Activision exec on why is at the forefront of streaming tech, exclusive broadcast rights, and more

Yahoo Esports
MLG co-founder and Activision-Blizzard SVP Mike Sepso. (Dice)
MLG co-founder and Activision-Blizzard SVP Mike Sepso. (Dice)

In February, introduced source-quality live streaming to its broadcast. According to MLG, the technology allows viewers to watch the stream at a significantly higher quality than other streaming platforms.

We spoke to Activision-Blizzard SVP and MLG co-founder Mike Sepso about what’s new live streaming capabilities entailed, his thoughts on the increasing number of distributors vying for space in esports, and how he views the current state of competitors Twitch and YouTube.

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One of the positive things about MLG being acquired by Activision is the direct working relationships with the studios and all of the technical resources that Activision-Blizzard has,” Sepso said. “We’re able to effectively send out a video stream that is again equal to what you see when you’re playing the game, or as close as you can get to broadcast settings. So for that we were really excited because it’s going to give our core audience a very, very high quality look at the gameplay. So as they’re following their favorite pro players in the Call of Duty World League they can really see every detail of what’s happening in the game during their live gameplay.”

“The reason it’s great to be part of Activision-Blizzard is that this is not something that could be offered by another third party. We’re able to offer this because we’re all part of the same company. The technical capabilities on offer… is something unique to us.”

Check out our full interview below.

Yahoo Esports: Twitch and YouTube are platforms which are almost synonymous with esports. Did you consider focusing on those platforms at any point to harness the communities there?

Sepso: In most cases we’re still broadcasting content to all of those platforms. But I think that the industry is maturing and one of the things that’s going to help esports become more than just big headlines about how many people are watching is turn into a real business and a compelling sports entertainment product for wider audiences.

We can start to make the economics work so that we can reinvest at a traditional sports level into the competitions, broadcasts, and the like. We think that outlets like Twitch and YouTube play an extremely important role for our players and key influencers, and are the primary distribution outlets for their live streaming and VOD content. Just like instagram is the number one place to post photographs and Snapchat for video. I think those community-organized networks are all content distribution pipelines, and they all specialize in a particular type of content. introduced source-quality streaming in February. (MLG) introduced source-quality streaming in February. (MLG)

And I think that works very well, we continue to support those communities, but typically the premium content, the entire industry, is moving towards a place where we say, ‘Hey, we’re investing millions of dollars in producing traditional sports level content.’ We have to start being responsible about monetizing it effectively as well. And that will allow us to invest that level into the content and into the event, and into the leagues that we’re building.

You mention monetizing. Is that a reference to advertising or exclusive broadcasting rights for certain leagues?

You know, I think it’s certainly going to be both. I think we’re managing that migration process very effectively and deliberately. We’re not just jumping from one paradigm to the next. We’re really doing it with our fanbase and viewer base in mind.

But we do have to migrate things. The other thing that’s happened is just in the past year, a lot of new live video distributors have jumped into the fray as it relates to esports. Everyone from Twitter and Facebook to ESPN and Turner have jumped into the fray and want to be distributors.

The industry’s changing around us, and we want to be a leader and we want to also make sure that we are doing it responsibly. And I think that’s an important part of having the juxtaposition of MLG and Activision-Blizzard kind of all in the same team. Because we’re mindful of the players and the fans and viewers first. And we have the scale and the resources to be a leader in the industry but also to handle this migration to a new paradigm for esports effectively, with our fans and players in mind.

This technology is being used by MLG, but will we see it used by Blizzard more extensively? MLG worked with Blizzard on Overwatch last year, but will there be more of that this year?

Yeah, definitely. You can see an example of it already with the integration into Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare with Activision. Right now what we’re doing is kind of looking for, how do we use all these technical assets that we’ve got. The human assets that we’ve got, in terms of just depth of experience of the MLG team in esports, and pair that most effectively with the existing esports operations in Activision and Blizzard.

But really most importantly [harnessing] the studio team who are the best in the world at creating the best games in the world. And how do we make that all work together. Because for the history of esports, at least in my 15 years in esports, there’s always been a big separation between [companies]. Whether it was MLG, ESL, or DreamHack or whatever, they were all independent companies producing events, content, and leagues with Blizzard and Activision’s games. Now the entire MLG team is part of the same company, and has a lot more resources and a lot more internal influence in cooperation between all of those teams.

The EVE player card. (MLG)
The EVE player card. (MLG)

What other features are you working on for the Enhanced Viewing Experience (EVE)?

One of the things that we introduced last event was Score Streak. Which is just a little taste of the kind of things that we can do with the combination of source-quality video viewing, real-time data and analytics, our predictive algorithms, and data-mining capabilities.

Effectively what we’re doing with EVE is taking all of the historical data of past performance of CWL teams and players, matching it with real-time data that’s coming through the game as it’s being played, and running it through a set of algorithms that allows both the software and our editorial team to make decisions on what kind of things to surface.

So that could be box score stats, predictive analytics (meaning putting odds on something happening in the game, like this player looks 2% likely to capture the flag etc.) More importantly what we’ve been able to do with Score Streak, a product we rolled out at our last major broadcast, is we’ve created a really interesting community interaction and a capability for the viewing fans at home to compete with each other while they’re watching the competition.

We’ve created essentially a set of poll-driven questions based on what was happening live in the game and historical data. And as the questions were asked, fans were able to answer them and people would go on Score Streaks, meaning the competition would continue until everybody got an answer wrong. And the person with the largest Score Streak started winning prizes.

We saw a tremendous amount of take-up in that game, which was really a very simple use of the tools that we’ve got enhanced, and kind of attached as to how big of an audience can we get to participate in these kind of interactive products that surround a viewing experience. We were extremely encouraged by that. And they’re going to continue to invest a lot of time, effort, and resources into that effort.

What are your thoughts on Riot Games entering a high-value deal with MLB Advanced Media?

I think it’s indicative of how the entire industry is moving towards needing to more effectively monetize this very premium content that we’re producing.

Do you think that at some point’s technology would be used for other parties to broadcast their tournaments?

You know, it’s possible. We’re not pursuing a white-labelling strategy I guess, like MLB Advanced Media. We’ve certainly done productions and broadcast with other publishers even after the acquisition, most notably the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive major that we did last April. We then did producing and broadcast for the Gears of War esports season.

Our strategy is effectively to look at every opportunity, internal and third-party, and determine where we can go deepest. Where we can utilize the full stack of our capabilities. Everything from designing and operating leagues to producing great events, to producing the best broadcast in esports to monetizing that through sponsorship and advertising sales to broadcasting it over our platform. So all of these things are our core capabilities in what we kind of call the MLG stack. So we’re always open to opportunities to apply that stack to any strategic partnership. Whether that’s an Activision title, a Blizzard title, or some third party.  

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