Activision Blizzard Forms New Esports Division With ESPN, MLG Vets At The Top

by Mike Futter on Oct 22, 2015 at 02:00 AM

Esports is already a crucial part of Activision Blizzard’s yearly operations, but the mega-publisher is looking to make it a corporate value. The company has hired former ESPN and NFL Network CEO Steve Bornstein and MLG co-founder Mike Sepso to lead a new Esports division as chairman and senior vice president respectively.

Activision Publishing and Blizzard typically operate independently, though they are part of the same larger corporation. That won’t change, though the new Esports-focused division will work with both.

On the Activision side, the company has recently announced the new Call of Duty World League. At Blizzard, there are competitive elements to Starcraft II, World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, and Heroes of the Storm. Blizzard’s new arena shooter Overwatch will likely join that roster soon.

The teams that manage the Esports components of those titles won’t be going anywhere, though. “Each of the organizations that run the games now will continue to operate their core Esports functionality,” Sepso tells me. “This new division is here to help galvanize some of the strategies and, from the corporate level, make Esports a priority.”

While the Sepso and others aren’t ready to discuss specific strategies, he did make it clear that the purpose is to transition Esports from a community engagement effort into one with business potential. “What we’re here to do is to elevate a pretty rich history of Esports,” Sepso says. “At the corporate level, we’ll try to help make the transition from it being primarily a community and marketing channel to being a business strength.”

The hire of Steve Bornstein points to what we might expect from this merger of two worlds. Don’t expect an Activision television channel for Esports, but a digitally-focused network seems like it might be where the publishers is headed.

“ESPN has done a better job than anyone at creating a branded content network around [sports] activity,” Sepso says. “Steve has experience in all of that, and many of those lessons learned over the past 30 years will be critical to us as we look to evolve Esports into something bigger and better. I think that one thing that’s happening inversely or negatively to the traditional world is that more young people are not getting cable. They’re incredibly focused on digital. That’s an area where we can do some very interesting things, because our audience is natively a digital audience. I think there’s a rich amount of experience on both sides to pull from to continually put forward analogs, but also to innovate.”

Pro players and their fans shouldn’t expect sweeping changes immediately. Bornstein, Sepso, and the rest of the Esports staff will be taking things slowly.

“It will evolve over time to be more integrated with each team at different levels, depending on the game,” Sepso says. “At the end of the day, the people developing the games know their communities and their games better.”

The division doesn’t have specific milestones or events its willing to share, and the new Call of Duty World League isn’t a coming out party. However, Sepso says that 2016 will see more activity.

“From the consumer point of view, you’ll start to see something happening next year,” he tells me. “What the objective is in creating this new division is to help provide additional infrastructure, to increase the quality of the content we’re producing, and to help develop new business models that will transform what is really a very strong community engagement program into something that can be a business on its own.”