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ESPN to Broadcast French Soccer eSports Tournament During Super Bowl

Variety logo Variety 2/3/2017 Todd Spangler
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ESPN is counterprogramming against the NFL’s Super Bowl LI with the telecast of an eSports competition — the first on the sports giant’s primary TV channel — featuring pro video-gamers playing what everyone outside the U.S. calls football.

On cable, ESPN will air a one-hour replay of EA’s Paris regional final of the FIFA 17 Ultimate Team Championship Series on Sunday, Feb. 5, from 6-7 p.m. Eastern. That’s right in the middle of the scheduled kickoff of Super Bowl LI at 6:30 p.m. ET on Fox.

It’s the first telecast on the flagship ESPN channel of an eSports event. But whatever viewership the cabler draws will obviously be weakened by the Super Bowl, and the scheduling indicates that ESPN doesn’t exactly expect televised video-game tourneys to be ratings blockbusters yet. The Disney-owned sports programmer’s ESPN2 previously carried the collegiate “Heroes of the Dorm” eSports competition in 2015 and 2016 (although Activision Blizzard will exclusively stream the event on Facebook Live this year).

In addition to ESPN’s Sunday telecast — catering to a niche audience that doesn’t dig American football but loves soccer video games — both WatchESPN and ESPN Deportes will carry EA’s FIFA soccer competition live from Paris on Saturday, Feb. 4, starting at 12 p.m. ET. Also under its pact with EA, ESPN will telecast the remaining six FIFA EA Majors in territories worldwide in English (in the U.S. on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes, in Canada via TSN, and in Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Islands), Spanish (Mexico, Caribbean, Central and South America), and Portuguese (Brazil).

This weekend’s Paris event will feature 32 top FIFA gamers from across Europe (16 players on Xbox One and 16 on PlayStation 4) competing for eight spots at Berlin’s Ultimate Team Championship Final on May 20, scheduled to be broadcast live on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes.

“We’re expanding our competitive gaming portfolio to include events that also resonate with traditional sports fans, and EA’s FIFA Ultimate Team Championship Series fits perfectly into how we intend to continue to serve eSports fans moving forward,” John Lasker, ESPN’s VP of programming and acquisitions, said in a statement. “The opportunity to reach this passionate audience globally in multiple languages is exciting, and we are pleased to do so as part of our longstanding relationship with EA.”

For EA, the ESPN deal is part of its bigger push to bring eSports to TV. The video-game publisher also has renewed and expanded its “Madden NFL” partnerships with NFL Media’s NFL Network and Univision, which will again carry the Madden Bowl tournament this weekend.

The 2017 Madden Bowl Finals, which are being held at the Super Bowl NFL Experience in Houston, on Friday, Feb. 3, will air live at 5 p.m. ET on NFL Network and on Univision Deportes on tape-delay on Monday, Feb. 6, at 9 p.m. ET.

NFL Media also has tamed with EA for the two other Madden NFL Majors this season — the Madden Challenge and the Madden Championship — and will support the events with content including new episodes of “EA Sports Madden NFL America,” and live look-ins throughout Madden Bowl on its other NFL Network programs.

“We’ve long believed in the potential of competitive gaming to reach an even broader audience once games are more accessible to play and more accessible to watch,” said Todd Sitrin, SVP of EA’s competitive gaming division.

None of the EA’s current TV deals are exclusive: The company also will live-stream both the FIFA Ultimate Team Championship Series on Twitch and YouTube, and the Madden NFL Championship Series on EA.com, Facebook, Twitch and YouTube.

Here’s how to watch the upcoming EA events:

Madden Bowl Finals: Feb. 3, 5 p.m. ET

FIFA Ultimate Team Championship Series Paris Regional Final: Feb. 4 at 12 p.m. ET

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