Activision Blizzard And Their New Team Of Esports

So Activision Blizzard’s creating a new division “devoted to esports” within the company. It’s going to be chairman-ed by the former CEO of ESPN and the NFL Network, Steve Bornstein, and senior vice presidente-ed by a co-founder of Major League Gaming, Mike Sepso. There’s a press release and everything.

Blizzard has actually had an esports team for years (I think it was “Global Community Development and eSports”) so the announcement of this division sounds more like a ramping up of existing efforts in order to better pursue financial opportunities as the interest in competitive gaming is growing. I suspect it’s also because, although the company hosts their own tournaments, most of the competitive gaming side involved organisations Blizzard partnered with or licensed to. That balance has been shifting a bit.

“Last year, Activision Blizzard created entertainment that was viewed and played by over 150 million people for more than 13 billion hours,” said Steve Bornstein, via the press release. “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.”

It fits with a bunch of other inititatives and announcement from the company in recent times. They’ve been promoting Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone heavily as esports – actually, I think the majority of marketing material about HotS has been esports related as it seems to be their main vector for promoting that game. There was a collegiate competition called Heroes of the Dorm, HotS was the grand finale game of Road to Blizzcon Europe, and it’s going to get a lot of attention at Blizzcon proper in November.

I feel like Overwatch will get a similar treatment when it comes to marketing that game – tournaments, prize money, maybe partnering with organisations like ESL to boost that…

Oh, and there was the recent announcement that Call Of Duty is getting a World League as of January 2016. That one takes the form of two competitive tiers (it follows the standard of one for pros and one for talented amateurs aspiring to the pro league) and more than $3m total to be offered as prizes and so on and so on.

The Black Ops 3 in-game implementation of a ban and protect system (you can ban elements like weapons or scorestreaks and protect others from being banned) also feels like an attempt to cater to that personal knowledge of teams and opponents. You can protect guns teammates are proficient in or try to ban elements your opponents are known to prefer.

Something I will say here is that, I’m really wary about esports’ tendency to take wholesale from traditional sports broadcasting. I’ve spoken specifically about how I think it helps normalise an absence or at least a far smaller presence of women (it was part of a VideoBrains talk about women in eSports), but more generally I feel like esports are their own thing. I’d like to see them develop their own identity and switch up the presentation a bit instead of taking so much from sports. esports’ relationship with sports broadcasting at the moment feels like part of a desire for mainstream legitimacy. I get it, but I also think it might be getting in the way of other ideas. I’m wondering what Bornstein and Sepso’s leadership will do on that front.

34 Comments

  1. Bull0 says:

    They should make a division within Blizzard devoted to making decent games.

    • Steven Hutton says:

      Best Moba. Most popular RTS. Second most popular RTS. Most Popular MMO. Incredible looking team shooter. Most popular card game.

      WTF are you talking about? I mean, even if you don’t like their games. (I don’t like SC2 or Hearthstone really). “Not decent” is an insane descriptor.

      • OpT1mUs says:

        Best Moba? Is this some parallel universe were Dota/Lol never existed or something?

        • iniudan says:

          He said best MOBA, not most popular, so it just his suggestive opinion that Hero of the Storm is better.

          • Xocrates says:

            Honestly, I find that HotS is the largest evidence I’ve seen that the basic Moba mechanics are so enjoyable that merely making it more accessible to a larger audience is sufficient for the game to be successful.

            Because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game with so much contradictory design.

      • Bull0 says:

        WoW may be popular but it came out aeons ago and the expansions have been getting steadily worse since WoTLK. As for MOBAs, Dota was the work of a modder, right? And that mantle is now held by the likes of LoL and Dota 2 which aren’t Blizzard. Hearthstone is OK but it’s hardly what I’d call a great game – it’s just baby’s first CCG. I guess Starcraft 2 is OK but it’s basically just the first game in 3D, not exactly innovative. As for “incredible looking team shooter”, what, Overwatch? Really? Incredible. Your standards are incredibly low. It just looks like TF2 to me, and TF2 is an eight-year-old game.

        Blizzard take a very very long time to make games that are not driving the medium in any way. So, in my view, they should devote some staff to making something that’s actually interesting, and stop retreading the same crap.

        • ikehaiku says:

          “Blizzard take a very very long time to make games that are not driving the medium in any way.’

          Except that’s not what Blizzard do. They take a genre, and polish/streamlined it to the bone.See Hearthstone, Heroes, or hell WoW when it first came out. Even when the first SC came out, it did not do anything new. It just did it better (or least, more appealing) than the competition.

          • Nevard says:

            Blizzard aren’t great imitators, but they are excellent polishers.
            They’re good at looking at other people’s concepts and then pouring time and money onto them until they have been refined to a very alluring skinner box.
            I mean just look at their most recent two releases, “MTG sanded down until it’s attractive to a more casual audience” and “Dota but made by an actual design team instead of rigidly following the rules of an RTS engine that wasn’t designed for this game”.

