Variety’s Entertainment Gaming Leaders report is an up-to-the-minute look at the key figures driving this dynamic intersection, where nothing less than a visual media revolution is taking place. Variety teams with Pixel United for first-ever Leaders in Gaming & Entertainment Breakfast Oct. 4. The in-person breakfast, held in Los Angeles, will bring together some of the biggest names in the gaming industry, and gathers the movers and shakers on the impact report as well as other leaders in this space.
Marc Merrill, co-founder and president of games for Riot Games, and Shauna Spenley, president of Riot Games Entertainment, will participate in a keynote conversation, moderated by Andrew Wallenstein, president and chief media analyst of Variety Intelligence Platform, about the successful screen crossovers of Riot’s video games, such as their Emmy-winning animated series “Arcane: League of Legends.”
Michael Lang, CEO of Pixel United, will be in conversation with Variety Co-Editor-in-Chief Cynthia Littleton about his vision for the mobile games industry, identifying opportunities for the wider entertainment industry to align with the passionate gaming community.
The breakfast will also feature the panel discussion Building a Franchise Through Gaming and Experiential Entertainment featuring Sean Shoptaw, senior VP at Walt Disney Games; Gio Hunt, VP of Oculus Studios for Meta; David Baronoff, founder and chief cross media officer for Bad Robot Games; and Helen Chiang, corporate VP of Minecraft Franchise. Moderated by Variety Intelligence Platform Correspondent and Media Analyst Heidi Chung, the panel will explore the intersection between gaming and film/TV, and address how the industries are collaborating to create an expanding universe for content.
“The video games industry is an incredibly important part of the fabric of the broader entertainment landscape and Pixel United is proud to help shine a spotlight on this powerful segment,” Lang said. “As a global mobile-first video games company engaging millions of players around the world every day, we understand the meaningful results that can be achieved when world-class gaming content and unrivaled fandom converge with other areas of the entertainment industry.”
Hakan B. Abrak
Abrak executed a management buyout of IO Interactive’s Japanese parent company, Square Enix Holdings, shortly after he was elevated to CEO of the Copenhagen-based video game developer in 2017, taking the company independent while retaining ownership of its hit franchise “Hitman,” which released its latest installment, “Hitman 3,” in January 2021. In the months since, the company has been focused on “Project 007,” a new James Bond game that will explore the character’s origin story.
VP, Global Head of Partnerships
In her nearly nine years with Roblox, Wootton has established numerous long-term strategic relationships for the social gaming platform with brands from the worlds of entertainment (Netflix, Disney, Warner Bros.), sports (NFL, WWE, FC Barcelona) and apparel (Nike, Gucci). “Brands and talent are realizing the power of our community as a way to connect with fans, test new ideas, and explore new avenues for visibility amongst an audience who has grown up with advanced technology,” she says.
After starting a used-comics business at age 13, Wingefors’ career has come full circle through Embracer’s acquisition of Dark Horse Media, which was finalized earlier this year, adding hundreds more IP to a portfolio containing more than 800 properties. The company owns about a dozen game publishers, notably Saber Interactive, THQ Nordic, Gearbox and a new group comprising studios recently bought from Square Enix, which added “Tomb Raider” as an IP. Embracer also just bought the media rights to Middle-earth Enterprises (cq), granting the company control over current and future “Lord of the Rings” projects, including Amazon’s “The Rings of Power” series.
Naughty Dog: Wells, Druckmann
Wells has as served president or co-president of Naughty Dog since 2004, the same year Druckmann was hired as a programmer. Co-leaders of the Sony-based studio since 2020, they both served as executive producers on the 2022 big-screen adaptation of their hit game franchises “Uncharted.” They recently released a remake of the post-apocalyptic adventure game “The Last of Us,” which is being turned into an HBO series due in 2023, with Druckmann serving as co-creator/showrunner alongside Craig Mazin.
