Back in October Activision Blizzard announced a brand new division focused on e-sports, and today the division is making its first big announcement: Activision has acquired the business of pioneering e-sports organization Major League Gaming. MLG will continue to operate much as it has, according to Activision, but with the added resources that come from being part of the biggest gaming publisher. Meanwhile its technology will be used to create a new e-sports broadcast network for Activision. “Our acquisition of Major League Gaming’s business furthers our plans to create the ESPN of e-sports,” Activision CEO Bobby Kotick said in a statement.
MLG was founded in 2002, and since then has turned into arguably the most important organization in competitive gaming. The company has organized tournaments and competitive leagues for games from nearly every major game developer and publisher, ranging from StarCraft and League of Legends to Halo and Mortal Kombat. Since 2013, the company has operated a premium streaming service (mlg.tv), where fans can watch broadcasts of major tournaments.
Activision’s new division, meanwhile, is being headed up by former ESPN CEO Steve Bornstein, as well as MLG co-founder Mike Sepso, who serves as the division’s vice president. As part of the deal, current MLG CEO Sundance DiGiovanni — who founded the company with Sepso — will be staying on board to continue running operations. “He’s a critical part of this whole plan,” says Sepso. “Being able to bring the band back together is awesome for me.”
Last year Activision made big strides in expanding its e-sports reach for its own games, launching major new competitions for titles like Call of Duty and digital card game Hearthstone, with tournament prizes totalling millions of dollars. MLG, meanwhile, works with many publishers in addition to Activision — and that’s not expected to change following the acquisition. “We 100 percent plan to keep running MLG as it has been, including building around the existing communities, and continuing work with other publishers to build out their e-sports strategies,” says Sepso. “It’s going to continue to operate, but just at a bigger and better level.”
According to DiGiovanni, the goal of the new e-sports division isn’t just to improve the competitive scene around Activision games like Call of Duty or Heroes of the Storm, but to “create structure and opportunity across all of e-sports.” And while MLG will now be under the umbrella of the biggest video game publisher in the world, he doesn’t see the acquisition creating conflicts when it comes to dealing with other companies like Microsoft or Valve. (In April MLG will be managing the first North American major tournament for Valve-developed shooter Counter Strike: Go, with a competition in Columbus, Ohio.)
“We’ve been dealing with that for the better part of a decade,” DiGiovanni explains. “We’ve worked with EA, Microsoft, Valve, Blizzard, Activision, 2K. We’ve had to work within an environment where we’re basically nurturing various publishers’ IP, and having to give equal energy and attention no matter who the partner was. And none of that is going to change. The good thing is that we have long-standing relationships with the folks that we work with at the other publishers — they know me, they know our team, and they know our approach — and I believe that that’s going to translate into a tremendous opportunity.”
Activision isn’t the only big company getting into e-sports; just last month EA announced the launch of the EA Competitive Gaming Division, headed up by former EA Sports boss Peter Moore. But following this new acquisition, Activision’s efforts appear to be much more ambitious than its competition, though the company didn’t provide any details on what its new e-sports broadcast network might look like, or when it will launch. And while acquiring MLG is the first big news to come out of the division since its debut in October, it sounds like there will be plenty more to come in 2016.
“It’s going to be a really active year for us,” says Sepso.