Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) recently partnered with e-sports organization Eleague to live-stream the finals of its Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament from Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center in Atlanta. The potential audience is an enticing one.
CS: GO was the third most-watched game on Amazon's (NASDAQ:AMZN) Twitch in June, and the third-highest paying e-sport worldwide, with a cumulative prize payout of over $13 million since 2000. Eleague's first season on TBS, which featured CS:GO between May 24 and July 30, attracted 19 million viewers on the cable channel. It also attracted a peak of 168,500 concurrent streams on Twitch, and the two platforms delivered a combined 897 million gross minutes of video. As of this writing, it's unclear how many minutes were streamed on Twitter, but those involved were optimistic ahead of the tournament.
Speaking to the BBC, Eleague general manager Christina Alejandre called Twitter the "native social platform for e-sports," and Twitter CFO Anthony Noto declared that "gamers are one of the largest and most engaged audiences on Twitter." But can broadcasting video game tournaments boost Twitter's active user growth and advertising revenues?
Why is Twitter expanding into e-sports?
The worldwide e-sports market could grow from $325 million in 2015 to $1.1 billion by 2019, according to Newzoo. The research firm estimates that about 131 million enthusiasts watch e-sports on a daily basis, while another 125 million viewers tune in for major tournaments. Those numbers are significant for Twitter, which finished last quarter with just 313 million monthly active users.
Twitter's push into live-streaming e-sports also complements recent traditional-sports partnerships with the NFL, NBA, Disney's (NYSE:DIS) MLB Advanced Media, and Pac-12 Networks. The NFL deal lets Twitter stream 10 Thursday Night Football games worldwide, and the NBA partnership delivers exclusive live content to Twitter, Vine, and Periscope. The MLBAM deal lets Twitter stream one MLB and NHL game weekly, while the Pac-12 partnership will stream over 150 games to Twitter over the next two years.
Simply put, Twitter wants to become an alternative viewing platform for live sports. Since mainstream sports networks like Disney's ESPN are already adding more e-sports content, it seems logical for Twitter to do the same. This sports-centric push might widen Twitter's moat against live video rivals like Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) YouTube and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB).
But can Twitter pull in e-sports viewers?
Twitter's push into e-sports makes sense, but it could be entering the market too late. Twitch, the 800-pound gorilla in the space, has over 100 million monthly viewers who watch games for an average of 106 minutes per day.
Those games are being broadcast by over a million broadcasters who share their games live on Twitch. In May, Twitch launched a social networking feature called "Friends," which could become the default communication tool for its e-sports viewers and broadcasters. That feature could reduce the importance of Twitch's Twitter integration, which lets users share channels on Twitter.
Facebook is another major threat. The company recently partnered with Activision Blizzard to let gamers stream Overwatch, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, and World of Warcraft on Facebook Live. The biggest e-sports promoter in the world, ESL, has already been using Facebook Live to stream behind-the-scenes access and expert commentary at major events. Meanwhile, YouTube has been aggressively adding live and pre-recorded e-sports channels to beef up YouTube Gaming, its answer to Twitch.
Meanwhile, other players, like ESPN, Fox Sports, and AT&T's DirecTV, are all broadcasting e-sports on their own channels. This dilution of e-sports tournaments across these multiple platforms could cause Twitter's initiative to get lost in the shuffle.
Lots of headwinds with questionable rewards
Twitter's monthly active user base grew just 3% annually last quarter. Revenue rose 20% to $602 million, but that missed estimates by $4.8 million and represented its slowest growth rate since its IPO.
Analysts aren't thrilled by Twitter's big bet on live video. Oppenheimer analyst Jason Helfstein recently stated that live video "is unlikely to provide material revenue given the limited amount of ads they sell." But if live video drives more user engagement, Helfstein believes that Twitter could be bought out by "a large media company" for a small premium.
E-sports probably won't be enough to drive Twitter's live video efforts on its own, but investors should see if it complements its other traditional sports broadcasting efforts and boosts user engagement. But ultimately, I believe Twitter will struggle to match the pull of larger ecosystems like Twitch, Facebook, and YouTube, which are all carving up the live-streaming market with different strategies.