Agent, Digital Media & Gaming
Hailing from esports entity FaZe Clan, Webb joined WME in 2020 to help lead a roster of esports talent, streamers and game creators. At a time when gaming platforms such as “Fortnite” and Roblox frequently partner with big-name music acts, agencies including WME are uniquely positioned to get involved in cross-media capacities. Such was the case in July with TimTheTatman’s Tailgate event, which featured a $100,000 “Fortnite” competition and other tournaments thrown by content creator and WME client TimTheTatman, plus live performances from fellow clients Kane Brown and Mitchell Tenpenny. “By looking at gaming with a 360-degree view, we are redefining how gaming entertainment is not only created but consumed as well,” says Webb.
Tsujimoto has enjoyed years of blockbuster success with Capcom’s “Resident Evil,” “Street Fighter” and “Monster Hunter” franchises. He began at the company as a college student in the ’80s, eventually working his way up to the No. 2 position under his father, Capcom founder chairman and CEO Kenzo Tsujimoto, in 2007. The company is working on a remake of “Resident Evil 4,” an over-the-shoulder third-person shooter first released in 2005, due for release in March.
Bad Robot Games
Bad Robot Games hasn’t announced much in the way of projects, either in-house or as a publisher, but Sweet and her team have been working as creative consultants with game makers including Wolfeye (“Weird West”) and Unknown Worlds (“Moonbreaker”), both of which received early investments from the company, helping them with narrative and design. “Building a diverse team is core to our business strategy and we are proud to say that we are currently 50% women, 50% non-white and just getting started,” she says.
The company taught your kids dance moves via “Fortnite,” but Sweeney’s Epic Games is much more than that. It operates a rival PC storefront to Steam, publishes games such as “Fall Guys,” owns music platform Bandcamp and licenses the fifth incarnation of Unreal Engine to developers big and small. Epic only takes 12% of the revenue earned by third parties on Epic Games Store and further reduces that take on products using Unreal, a pro-developer move that Epic has invoked in ongoing legal battles with Apple and Google regarding Epic’s refusal to comply with 30% cuts the tech giants take on purchases made through their respective mobile storefronts.
Spencer, who’s been at Microsoft since 2002, has been the top dog at Xbox for close to a decade and has been steering the console brand through big moves in recent years. After rapidly expanding the development teams under Xbox Game Studios, Microsoft completed its acquisition of Bethesda owner ZeniMax in 2021 for $7.5 billion before upping the stakes in 2022 with an agreement to buy “Call of Duty” publisher Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion. What games is he looking forward to? “I’m looking forward to so many games currently in development,” he says. “ It’s hard not to say Forza Motorsport. The legacy of Forza on Xbox goes back to the first Xbox console, and what the team at Turn 10 is making for this version is ambitious and impressive.”
Studio Director, Executive Producer
Smets adjusted the workflow at her Amsterdam-based Sony-owned studio Guerrilla Games, relocating employees’ entire work set-ups to their homes during the pandemic, enabling them to complete the new action role playing game “Horizon Forbidden West,” released in February. They’re working on “Horizon Call of the Mountain” for PlayStation VR2, due to launch in 2023. “[It’s] designed from the ground-up for VR, and there are a lot of technical innovations with the new PlayStation VR2 headset that we’re playing with,” she says.
Walt Disney Games
You’d struggle to find a portfolio of IP as widespread in gaming as that under Shoptaw’s purview. Lucasfilm Games has several “Star Wars” titles in the works at EA, Ubisoft and Skydance New Media, in addition to an “Indiana Jones” at Bethesda. Meanwhile, Sony Interactive Entertainment’s most successful franchise sporting more than 33 million copies sold on PlayStation is “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” with a “Wolverine” game also on the way. Plus, a fourth “Kingdom Hearts” game featuring Mickey and friends is in development at longtime partner Square Enix. “We’re actively exploring opportunities for original games featuring some of Disney’s classic characters,” says Shoptaw, who thinks Donald Duck’s backstory would make a great game.
Head of Incubation/Executive Producer
Shirzad is a nine-year veteran of Bellevue, Wash.-based Bungie (creator of the iconic “Halo” franchise), which Sony acquired for $3.6 billion in July 2022. She’s managed large teams working on iterations of its “Destiny” games, from development to post-launch support planning. “Games are crossing media types, becoming TV shows, influencing fashion, driving YouTube and TikTok content,” she says. “We’re leaning into all of this, recognizing that people want more than what games have offered in the past.”
