Activision Taps Former ESPN Boss for Its E-Sports Division
Activision Blizzard is creating an internal e-sports division, the company announced today.
With e-sports and streaming becoming so ubiquitous, a move like this isn’t surprising, and it’s likely that other publishers will follow suit. What’s more interesting are the names hired to run the new division: Major League Gaming co-founder and former president Mike Sepso will serve as the division’s Senior Vice President, while Steve Bornstein, who has served as president and CEO of ESPN and the NFL Network, will be its Chairman.
Those are significant names: Major League Gaming was one of the first e-sports leagues in the West, and while its influence in the scene has declined drastically since its heyday, Sepso’s name brings some prestige with it.
Meanwhile, Bornstein is a media juggernaut in the traditional sports world; his tenure at ESPN saw the creation of the X-Games and the foundation of the yearly ESPY Awards.
Activision Blizzard’s press release didn’t include many specifics on its direction, but Bornstein’s hiring suggests a focus on the organization and distribution of viewing channels for competitive gaming. Under his leadership in its media division, the NFL has created a system in which all media related to professional football goes through its gatekeepers, and broadcast and merchandising rights are contracted out for massive amounts of money under strict guidelines.
So far, e-sports is a much less controlled marketplace, and publishers of major titles have largely declined to regulate the activities of individual streamers or smaller tournaments. Activision Blizzard might be looking to change that, and this would be a logical first step if it wanted to consolidate its properties and create tighter central control of competitive programming.
The other big question I have coming out of this announcement is how this new corporate initiative will impact Blizzard’s offerings. Most of Activision’s major e-sports holdings, after all, are Blizzard games like Starcraft.
In September, six of the top twenty games in Twitch’s most viewed list were Blizzard’s, and that’s a trend that has been ongoing for a while.
Blizzard, however, has changed its approach to competitive gaming very little since Activision took over in 2008. Most of its competitive activities are handled over its battle.net website, and tournaments are all administered by Blizzard directly.
Activision’s increased interest in e-sports going forward might mean more day-to-day corporate oversight into the studio’s efforts, or it might mean that Blizzard’s successful structures could serve as the model for Activision to try to create new scenes in its non-Blizzard titles.
The first fruits of Activision’s efforts may be made apparent with the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 in November. In comparison to other professionally competitive games, Activision’s military shooter series is a relatively small business: according to the Huffington Post, this year’s CoD Champs tournament, the biggest event in the series’ e-sports history, earned roughly 80,000 concurrent viewers, compared to 1.1 million for the ESL One Counter-Strike Go tournament.
Activision surely would like to juice those numbers. If Bornstein’s leadership can do for Activision what it’s done for his former employers, it might be able to.