          • TillEulenspiegel says:

            instead of rigidly following the rules of an RTS engine that wasn’t designed for this game

            And yet it still has many elements of a horribly awkward RTS interface, when they could have easily done something more like D3.

            Blizzard doesn’t design from first principles. They take an existing design and they cut and refine. To be fair, that’s exactly what nearly every videogame designer does.

            Blizzard North came up with a fairly unique design in Diablo. You can see elements from a lot of different games, but no direct predecessors. The main Blizzard team is totally incapable of serious design, and they’re not very good at refinement either (see Hearthstone, SC2, vanilla D3, etc).

          • PhilBowles says:

            Diablo was basically what Blizzard arrived at by taking existing isometric RPGs and removing all the non-combat, non-loot elements (back in the old days, what we used to call the RPG elements). So that fits their standard practice of streamlining other companies’ games. Which is one reason Blizzard games are especially suitable as eSports.

            Odd to see an article about an eSports division making no reference to Starcraft, with a new SC2 expansion due. Though what was the reference in the comments to “most popular RTS, second most popular RTS” in reference to? Blizzard has only one ongoing RTS franchise; and at least if Wikipedia some time ago was to be believed, in terms of sales and including expansions, the original Dawn of War was perhaps the most popular RTS historically.

  2. Troubletcat says:

    If you want espots to be distanced a bit more from sports(I agree!) how about we go back to calling it Professional Gaming/Pro Gaming/PorkAlming.

    Surely I can’t be the only person who’s found the term “eSports” incredibly obnoxious ever since people started using it? Can we all agree to stop now? Please?

    • Zankman says:

      Can we agree not to? Please? There is nothing wrong with the term.

      Besides, there is also Competitive Gaming, which is a separate thing from E-Sports.

      • SomeDuder says:

        Found some genuine MLG pro-gaming documentary:

        link to youtube.com

        I genuinly hate anyone that thinks eSports, MLG or “pro-gamer” are a good thing. Possibly even more than rhetorics/women’s studies/art school students.

  3. amateurviking says:

    I love the idea that they have el senior vice presidente.

    • Malibu Stacey says:

      In the US being even a Junior Vice President is basically just something like “upper middle management”.
      They hand out those titles like they bought a lorry load from Home Bargains & haven’t got any space to store them.

  4. Nevard says:

    Looks like they’re starting to accept the inevitable wasting away of WoW, and are refocusing on their other (and newer) franchises.
    WoW is definitely their IP in the biggest downward spiral, and is also the one that is weakest as an esport (well, apart from Diablo which has no competitive aspects at all).

  5. Ferno says:

    I’m not really sure how Activision don’t seem to get the picture that CoD can never be a big esport if they sell a new version of it every year. You have to encourage and develop the existing base. This is clearly shown in how poor viewer numbers are for CoD compared to CS let alone MOBAs despite the fact that CoD has sold far more than a game like CS.

  6. Horg says:

    Blizzard seems to have a strange conflict of interest with their existing stable of games. On the one hand, their focus has been on simplification and accessibility for some years now. On the other hand, they want to promote all of their titles as viable e-sports. Now one of the core components that has made the existing big dogs of e-sports successful is a high skill cap which allows the pro players to stand out above the crowd. Most of the entertainment value, just as with traditional sports, comes from watching the pros play the game at a standard the average player cannot achieve. Blizzards recent titles, as accessible, disposable entertainment, do not support this culture.

    I follow mainly DotA 2, occasionally LoL and CS, but the idea of watching a Hearthstone tournament feels about as riveting as watching two people roll dice for 10 minutes. Similarly HotS has been very vocal and proud of its efforts to strip most of the elements that make competitive team play so compelling to watch. Overwatch has the most potential to succeed as an e-sport, but might suffer from the approach Blizzard take regarding spectating. They seem determined to make PPV work for e-sports, but their earlier attempts have failed (see MLG and Starcraft 2). Accessible viewing has always been critical to the success of e-sports events, other companies such as Valve and RIOT have managed to grasp this point. The current audience does not want a shift towards PPV or subscription access to games, and a move to that style in order to reach a broader, non gamer audience seem doomed to fail. It’s a generation problem with Blizzards management, they don’t seem to understand the market they are trying to corner, and I think they overestimate their ability to reshape the market to suit their goals.

    • Zankman says:

      Interesting comment, good read, I feel.

      I don’t really get their decision to go for the PPV approach… Is anyone except UFC and Boxing even doing it anymore? Even the WWE has heavily stepped away from doing PPVs (monthly subscriptions sound far, far better).

