Pitching itself as the “first global sport,” Activision Blizzard’s Major League Gaming is hoping to making esports more mainstream in a way that’s easier for global brands to grasp.
According to Major League Gaming CEO Pete Vlastelica, the company is working on transforming the “organic, bottom-up, untended kind of ecosystem” into something structured more like traditional sports in a way that helps brands and fans know where to pay attention. Vlastelica, a former Fox Sports executive, said plans include having local, national and global competitions, along with a season and how a team can make it to the playoffs. (For example, fans in Boston will be able to watch their local teams—just like they might do for the Red Sox with baseball or the Celtics with basketball.)
While MLG is primarily focused on winning over global brands, Vlastelica said team owners can drive local sponsorships in various markets. That could be traditional sports team owners in metro markets such as NBA and NFL franchises that already have a sales force in place.
“I think a lot of esports is sort of like boxing where anybody can be a promoter,” Vlastelica told Adweek after the company’s Digital Content NewFronts event on Tuesday night in New York. “Anybody can create an event, and because of that, you don’t really know what events matter and why they matter, which means you don’t really have as much of a reason to watch.”
On Tuesday, the company took a step toward that restructuring by announcing that MLG will become a division of the company dedicated specifically to operating the esports program for games such as Overwatch, a popular Blizzard game that’s amassed more than 30 million users since it debuted last year. Along with Overwatch, the division will also manage programs for other gaming leagues like the one for Activision’s Call of Duty. (Other Blizzard games like StarCraft and World of Warcraft will be managed separately but also utilize some resources of the new division.)
While last year’s NewFronts pitch was a bigger production that focused heavily on livestreaming and data, this year’s scaled-back presentation was brief—almost too brief, according to some attendees—and split into four themes, or “missions” as the company called them, that highlighted the size and scope of the online gaming world. For example, MLG said 80 percent of the company’s audience is between the ages of 13 and 40, and spends around two hours a day playing and watching esports. Gamers and spectators spend around 3 billion hours watching and playing each year.
While there are currently no ads within the games, Vlastelica said, as MLG becomes more integrated within the gaming platform, he could see adding preroll and midroll ads to users watching live competitions without appearing in the actual games themselves.
Asked if he thinks esports is still misunderstood in the broader world of entertainment and sports, Vlastelica said that’s becoming less and less the case. He said professional sports teams that buy esports teams are helping raise the profile of online gaming. (Last year, the Philadelphia 76ers acquired two esports teams, making it the first professional sports team in North America to buy an esports team.) He said the rising age of traditional sports fans helps as well.
“I think that’s created a lot of intrigue that has led to deeper dives about what is this e-sports thing about,” he said.
“Sports are getting older, and frankly, the content is mostly trapped behind the paid TV wall,” he added. “Esports is the first digital native sport; we’re not encumbered by those same issues, which means we can reach a much younger audience where we need them. Brands are savvy enough to understand that’s a good thing.”