Activision Blizzard creating dedicated esports division headed by ESPN, MLG executive
One of the largest companies in gaming is creating its own dedicated esports division, headed by executives with experience working both in esports and in traditional sports.
Mike Sepso, former president and co-founder of Major League Gaming, is teaming up with Steve Bornstein, former CEO of ESPN and the NFL Network, to build an esports division at Activision Blizzard, Polygon reports.
In many ways the move seems like a natural evolution for a game development firm that’s always had a hand in competitive video games, though at this time it's unclear exactly what direction the new division will take with their already impressive esports offerings.
Since hosting Call of Duty XP in 2011, Activision has taken an ever-increasing hand in the Call of Duty esports scene, hosting $1 million events each year backed by an expanding list of qualifiers. Next year, the company plans to operate its own professional league, the Call of Duty World League.
Blizzard remains the original esports-supporting developer, hosting major world championships at its regular BlizzCon events for longer than a decade. As the developer of the StarCraft franchise, one of the progenitors of professional gaming as we know it today, the company has a unique relationship with esports. Next year, it'll feature four major esports titles—StarCraft 2, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch (and that’s ignoring a vibrant if small competitive esports scene in World of Warcraft).
"Last year, Activision Blizzard created entertainment that was viewed and played by over 150 million people for more than 13 billion hours—this dwarfs the engagement that fans spend on all other sports,” Bornstein told Polygon in a prepared statement. “I believe esports will rival the biggest traditional sports leagues in terms of future opportunities, and between advertising, ticket sales, licensing, sponsorships and merchandising, there are tremendous growth areas for this nascent industry. I'm excited to help Activision Blizzard further its leadership position in this exciting growth area."
Bornstein started at ESPN in 1980 when the budding network was just four months old. Ten years later, he became CEO. He built ESPN into the biggest property in sports broadcasting, winning 59 Emmys along the way. In 2003 he became CEO of NFL Network, just ahead of its launch, and quickly built it into a premiere property.
Esports has a checkered history with television. The DirecTV-backed Championship Gaming Series flopping in the mid 2000s in part due to management forcing traditional broadcasting sensibilities on a nascent and developing sport, but Bornstein seems well positioned to avoid the mistakes of the past.
The new esports division simply has to take the company’s current esports endeavors to the next level, something that they’ve been starting to do through 2015.
Earlier this year, Bornstein’s former network ESPN hosted the first ever live esports competition on primetime television featuring Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm and its Heroes of the Dorm college competition. Sepso’s MLG has hosted a gold medal event for Call of Duty at the ESPN-operated X-Games for the past two years.
"Celebrating our players and their unique skill, dedication and commitment is the essence of our esports initiatives," Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, gave Polygon in his own prepared statement. "There are no better leaders for this new initiative than Steve and Mike. Steve has unparalleled experience in creating a sports network powerhouse and his groundbreaking leadership at ESPN and the NFL Network shaped how the whole world experiences sports. Mike's entrepreneurial vision helped make ‘esports' a household word and he is uniquely positioned to take the experience to the next level."
Sepso founded MLG alongside its current CEO Sundance DiGiovanni in 2002 and he’s since built it into one of the most prestigious esports companies in the business and easily the biggest in console gaming. In 2006, MLG became the first televised console gaming league with a show broadcast on USA Network. Just last week, MLG hosted its 100th live tournament at the MLG World Championship in New Orleans. Sepso had already begun work as part of the new Activision Blizzard initiative as a senior vice president.
With a portfolio of games spanning nearly every competitive genre of gaming, a solid history in esports, and a new esports division headed by people with both esports experience and sports broadcasting, Activision Blizzard just might be the biggest company in the industry entering 2016.