General Manager, Crunchyroll Games;
Senior VP, Emerging Business
Since the 2021 acquisition of Crunchyroll by Sony, Li has unified anime games efforts across the Sony Pictures Entertainment portfolio, building out his team and pipeline to complement existing mobile titles including “My Hero Academia: The Strongest Hero,” based on the hit anime. “At Crunchyroll, we see games as one of a multitude of touchpoints with our fans, so it’s about providing a holistic experience around both the game and the anime. We also want to provide a variety of engagement points because it helps immerse fans into the IP and build a deeper fandom,” Li says.
Head of Esports and Gaming
As the leader of the UTA team representing 125-plus esports pros, content creators, streamers and game developers, Lau helps clients break into new verticals including music, sports, fashion, food and consumer tech via efforts such as a Ralph Lauren Fragrances campaign that gaming influencer client FaZe Swagg streamed to 600,000-plus followers on Twitch in August. “Advertisers and consumer brands have just recently began viewing the metaverse as a conduit to speak to a global gaming community, and that development is very exciting,” he says.
Appointed CEO in 2019, Lang leads every aspect of operations and strategy for a global mobile games company that boasts seven of the top 100 titles in the sector. Games such as “Raid: Shadow Legends,” “Lighting Link Casino” and “EverMerge” add to a mobile division worth nearly $2 billion alone with three publishers under its belt at Australian parent company Aristocrat, which is otherwise known for manufacturing gambling machines. “As a mobile-first video game company, Pixel United benefits from the fact that almost everyone has a smartphone,” says Lang. “This level of accessibility is what sets mobile gaming apart in media.”
Senior Director of Global Marketing,
YouTube Gaming, Fan Funding & Shopping
As YouTube grows its gaming footprint, Johnson and his team have created initiatives that help celebrate, inform and have given publishers new venues to promote their games; a recent success was the launch of “Elden Ring,” which logged 3.4 billion views in its first 60 days, YouTube Gaming’s biggest launch ever. “Marketing breaks through clutter and achieves effective reach with… relevancy. The most important thing that marketing leaders can do for their company is to drive a deep understanding of the customer.”
Director, Global Head of Gaming Publishers
Johnson spearheads the objectives of YouTube’s gaming publisher business and gaming product partnership globally, and is responsible for day-to-day operations and relationships across major gaming publishers. “The gaming publishers finding the most success on YouTube are those that understand the massive opportunity YouTube’s scale and multi-format content options bring to the fandoms of their games,” says the former Twitch exec. “The gaming community on YouTube brings creators and players together to celebrate their favorite games in such unique and fun ways. … YouTube is special in that, by design, creators and companies of all sizes and shapes can find and grow an audience, generate revenue and build community.”
VP, Oculus Studios at Meta [CQ]
A Harvard Law School grad who previously did long stints at AOL and Blizzard Entertainment, Hunt helps make sure Meta’s game pipeline is flowing to feed its popular Meta Quest 2 VR headset platform and serve the company’s larger multibillion-dollar metaverse ambitions. “We’re seeing second and second- generation games from established VR developers who really get how to use the new medium to create experiences that simply aren’t even possible on a 2-D screen,” he says.
Head of PlayStation Studios
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Hulst went from success to success with PlayStation Studios in 2022, launching new marquee games (“Horizon Forbidden West,” “Gran Turismo 7”) and scoring blockbuster sales (33 million copies for the “Spider-Man” franchise on PlayStation as of May 2022). He also added to its recently formed mobile gaming division with the acquisition of Savage Game Studios in August 2022 and helped grow their business beyond the PlayStation console with the releases of “MLB the Show” for Nintendo Switch and Xbox and “Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered” for PC.
General Manager, Crown Channel
Hirsch leads Crown Channel, a live-streaming offering from Amazon available across multiple platforms (including its own Prime Video and Twitch properties) that features gaming shows such as “Ultimate Crown” starring YouTube personality Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson, “Fight Night” and “Foodbeast Kitchen League” that have collectively reached 77.8 million viewers. “There are more people now who know or want to study gaming and this wave of broader expertise will change the industry across all aspects,” she says.
