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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Activision Gets Very Serious About eSports

While you can't necessarily trust press releases about how serious a company is about something, you can always gauge seriousness by the amount of money a company spends. By that yardstick, Activision Blizzard is getting very serious indeed about eSports, with two executive hires that have to have pretty good price tags attached -- plus the company has set up an entire new division devoted to eSports. If you were wondering how important Activision Blizzard considers eSports to be, the answer is -- pretty damn important.

The leader of the company's new eSports division is someone with a solid-gold sports media resume: Former CEO of ESPN and the NFL Network Steve Bornstein will serve as the division's Chairman. "Bornstein is largely responsible for the ESPN that we know today, having overseen the launch of some of the network's key franchises, including SportsCenter, ESPN the Magazine, the X Games and the annual ESPY Awards," noted Mashable's article on the announcement. "He later served as president of ABC, then president and CEO of NFL Network, which he helped to launch."

Adding to that experience will be the division's new senior vice president, Mike Sepso, who most recently was a co-founder and president of Major League Gaming. He's been involved in eSports since the beginning, pretty much.

Another thing worthy of note is that Activision Blizzard has tripled the prize pool for Call of Duty's eSports series, the Call of Duty World League, to $3 million. The company is also hiring a number of positions for its eSports division, and no wonder -- Heroes of the Storm is heating up, Hearthstone is a major hit, and Overwatch will be coming soon. Yes, StarCraft II is fading, but there's plenty of eSports action for the company to look forward to.

Like every other publisher, Activision Blizzard is seeing the enormous growth in eSports and the vast dedication of eSports fans -- and the major amounts of money they can spend on free-to-play games that happen to be eSports.

It does make you wonder when Electronic Arts is going to have an entry into eSports. Their MOBA attempt, Dawngate, was cancelled after it just didn't seem to catch fire among early beta testers. The MOBA space is awfully damn crowded, now, though, so finding a way in won't be easy.

Activision Blizzard's used its IP very successfully with Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm both drawing on the beloved characters for the past twenty years or so. Sure, they're good games, too, but they got off to a much faster start because fans know and love the characters already. Overwatch will be interesting to keep an eye on because the IP is entirely new -- how fast will fans get into this new universe?

Now the question becomes just what the new eSports division intends to to do. Support their eSports with more structure (like leagues), build out true professional sports league structures with farm teams and such? Start paying professionals a salary like Riot does? Invest heavily in video production, as Riot has been doing? How exactly will Activision Blizzard capitalize on eSports enthusiasm to boost revenues and profits, and what sort of capital will they need to spend to accomplish that?

All interesting questions, and we're going to have to watch as answers emerge. 

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