David Vonderhaar remembers the moment he first realized the potential of competitive gaming. Vonderhaar — the design director at Treyarch, the studio behind Call of Duty offshoot series Black Ops — had travelled to an event organized by MLG in Anaheim. It was a competitive tournament for the first Black Ops game, played on the PlayStation 3, and he was struck by how the players and organizers had set up the tournament with essentially no help from the studio or the game.
"There weren’t any game features built for what we were watching and seeing," he says. "This was people who love the game, and love competing in the game, self-organizing. They were going through this tremendous, debatably painful process, and I’m sitting there in the audience, and that was my pivot point where I realized that this was a thing. People really care, and we can do things to help them be successful and play the game the way that they want."
"It’s like starting at the top of the mountain."
Fast-forward five years to the present, and e-sports are big business. Treyarch’s parent company Activision Blizzard, in particular, has put a lot of its weight behind the burgeoning scene. Last year the publisher launched a brand-new division headed up by former ESPN CEO Steve Bornstein focused entirely on e-sports, and at the beginning of 2016, Activision acquired pioneering organization MLG. CEO Bobby Kotick has said that the publisher has "plans to create the ESPN of e-sports." It’s a bold ambition — and it all starts with Call of Duty.
"Anything you do with Call of Duty is not a trial run," says Mike Sepso, a co-founder of MLG and current senior VP of the new Activision e-sports division. "It’s like starting at the top of the mountain."
Since mid-last year, the majority of big e-sports-related announcements from Activision have centered around Call of Duty, and the recently released Black Ops III in particular. Prior to the launch of the new division, the publisher announced the formation of the Call of Duty World League, a revamped competitive circuit that kicked off in November and features more than $3 million in prizes. (Last weekend the tournament wrapped up the first stage of its North American finals, which Treyarch says was the most-watched Call of Duty event to date.)
But even though not all of the announcements have been huge, they all point toward a particular goal: making e-sports mainstream. Case in point: the recently announced — and launched — "live event viewer" for the PS4 version of Black Ops III. This tool makes it possible to watch World League matches from directly within the game; you simply get a notification when an event is starting, and you can push a single button to head straight into a stream. According to Treyarch, it’s a feature that was designed to introduce the e-sports aspect of the game to a new audience.
"If you want to go and watch a Twitch stream, you have to look for it."
"If you want to go and watch a Twitch stream, you have to look for it," says Dan Bunting, multiplayer game director at Treyarch. "You have to know that Twitch exists, you have to know the URL, you have to know that it’s out there. And there are a lot of players who do that, but the live event viewer isn’t necessarily geared towards those players. It’s geared towards growing the audience that’s interested in e-sports."
The feature was created through a collaboration with Treyarch and MLG, which already operated a premium streaming service prior to the acquisition. (In fact, the company’s underlying tech is a large reason why Activision was interested in it.) A few days after the deal was finalized, the two sides sat down together to discuss the idea, and a few weeks later it was implemented. "It took what easily would’ve been two or three months of work, and took it down to two or three weeks," Martin Donlon, director of technology at Treyarch, says of the collaboration. "It’s really the kind of thing that you hope happens in an acquisition like this," adds Sepso, "where the teams are able to quickly gel around an idea and work to make it happen."
The live event viewer speaks to Activision’s broader goals. Treyarch had considered a similar feature for some time — the studio has been among the most progressive in the space, with Black Ops II being the first console game to offer live-streaming functionality — but it wasn’t until Activision started putting resources behind e-sports that it actually happened. "In the past it's been making these incremental achievements, and now all of these opportunities have opened up," says Bunting. "This idea that we have, [now] there’s going to be a bunch of support for it and a budget behind it."
"We didn’t want to shy away from making a bigger statement about this."
The initial push for the new e-sports division has focused primarily on Call of Duty because of its sheer scale. It’s one of the biggest names in video games, with Black Ops III taking in $550 million in sales during its first weekend alone. "We didn’t want to shy away from making a bigger statement about this," Sepso says. "Call of Duty as a franchise sets the bar as high as you possibly can set it in terms of fan experience, and that’s what we want to be able to deliver on the e-sports side as well."
Of course, Activision isn’t the only company getting behind e-sports, as Valve has been very successful with Dota 2, Riot’s League of Legends continues to be the field’s most popular game, and competitor EA recently launched its own e-sports division led by industry veteran Peter Moore. But Activision's scale and the addition of the expertise from MLG means that it might have the best shot at bringing competitive gaming to a much broader audience.
The plan for the future, Sepso says, is to now see how the team can expand what’s being done with Black Ops to other games. He notes MLG’s "GameBattles" tournament tool as the kind of tech that could potentially find its way into an Activision game some time in the future, all with the broader goal of making Activision synonymous with e-sports.
"When we say we want to create the ESPN of e-sports, we don’t really mean that literally in that we want to create a cable network," says Sepso. "What we’re saying is we want to be the branded destination for the highest quality e-sports competitions and coverage."