President, New Media Division
Skydance New Media
A veteran of Naughty Dog and Electronic Arts, Hennig was brought aboard the just-launched Skydance New Media in 2019 to lead the development of big-budget, cinematic titles, starting with games set in the “Star Wars” galaxy and the Marvel Universe, the latter of which debuted a first-look trailer at Disney’s D23 Expo in September. “We want our games to be inviting and accessible to all players, so we’re designing our game mechanics from the ground up to be simple but deep,” she says.
Hartmann develops games in-house (including the hit “New World”) at Amazon, as well as publishes games from leading developers such as Smilegate’s “Lost Ark.” With internal access to Twitch and Amazon Web Services, along with a deep IP catalog that includes Prime Video and recently acquired MGM, he is uniquely positioned to create transmedia experiences that take the games into other mediums. “The more ways we can extend the experience of the brands you love across multiple channels, the longer these beloved IPs live on,” he says.
Warner Bros. Games
Haddad’s division scored two major hits in 2022. The first, “Star Wars Lego: The Skywalker Saga,” drew from outside IP, while the second, the free-to-play online game “MultiVersus” had playable characters from the Warner Bros. family, ranging from Superman to Bugs Bunny. “The roots of disruption in the gaming world lie with some very familiar trends — more free-to-play, more cross-platform gaming, more mobile gamers around the globe and increasing levels of user expression or user content creation,” he says.
Senior VP, Sega of America;
Chief Brand Officer, Sonic the Hedgehog
Sega of America
Since 2016, Gerscovich has led the revival of the Sonic the Hedgehog brand with a succession of popular games (including the recently released “Sonic Origins” and the upcoming “Sonic Frontiers”), a pair of blockbuster films from Paramount starring Jim Carrey and a growing licensing business. “I believe that we’ll see an increased number of games designed for cross-platform play, allowing players to pick up and resume their favorite games across multiple devices, at home or on the go,” he says.
Nintendo: Furukawa, Bowser
Nintendo of America
Furukawa and Bowser preside over global and American operations at Nintendo, respectively, with numbers to show for it. The Nintendo Switch console had sold 111 million units as of the first half of 2022, making it one of the all-time most successful gaming systems. And in 2021, it even outsold newer PlayStation and Xbox consoles. Switch exclusives including “The Legend of Zelda,” “Super Mario” and “Animal Crossing” sell tens of millions of copies, and “Mario” is set for the big screen via Universal’s upcoming 2023 film from Illumination, with Chris Pratt voicing the classic
Vice President, Head of Worldwide App Store
Fischer oversees the huge and hugely successful App Store, where more than 1 billion customers have downloaded games. Mobile games represent more than half of the overall games industry. Fischer’s team is also responsible for creating Apple Arcade, the first-ever mobile gaming subscription service. “We’ve seen incredible growth in players who are looking for casual titles that they can easily jump in and out of for short gameplay sessions, but there is also a lot of interest from mobile gamers looking for deeper, more immersive console-quality experiences,” he says. “The Hollywood-gaming connection is only going to get stronger as we see more and more brands cross over from TV and film to games, and vice versa.”
Senior VP/General Manager, “Call of Duty”
Faries oversees the best-selling franchise and commands live operations and franchise-wide strategy for “Call of Duty’s” regular releases, the standalone “Warzone” mode and its esports league amid the publishing group’s pending sale to Xbox owner Microsoft. On diversifying available “CoD” experiences, Faries says: “The most rewarding part has been seeing how we have broadened our global audience with new gameplay offerings and expanded innovation over the last few years.” Beyond “CoD?” “ ‘Candy Crush’ continues to crush!”
Head of Games
An 18-year industry veteran, CAA games department chief Douglas has worked with a long list of major players including Obsidian, Turtle Rock, Airship Syndicate and Bad Robot Interactive. “Increasingly, our clients are exploring how they can integrate user-generated content into their games,” he says. “This can be by publishing onto a platform like Roblox or investing in their own tools and technology to provide their audience with the means of self-expression and content creation that can be integrated into vast, shared social worlds.”
