Mar 12, 2024 - Business

ESPN relaunches Tournament Challenge amid gaming push


Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

ESPN is relaunching its popular ESPN Tournament Challenge fantasy game ahead of NCAA March Madness as part of a broader effort to invest in fantasy sports, gaming and betting, executives told Axios.

Why it matters: The company is trying to find deeper ways to engage sports viewers as it looks to build more direct-to-consumer products.

Driving the news: The revamped Tournament Challenge will be available for March Madness fans in the ESPN Fantasy app on Selection Sunday of the NCAA tournament.

  • The new, streamlined experience makes it easier for users to submit brackets and includes better group forecasting and analytics to determine which brackets have the best chances of winning.
  • It includes a significant design update and places all bracket games offered by ESPN in one app.

State of play: Traffic to the Tournament Challenge typically peaks for the five days following the start of March Madness, said Chris Jason, executive director of product for ESPN Digital.

  • Tournament Challenge set a record high of 26.9 million brackets across men's and women's games last year, making it the firm's largest single game behind fantasy football.
  • Engagement with the Tournament Challenge has increased with the popularity of women's basketball, Jason said.
  • More than 2 million brackets were made for ESPN Women's Tournament Challenge last year.

Zoom in: While ESPN's Fantasy Football is still the most-played fantasy game for ESPN and in the U.S., the company has pushed to expand more fantasy brackets to other sports, including the NHL and NBA.

  • ESPN Fantasy Football had over 12 million players last year, Jason said. Over 20 million fantasy teams were created.

The big picture: As cord-cutting intensifies, ESPN is pushing to transition more of its resources to streaming, where it will compete with Big Tech firms that are also chasing sports rights.

  • Interactivity will become a bigger priority for ESPN amid this transition, Jason said. "We are heavily committed and invested in sports gaming as a way to drive engagement across all of ESPN," he added.
  • The company is working to make more games playable in the main ESPN app, but it plans to keep the Fantasy app separate to continue catering to Fantasy mega-fans.
  • The same team that powers the ESPN Fantasy app is also working on ESPN's new direct-to-consumer streaming efforts.

Between the lines: ESPN is looking to launch its own direct-to-consumer streaming service next year and plans to eventually merge it with its current direct-to-consumer app, ESPN+.

  • It recently announced separate plans to launch a joint streaming venture with Fox Corp. and Warner Bros Discovery that would include all of their collective linear sports TV content.
  • ESPN launched a new ESPN-branded sports betting service with Penn National last year. It will power betting content experiences across all of its platforms but will leave the actual facilitation of bets to Penn.
  • "Betting being integrated throughout everything we do ... is definitely a priority," Jason said.

What to watch: ESPN's gaming team also helps power brackets and games that can be used by other members of the Disney family.

  • Jason said his team ran ABC's official Oscars' bracket game this year.
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