September 24, 2021 by Alexander Lee
Esports organization Misfits Gaming Group yesterday announced a $35 million funding round led by a $10 million investment from The E.W. Scripps Company. Scripps’ backing of Misfits is the latest move into the gaming and esports space by a large linear and over-the-top television provider — and a reminder of the value of localized brand identities in the modern esports landscape.
Scripps’ $10 million partnership with Misfits is the largest-yet deal struck directly between a legacy broadcasting company and a major esports organization. It includes a seat on Misfits’ board of directors, to which the broadcasting firm has appointed its president of local media, Brian Lawlor. Lawlor plans to aid Misfits by leveraging his experience negotiating with traditional sports teams and distribution platforms such as Twitch and YouTube while staying relatively hands-off when it comes to the management of the organization itself. “I will let the experts run the team,” Lawlor said.
At the core of the partnership is Misfits’ status as the most prominent Floridian esports organization. Both its Call of Duty League team, the Mutineers, and its Overwatch League squad, the Mayhem, are based in the Sunshine State. Scripps already commands the attention of many Floridians aged 25 and up, according to Lawlor, but it lacks a loyal fanbase of both Gen-Zers and gamers — Misfits’ core audiences. “They have, I believe, five stations in Florida,” said Misfits CEO Ben Spoont. “It’s probably their largest overall territory, in terms of the number of people within the market.”
Lawlor is hopeful that Misfits’ gamer-oriented content will help Scripps reach Gen-Z viewers, a demographic in which Scripps’ advertisers are increasingly interested. “We’ve probably got tens of thousands of advertising relationships [in Florida], and many of those clients are looking to appeal to Gen Z,” Lawlor said. “So our ability to create content for them, to put it on those other platforms in partnership with Misfits, with their players, with their brand — all of it just seemed to really make sense.”
Indeed, the partnership will enable Scripps to feature Misfits talent and content on both its linear and over-the-top television platforms, though exactly how that will play out is still up in the air, according to both Spoont and Lawlor. “We’re going to treat Scripps’ Florida distribution as sort of an experimental content lab,” Spoont said. “So we’re going to look at producing more content that can first be distributed within Florida as a testing ground, and then expand it more nationally. And that’s going to look at digital literacy, more types of educational content — let’s not forget that Scripps’ audience is a little bit older.”
This older audience could present a challenge for the Scripps–Misfits partnership. “I think a lot of esports fans are younger, and they tend not to have cable subscriptions; they’re the typical kind of cord-cutter,” said Matt Boyd, vp of esports and games at Nielsen. “So I guess there’s a question: if it was more available, would more people be consuming esports content on [linear] TV? I would be curious to see how that plays out in practice with something like this new deal.”
Scripps is not limited to linear content; its offerings also include over-the-top services such as Newsy and the Florida 24 news network. But to Lawlor, the cord-cutting of the average esports fan doesn’t mean there isn’t a tremendous potential audience to be reached through linear televised esports and gaming content. “There’s an opportunity for us to help educate a whole new audience — not just gamers, but their parents,” Lawlor said. “We asked all the guys on the Misfits board, ‘how did you get so interested?’ And they said, ‘My son was playing it all the time, and I just want to spend more time with my son.’” With its Misfits partnership, Scripps isn’t necessarily trying to reach the esports fans who have moved out and cut the cord; many esports fans still live with their parents and have ample access to cable television.
As gaming and esports continue to enter the mainstream, Scripps’ decision to invest in Misfits Gaming Group is only the latest example of a linear or over-the-top television company getting into gaming. It’s also further evidence that large esports organizations such as Misfits are pushing to become full-fledged media and entertainment companies in their own right.
Whether or not Scripps’ experiment bringing Misfits to its cable audience in Florida is a success, the broadcaster’s executives understand that the audience for esports is growing steadily in both size and demographic reach, and they are willing to take this gamble to establish themselves in the space.