Riot Games: Donlon, Aletaha, Spenley
Senior Vice President
Global Head of League of Legends Esports
President of Entertainment
Donlon is the lead on Riot’s breakout tactical shooter game “Valorant,” while Aletaha is in charge of the world’s largest esports league, League of Legends Esports, and Spenley is the force behind Riot’s new entertainment business, responsible for the Emmy-winning series “Arcane.” “With the industry trending away from retail box copies of games and towards high-quality games as a service as the standard, we are seeing more and more opportunities to create communities in and around these ecosystems and serve up experiences that transcend your time in game,” says Donlon.
Marie-Sophie de Waubert
Senior VP, Studio Operations
In May, Ubisoft (“Assassin’s Creed,” “Just Dance”) upped de Waubert to her current post where she leads all of Ubisoft’s AAA production studios worldwide. As a high-profile woman in a male-dominated business, she says, “Although there is always room for improvement, I’m seeing first-hand how women are making strides across the industry — from game design to engineering and technology at large. Our work towards more diversity, equity and inclusion is an ongoing journey, a collective ride beyond the realm of gaming, and we, as companies and individuals, need to keep leading the change.”
Studio Head of Minecraft
Chiang has led the development of the world-building game Minecraft since 2018, expanding its creator ecosystem with its in-game marketplace and growing its portfolio of titles with 20 major releases in the past fiscal year alone. “We’re still seeing the ripple effect of increased availability of games across all different types of devices, from smart TVs to mobile phones,” she says. “That has fundamentally changed the way that people think about gaming and shifted perception of who a gamer is.”
Xbox Game Studios
With blockbuster titles such as “Age of Empires,” “Forza,” which added support for American and British Sign Language so Deaf and hard-of-hearing players can enjoy the game, “Gears of War,” “Halo,” “Minecraft,” “Doom” and more, under Booty, giant Xbox Game Studios has been going from strength to strength. Booty and XGS are also leading programs such as Game Camps, which foster new voices through mentorship in underrepresented communities like New Orleans and Atlanta. “Audiences engage with entertainment that brings to life a voice or vision that they can connect with personally. That makes the push for a diversity of creators and stories more vital than ever,” he says.
Senior VP, Film & Television
Veteran gaming exec Altman saw that the convergence of gaming culture and storytelling on screen was a rich vein to mine, thus Ubisoft’s first live-action series, the Apple TV+ hit “Mythic Quest,” on which Altman was an exec producer. Other titles include the upcoming “Assassin’s Creed” live-action TV series and feature film “The Division,” both for Netflix. “Games that keep you thinking long after you’ve put them down” make great candidates for adaptation, he says. “Sometimes it’s the power of an immersive fantasy, or choices you’ve made in a game that lead to unexpected places, but most often it’s the emotion of the experience that stays with you.”
Corporate VP, Game Creator Experience and Ecosystem
Microsoft bet on the future of gaming by doubling down on cloud gaming, its Game Pass subscription service and cross-platform play, opening up a wide world to gamers. Bond leads the charge in growing the organic ecosystem and her unit, which oversees the needs of game creators across all of Microsoft’s software and services, including Xbox, Azure and Microsoft 365. As the former CVP of global gaming partnerships and development, Sarah was instrumental to the growth of Xbox and the success of Xbox Game Pass. “From my point of view – there are two ways to inspire and excite an audience. At the heart of every great story is an authentic human experience. When you can tell your story in a way that other people see themselves in it — that’s magic,” she says.
President and CEO
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Since taking the reins of Sony Interactive Entertainment in 2019, Ryan has helped drive the sale of more than 20 million PlayStation 5 consoles and push the platform’s number of monthly active users past the 100 million mark, while growing its portfolio of gaming IP and improving accessibility. “It excites me when I hear the stories where gamers with various needs are able to experience our games for the first time all because of the features we are implementing into our software,” he says.
