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Overwatch League's TV Ratings Were Low, But It Doesn't Matter

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If you followed the Overwatch League’s first season, odds are good that you mostly did it on Twitch. Over the weekend, the grand finals got airtime on television networks, too, and they didn’t exactly draw a Beholder-load of eyeballs.

The Nielsen overnight estimates for Overwatch League’s grand finals broadcasts on ESPN and ABC are in, and they’re not particularly impressive compared to the programs that were on directly before them, or to other sports that have previously aired in the time slot. Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand reports that the full Friday broadcast got a 0.18 on ESPN, a later ESPN2 re-airing of digital coverage managed a 0.05, and ABC’s Sunday afternoon recap pulled a 0.3.

Now, before I break down what all of that means, I’m gonna share with you a difficult but important truth: television ratings are fucking wack, man. Firstly, when you’re translating ratings from percentages into actual numbers, you’re not learning about individual viewers. Rather, you’re getting a Nielsen estimate of television-owning households in the United States. For 2017-2018, Nielsen put that number at 119.6 million. But even then, the system obscures a lot of valuable data. For example, what does “TV ownership” actually mean relative to a particular rating percentage? Is it a percentage of households with access to a particular network or program? Or is it a percentage of all households irrespective of whether or not they could tune in to that program, even if they wanted nothing more than to kick back on their couch and watch Joon-yeong “Profit” Park make Swiss cheese out of a thousand exposed noggins? Nielsen doesn’t say. And again, these are all estimates—not hard numbers.


With that out of the way, here’s how the math works out:

  • Friday night broadcast on ESPN: 215,280 households
  • Saturday night re-airing on ESPN2: 59,800 households
  • Sunday recap on ABC: 358,800 households

On their own, these numbers mean basically nothing. Nielsen ratings are only really valuable as a comparison tool, so let’s do some comparing. According to Ourand, Sports Center ran on ESPN prior to OWL’s Friday night showing, and it managed a 0.34, or about 406,640 households. This means that nearly half those households tuned out when OWL #capturedhistory on their airwaves. Meanwhile, a week prior, Golden Boy Boxing scored a 0.25—or roughly 299,000 households—in the same time slot. So, again, a drop-off.


On Twitch, Overwatch League’s grand finals broadcasts on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon pulled between 150,000 and 350,000 concurrent viewers over the course of their runtimes. It’s not possible to calculate total viewership off that, but those are alright if not amazing numbers for an esports event on Twitch—not to mention significantly better than the 100,000-ish concurrent range OWL was managing toward the end of its regular season. While it’s impossible to confirm, it’s pretty safe to say that total Twitch viewership beat out TV viewership. But even then, the numbers aren’t really comparable, because households and viewers aren’t the same thing.

It might be tempting to chalk this all up to a hostile TV audience of seething Twitter posters who want to punt the “e” out of “esports” and into the sun, but as always, those people are a vocal minority. You might also suggest that Overwatch League just isn’t cut out for mainstream success, but that’s a premature evaluation at best. The more likely explanation is that airing the OWL grand finals (and associated coverage) on channels like ESPN and ABC was a glorified marketing stunt. The grand finals were the payoff of the entire season, and on TV, they had no substantial lead-in. If you weren’t already invested, there were no stakes or context. It was a meaningless laser show. On top of that, very few people are suddenly gonna get hooked on a complicated, chaotic esport like Overwatch out of the blue, especially if they don’t already play the game themselves. So really, all of this means nothing, much like life. You’re welcome. Thank you for listening to my TED Talk.