Activision Blizzard Taps TV Veteran Steve Bornstein to Head eSports Division

Mike Sepso, co-founder of Major League Gaming, joins company as senior VP

Steve Bornstein - Activision Blizzard
Courtesy of Activision Blizzard

Activision Blizzard has hired Steve Bornstein, former CEO of ESPN and NFL Network, as chairman of its newly created eSports division — the latest bet that competitive video-game events will become mass-market entertainment.

In addition, Activision hired Mike Sepso, who was co-founder and president of Major League Gaming, as senior VP for eSports. The company is vague on specific plans for the division, but says it will create “all-new ways to deliver the best-in-class fan experience across games, platforms and geographies, furthering the development of its eSports ecosystem.”

Last month, Activision announced the Call of Duty World League, which will provide a $3 million prize pool to pro gamers and amateur players centered around “Call of Duty: Black Ops III” title, slated to launch Nov. 6. And this April, Blizzard Entertainment’s “Heroes of the Dorm,” a collegiate eSports event for “Heroes of the Storm,” was televised on ESPN2.

“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,” Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick said in announcing the hires. “Mike’s entrepreneurial vision helped make eSports a household word and he is uniquely positioned to take the experience to the next level.”

In 2014, Activision Blizzard games were viewed and played by over 150 million people for more than 13 billion hours. That “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.”

Bornstein started at ESPN as program coordinator in 1980 and 10 years later was named CEO. In 1999, he was named president of ABC, before joining the National Football League to launch NFL Network in 2003. He stepped down as CEO of NFL Network last year.

Sepso, who co-founded MLG in 2002, added, “As a member of the esports community for over 12 years, I couldn’t be more excited for the future of the sport. I am confident that the company’s industry-leading content will capture the many opportunities we have to entertain and celebrate our players.”

With the huge growth of eSports, traditional media and entertainment companies have elbowed into the sector. Turner Broadcasting and WME/IMG teamed up to form an eSports gaming league, with TBS set to broadcast 20 live events over the course of 2016 with contestants squaring off in Valve’s “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” first-person shooter. That came on the heels of WME/IMG’s acquisition of Global eSports Management, a talent agency repping pro-gaming clients, in January.

Activision’s Blizzard Entertainment stages some of the biggest competitions in the eSports worlds. This year’s BlizzCon, set to run Nov. 6-7 in Anaheim, will feature the global finals for “StarCraft II,” “World of Warcraft,” “Heroes of the Storm” and “Hearthstone” in which players will vie for more than $4 million in prize money.

Activision Blizzard shares have been trading at record highs, following a string of strong earnings results. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based company posted better-than-expected revenue of $1.04 billion (up 7.6% year over year) and net income of $212 million (up 3.9%) for the second quarter of 2015.