Global Head of Media, Entertainment & Gaming
Rahmani and his team operate as thought leaders, deal strategists and industry connectors to help make Google’s enormous gaming business (sprawling across Play, ads, YouTube and Cloud) easier for gaming developers, publishers and creators. “I believe the best way to engage gaming fans for the long term is to invest in ‘user-generated’ as a content, community and product strategy. UGC transformed the music and video industries and now plays an outsized role in helping to fuel gaming fandom across a variety of activities, from user-created games and worlds to virtual goods to streaming,” he says. “Gaming franchises investing in sandbox experiences for users and a seamless way to share them could see their fandoms flourish, in and out of world, between releases, for years to come.”
Head of PlayStation Productions,
Head of Product for PlayStation Studios
Sony Interactive Entertainment
A 16-year PlayStation veteran, Qizilbash works with the PlayStation Studios development teams to translate its gaming IP into film and television projects for PlayStation Prods. such as the currently lensing “Gran Turismo” movie, starring Orlando Bloom. “For the longest time, film and television were the main influences as they were mass market and had cultural currency,” he says. “That has changed a lot now that gaming is more mass market, with storytelling in games being so much more sophisticated than ever.”
Founder & CEO
Price founded Insomniac in 1994 and went on to score hits with franchises such as “Spyro the Dragon” and “Ratchet & Clank” and, starting in 2018, Marvel’s “Spider-Man” series. The company was acquired by Sony for $229 million in 2019. “For us to reflect our audiences and create content that’s more relatable, we need team members from all backgrounds, from all cultures and races, representing all genders” he says. “This means actively pursuing more diverse candidates.”
Chief Revenue Officer
Since joining Scopely from Disney in 2014, O’Brien has led its expansion, most recently spearheading the $1 billion acquisition of GSN Games from Sony. He has worked with Hollywood on games created for Marvel, WWE, Hasbro and closed a first of its kind deal with Paramount to bring the entire Star Trek universe to “Star Trek: Fleet Command.” “A highly recognized franchise can be valuable, but also challenging to build an always-evolving experience that stays true to the brand’s universe. Game teams have to be extremely creative and thoughtful as they expand a beloved brand within a game,” he says.
President & CEO
Bandai Namco Entertainment
In 2022, Bandai Namco released blockbuster “Elden Ring,” co-created with George R.R. Martin, that became an all-time bestseller with 16.6 million copies sold and counting. The company also announced development of a live-action “Pac-Man” feature, has an animated “Tekken: Bloodline” series on Netflix, based on its beloved games and a live-actioner with Legendary based on popular “Gundam” anime and games. “The spectacular world created by the collaboration of Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R.R. Martin has captured the imagination of tens of millions of people worldwide, and that success is fueled by Bandai Namco Entertainment’s global marketing effort and of course the pedigree and development talent of Miyazaki and his team at FromSoftware,” he says.
Before assuming the role of COO in 2021, Miele led worldwide studios at the publisher, overseeing key franchises including the EA Sports portfolio, “Battlefield” and “Mass Effect.” Now, Miele is focused on building and maintaining lucrative partnerships. In 2022, EA was added as the title sponsor to all LaLiga football competitions in a multi-year pact for EA Sports FC that includes more than 300 additional partners. More recently, an “Iron Man” game was announced by EA and Marvel, following multiple “Star Wars” games announced in collaboration with Lucasfilm Games. “We love these partnerships because they delight and meet the interests of our players,” says Miele. “They excite and inspire our game creators.”
Tencent Games, Tencent
Liu oversees all of Tencent’s global games publishing business, including “PUBG Mobile,” which has passed $8 billion in revenue since its 2018 release; “Honor of Kings”; the recently launched “Tower of Fantasy;” as well as upcoming games: “Avatar: Reckoning,” “Synced” and “Undawn.” She joined Tencent in 2013 and has overseen its global gaming business since 2019, building and developing its global R&D and publishing capabilities. Her areas of expertise include mobile gaming, global business management and global studio partnerships, and under her, Tencent Games has notched significant growth in its global games business and publishes or owns some of the sector’s most-valuable IP.