot of milestones, and I might be wrong but it seems like it was yes from every single point. It was compelling from the get-go. Was that true for ELEAGUE?
Compelling for Turner?
Yeah, I think that they were interested in the space. And when they saw what we came up with — again we were bold and aggressive — I think they wanted to learn about the space.
As a matter of fact, true story, in the second pitch we did in New York — the first pitch was Burbank, the second was New York.
At the second pitch, someone from the Turner side, might have been David Levy, said, 'Hm, very aggressive,' and somebody from our side of the table, Dan Porter, said, 'Thank you.'
I think that kind of personified it. Because they were looking to do something additive, they were looking to do something big and they were all in. No disagreement we've had internally on how this thing was going to be built wasn't done out of genuine love for the space.
There were no moments were people were hollering or screaming. They were all very civil discussions. And the way we sort of governed the experience of creating this was out of consensus.
So we always got a pretty good consensus and really did our research, even from really being in the space. I think that the buy-in from Turner was clear ... it just didn't arrive here because all of a sudden they wanted to spend a bunch of money together. We arrived here because they started off with, 'Let's make a big splash.'
You mentioned doing research, and you also mentioned CGS before. Were there any big lessons from CGS that you kind of learned from?
Yeah. I think the importance is to let the experience speak for itself. We don't have to do this the "TV way." Everything has evolved. How we consume has evolved, the devices we consume on have evolved. I think the experience is good enough at its core, and if you respect the history and you respect the culture and that's what you put forth, it's hard to go wrong.
I think with CGS they didn't have that road map. All they had was a road map of traditional sports and a grand idea. Again, I have to say: kudos to them.
The learnings from that were: let's be able to cater to the hardcore fan, but also make it appetizing to the new fan. And let's not be gimmicky, let's just avoid the gimmicky thing.
You've heard it a hundred times: our key word is authenticity.
Is there a key demographic that you guys want to hit? It's interesting because you're hitting both the television and the Twitch space. Is it more of a case where you want to bring that youth that's from Twitch over to television?
No. I don't think we're trying to convince anyone to tune in any differently. Unless they have the desire to see maybe a different look at it, or maybe a more premium look for television, great, but I don't think that's the intent.
I think the intent, more importantly, is to be able to give an experience that is really platform-agnostic, that everyone can enjoy, and I think instead of targeting a demo, what's more important for us is getting the esports fan that doesn't know he's an esports fan. That's the guy I want. I want to turn that guy onto esports that had no idea he loved it, but just hadn't experienced it yet.
That's more important than demo. Bringing more fans in.
I have to admit that I don't watch much television anymore. The Shaq stuff, was that televised, made into commercials or anything like that?
You know, I think it could be. I think that was another good example of digital-first. It was meme-like. It was very Reddit-friendly, it really spoke to the audience. It was tongue-in-cheek, let's not take ourselves too seriously here.
I think that's another thing we learned from CGS. Be open to feedback, be tongue-in-cheek, be a little over the top and funny.
Having Shaq in there talking about the game at a high level or talking about AWPing, whatever you want to do, it's just not going to work. But putting him in that element and saying, 'Hey, I embrace this, and I am a rookie but let's have some fun with it,' that's fantastic. You can't beat that.
What has the marketing been from a television standpoint?
We've aired commercials and in New York we've got some billboard ads and bus ads, it's been great. A lot of traditional marketing has gone into this, and every time I see it I'm like, 'Wow, that's pretty remarkable.'
So I'll be in an Uber or a cab somewhere ... I remember one time someone asked me what I did. And I said, 'Oh, I work in video games, esports,' and they said 'Oh my gosh, there's this thing called ELEAGUE, and I was watching basketball and saw this commercial.' And what can you say at that point, you know, other than, 'Please tune in!'
It's exciting when that happens because it means one, the marketing is reaching new people and two, people are excited about it. So at least in my survey and statistics of one Uber driver so far, it's looking good.
Bit of a personal question: do you have kids?
Yeah, I have two.
Do they watch esports at all?
Oh yeah, they watch and play. I have a boy and a girl, and they brought them both to Columbus for the final ... Adam Apicella showed them a great time, and they were hooked. They like Luminosity, so it was good to see them, but my son is also a big Na`Vi fan so he didn't leave disappointed either.
They're both gamers. And it's remarkable to see it through their lens, to view esports through their lens. Because there's no difference than traditional sports with them, it's just competition, it's live competitive entertainment, and it doesn't matter if it's tennis or esports, they love it.
How do they feel about you being a part of this?
Oh, I'm like the coolest Dad in school. I got lucky there, maybe some karma for potentially not giving my parents too much Hell when I was younger. When they go in and they tell their classmates what I do, I'm instantaneously a hit at the school, which is tough to do, especially as they get older. I try to keep them in check and embarrass them as much as possible when I drop them off at school, yell, 'I love you,' and things like that.
And I also try to limit their gaming. It's tough, because I have a passion for it. I think one thing that is going to be a popular theme at 16 and 17 is balance. Typically a lot of what we're finding is a lot of people in the space have been overtraining. And balance is important in life, in anything you do. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. In terms of gaming you may love it, and it'd be great, but at the end of the day, if it's too much, it's too much.
I think the biggest challenge with my kids is scaling them back, especially if they're creating something new on Minecraft, or if they're doing so well on a map. I'm the Dad that's going to give them the extra hour at the end of the day.
Dennis "Tarmanydyn" Gonzales is a news editor for theScore esports who enjoys whiskey, D&D and first-picking
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