Hey dude, let's watch video games: NBC Sports to air e-sports

Rocket League screenshot
The Rocket League game is basically “cars playing soccer,” an NBC Sports executive said. The winners of NBC’s first streamed and televised esports competition will share $100,000.

Two years ago, Nick Purdy of Wayne downloaded the Rocket League video game. He liked it and so did many others as it became a huge hit, with 1.6 million daily players who kick around soccer balls with souped-up cars.

And this Saturday, Purdy and teammate Dylan Fowler, of Dermott, Ark., will take their Rocket League game to a new level: a televised competition on Comcast regional sports networks in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and other Comcast cable-TV markets. The top 16 teams from these regional tournaments will compete in late August for the national title that will be aired on 24-hour sports channel NBCSN, with $100,000 in prize money to be split.

Streamed e-sports — or video game competitions — have grown in popularity on YouTube and Amazon-owned Twitch, drawing tens of thousands of viewers and sometimes more than 100,000.

Now Comcast-owned NBC Sports is looking to see whether e-sports can translate into a television audience with its first e-sports foray. The airing also seeks to reach an elusive advertiser-coveted younger male audience that’s drifting away from traditional live sports, but also was weaned through adolescence on online video games.

Rob Simmelkjaer, senior vice president of NBC Sports Ventures, said Thursday that 260 million people globally could watch e-sports this year.

“It’s become hot in the United States in the last three or four years,” he added. “But it’s been really popular in South Korea going back to the 1990s.” He said that 61 percent of e-sports’ audience is younger than 25 and 85 percent is male.

He compared e-sports to golf: The more you play golf, the more you want to watch others play golf. So those who play video games will want to watch them played by top-notch players. The new viewing genre also seems similar to poker competitions — popular on networks.

Rocket League, developed by privately held Psyonix Inc., of San Diego, is not violent and is easy to follow, making it a good game for television, Simmelkjaer said. It was the most downloaded game in Sony’s PlayStation store in 2016 and the fifth-most-downloaded game in July. The game costs $20 and can be played on personal computers and the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One game consoles.

Purdy, 28, and Fowler, 23, won qualifying rounds to advance to Saturday’s regional tournament, which will be filmed and streamed from Comcast studios on Delaware Avenue. They had met playing Rocket League online. Fowler flew into Philadelphia on Wednesday.

Purdy said Rocket League is “easy to play, but hard to master.” As for viewers, he said, “there will be a ton of people watching online, but I don’t know about TV.” The competition will be streamed on nbcsports.com and possibly on Twitch, though that has not been finalized.