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Esports creeping beyond livestreams and onto TV networks

The crowd erupted in Las Vegas, 15,000 fighting game fans clapping, cheering and booing as Infiltration suplexed his way to a victory over Fuudo, becoming Evolution 2016's Street Fighter V champion.

Like Evo tournaments of years past, hundreds of thousands of viewers watched the action unfold live online on Twitch. Unlike Evos of years past, the Street Fighter championships also aired on ESPN2. While 2016's peak viewer count on Twitch dipped to about 183,000 from last year's 229,000, ESPN2 had 201,000 viewers on its TV broadcast That almost doubles the view count over 2015, and doesn't even factor in unreported numbers from WatchESPN's streaming service and other treams of the championships.

What was once a niche activity relegated to lightly attended LAN parties, esports have grown into something big enough to be broadcast on one of the most-watched sports channels in the world. And there's nothing indicating that esports will be slowing down.

Alongside ESPN's esports exploration (which also includes its own editorial coverage), TBS has been airing its own Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament ELeague live on Friday nights. According to Turner, the debut match averaged 500,000 total viewers. 

Considering Counter-Strike has a steeper learning curve for viewers than the 1v1 matchups of Street Fighter, those are some impressive numbers. The struggle going forward will be getting the uninitiated to start caring about the fast-paced and strategy-oriented CS, which doesn't even come close to the complicated world of MOBAs like League of Legends or Dota 2.

On Sunday, ESPN attempted to bridge the gap between sports and esports by airing the Madden 2016 championships on ESPN2 at 10 a.m. ET. Madden games are a relatively direct translation of football from real players on the field to virtual plays on a screen, so getting NFL fans to tune in to virtual football isn't completely out of the question.

This was followed by 10 hours of competitive Heroes of the Storm tournaments on ESPNU, which originally aired live on ESPNU and ESPN2 earlier in 2016 and 2015

Just a year ago, the only esports besides the Heroes of the Dorm tournament that touched ESPN was a clip from Evo 2015 on Sports Center. Now ESPN is dedicating an entire day to different esports, and may be airing more events in the future.

The fact that multiple television stations are making big moves to beam esports to everybody's homes means there's an audience out there that's hungry for it — and they're showing up to watch. 

ELeague is owned by Turner Broadcasting, which also is an investor in Mashable.

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