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Former ESPN, NFL Network head leads new Activision Blizzard eSports division

Steve Bornstein, former CEO of ESPN and the NFL Network, and former president of Major League Gaming are joining forces to help Activision Blizzard create a new division dedicated to eSports, the company announced today.

"I've been in the eSports space for a really long time," MLG co-founder and former president Mike Sepso told Polygon. "I've worked with Activision and Blizzard for many, many years and I've always been a big fan of the company. When a senior team presented this opportunity to me, it seemed like a chance to fulfill a lot of big goals."

Sepso, who will serve as the senior vice president of the still-unnamed division, said he started work at Activision Blizzard about a month ago.

The division will sit alongside Activision Publishing and Blizzard Entertainment as a new, third subsidiary of Activision Blizzard. Neither the company nor Sepso were willing to detail how the new division will approach its work in eSports.

Specifically, they declined to say whether the longterm goals for the division are to merely support the company's ongoing eSports activities or to create a league of its own. More details, they said, are coming.

Bornstein, who will be the chairman of the new division, made a name for himself first at ESPN helping to define and expand the network. Under his leadership, ESPN launched a number of new channels, a radio station and a magazine. The channel also won 59 Emmys and 57 Cable Ace Awards, during that time.

In 2003, Bornstein moved on to head up the NFL Network, turning it into the most widely distributed sports network in history. The channel went on to win its first Sports Emmy in the first two months of operation.

"Last year, Activision Blizzard created entertainment that was viewed and played by over 150 million people for more than 13 billion hours — ­this dwarfs the engagement that fans spend on all other sports," Bornstein said in a prepared statement. "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. I'm excited to help Activision Blizzard further its leadership position in this exciting growth area."

The news comes at a time when eSports as a whole continues to grow at a startling rate and mainstream media struggles to define how it fits into the realm of sports. Just last year, the current president of ESPN, John Skipper, told a gathering that eSports is not a sport.


"It's not a sport — it's a competition. Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition," Skipper said at Re/code's Code/Media Series: New York conference when asked to comment on Amazon's $1 billion acquisition of Twitch.

Despite that off-handed dismissal, the network teamed up with Valve in July 2014 to broadcast a major eSports event, The International 2014. Earlier this year, ESPN2 televised Blizzard Entertainment's Heroes of the Dorm collegiate eSports event. More than 6,000 players from more than 460 schools competed in the Heroes of the Storm tournament for a chance to win a full ride at the school of their choice.

The day after the Heroes of the Dorm broadcast, ESPN radio personality Colin Cowherd took to the digital air to say that he would quit before covering video games or if a video game tournament were to be aired on ESPN, rather than ESPN2.

I wasn't able to ask Bornstein about this challenge eSports faces from his old stomping grounds, so I asked Sepso if he thinks mainstream media is ready to start embracing the video game sport.

"I think the main sports media already has," he said. "Heroes of the Dorm was on ESPN2, Call of Duty was a medal event in the X-Games and there are more and more examples all of the time.

"Inevitably, individual staff and on-air personalities will resist change, but I think the whole mainstream media sphere is realizing this is an important growth area."

Accepted by the mainstream or not, the growth of eSports seems unstoppable right now, and the inevitability that it will one day be aired alongside football, baseball and basketball seems likely.

Last year's League of Legends championship drew an audience of 27 million people

Last year's League of Legends championship drew an audience of 27 million people, which would make it number 21 in the list of most viewed sporting events of the year, according to Sports Media Watch. And that represented a 15 percent drop in viewership.

Activision Blizzard has a long history in eSports as well.

StarCraft was the forerunner of televised eSports and BlizzCon hosts the global finals for StarCraft 2, World of Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone. The Call of Duty Championships is the largest console eSports competition in the world and the company just announced plans for the creation of the Call of Duty World League.

"Celebrating our players and their unique skill, dedication and commitment is the essence of our esports initiatives," Bobby Kotick, Chief Executive Officer of Activision Blizzard, said in a prepared statement. "There are no better leaders for this new initiative than Steve and Mike. Steve has unparalleled experience in creating a sports network powerhouse and his groundbreaking leadership at ESPN and the NFL Network shaped how the whole world experiences sports. Mike's entrepreneurial vision helped make ‘esports' a household word and he is uniquely positioned to take the experience to the next level."

Sepso believes that eSports sits on the precipice of breaking through.

"I think we have a tremendous opportunity, based on the history of Blizzard and Activision's eSports activities," he said. "I think our portfolio of games is the best in the world and the senior leadership know that eSports plays an important role in the company moving forward.

"After 13 years of grinding it out in the eSports world ... this new opportunity to lead Activision Blizzard to new, exciting places is thrilling. I think the opportunities that eSports has as a sport has never been brighter."

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