      Also:

      >Similarly HotS has been very vocal and proud of its efforts to strip most of the elements that make competitive team play so compelling to watch.

      This is quite true – and, what’s worse, these missing elements also hurt the game on a casual level as well, since playing the game by your lonesome and being successful is very, very difficult.

      Oh and, yeah – let us not forget their nickle-and-diming business model. Incredible greed.

    • Nevard says:

      I can only speak for myself but I find moba matches more interesting when they don’t heavily feature cautious poking at each other whilst trying to maximise the amount of money you generate for 15 minutes at the beginning of every game, whilst all characters all only have one or two abilities.

      • Alto says:

        That may or may not describe League of Legends, but definitely not Dota 2. The laning stage in Dota 2 has plenty of action, even if its not the 5v5 teamfights you get later in the game. A lot more than some poking is exchanged and kills are very frequent.

        Supports smoke ganking mid, trilane vs trilane, not to mention the solo kills…

        Different teams of course demonstrate different levels of aggression in the early game but long gone are the days where two teams spend 40 minutes farming and then the game is decided by a single teamfight.

      • Abndn says:

        Describing the laning phase as players cautiously poking each other while maximizing gold is like describing chess as two players moving pieces on a board in order to take out the king, or football as 22 players running around with a ball trying to score.

        You don’t like it because your understanding is incredibly superficial, so you can’t see or appreciate what is really happening.

        • Nevard says:

          Well, probably yes! But I don’t need to understand much particularly when a laning phase isn’t a thing, and I find it more exciting when I don’t.
          I have played plenty of chess and think it is an absolutely shit spectator sport. There is very little market for live chess matches.
          Sports generally require players to make the cerebral decisions but spectators merely to enjoy the spectacle. Laning isn’t a spectacle.

    • PhilBowles says:

      I’d say almost the reverse – Blizzard has since its inception made games by stripping down other peoples’ to their basics, and this is precisely why Blizzard pioneered eSports. A game like Age of Empires has far too many moving parts, with too many variables in teching and build orders influencing the result, for the association between in-game playing skills and success to be clear to either viewers or players and commentators. Remove most of the upgrades, simplify resource collection, remove eras and simplify the game to a handful of units, and you end up with a game that’s much easier to follow, where there’s a clear answer to the question “how do I adapt if my opponent builds X?”, and with build and teching orders becoming much more standardised players’ skill in timing attacks, base expansion, and combat micro takes the fore.

      • Horg says:

        Starcraft did not succeed as an e-sport simply because it simplified some mechanics of the RTS genre. The original was a very APM demanding micro / macro game to execute at a high skill level (much more so than AoE), and it just happened to develop a large following inside Korea where there was network support to popularise competitive play. It was also a fairly unique 3 way asymmetrical strategy formula that few (if any) other games have executed at the same standard.

        You seem to be implying that Starcraft was to AoE as HotS is to DotA, but that comparison is not accurate. HotS prunes mechanics from an existing successful formula, arguably mechanics that contribute to making the formula successful as an e-sport by raising the skill cap, and adds nothing of significance back. Blizzard cannot just simplify their way to success, at some point they will just dumb down too hard for competitive play to be taken seriously.

    • Freud says:

      Competitive HotS is much more enjoyable than competitive LoL/Dota 2. It’s faster paced, more teamfights and map objectives that force the teams together. Having done away with the initial 15 minutes of laning/jungling boredom is the a fantastic design decision.

      • Zankman says:

        And instead you get repetitive, consequenceless fights, snowbally matches that still take ages to finish and barely any avenues for individual players to shine.

        The fact that HotS is “ALL THE FIGHTS, ALL THE TIME!” is its biggest weakness as an E-Sport, aside from the whole “One person can’t carry” thing.

        Nothing matters, nothing stands out.

        • PikaBot says:

          This, pretty much. HotS’s big design objective is to flatten the game experience – flatten the difficulty curve by removing mechanics, flatten the character power curve so characters remain more or less as powerful at all points in the game if both teams are at the same level, flatten the game’s flow so that it’s on one setting at pretty much all times: all teamfights, all the time.

          I suppose there’s them that like it, although it doesn’t do it for me, but it makes for really awful viewing.

          (The half-baked, unimpactful presentation doesn’t help matters. Almost no abilities really stand out when used in a crowd, and some abilities are practically invisible)

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      Your first paragraph seems to suggest that being accessible means you can’t have a high skill cap. Seems like a false dichotomy to me.

      • Abndn says:

        “Skill caps” were always a myth to begin with. There is no possible way anyone could hope to reach any kind of skill cap in any e-sports game.

        Instead you get complex games with many interesting ways to distinguish yourself from others (Quake 3/Live, Warcraft 3, Starcraft 2) and simple games (League of Legends, Dota 1/2) with a very limited number of ways to distinguish yourself and influence the game.