Activision Aims to Create "ESPN of Esports" With MLG Acquisition

Call of Duty, World of Warcraft publisher acquires competitive gaming company's assets for a reported $46 million.

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Confirming a report from last week, Activision Blizzard on Monday announced that it had acquired the business assets of competitive gaming company Major League Gaming. There was no mention of an acquisition price, but Esports Observer, which originally broke the buyout news on New Year's Day, reported that Activision Blizzard paid $46 million for MLG's assets.

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In a statement, Activision Blizzard said the buyout of MLG will further the company's own efforts in the competitive gaming space. At the end of 2015, Activision formed an esports division, which is being led by former ESPN CEO Steve Bornstein and MLG co-founder Mike Sepso.

"The basic idea here is the MLG team has unparalleled experience and expertise in producing premium esports content, all the way from creating leagues and structures and operating events and producing the best content out there," Sepso told GameSpot in a phone interview today.

"What we think is missing is a really premium channel, similar to ESPN, that services the esports community with the best content available," he added.

MLG founder Sundance DiGiovanni, as well as the "entire MLG esports team," will join Activision Blizzard as part of this buyout. It was previously reported that DiGiovanni would be leaving MLG.

"Our mission for over 12 years has been to promote and expand the growth of competitive gaming worldwide," DiGiovanni said in a statement. "And today the industry is at a key inflection point as its popularity soars and rivals that of many traditional professional sports. This acquisition and Activision Blizzard's commitment to competitive gaming will expand the opportunities for gamers to be recognized and celebrated for their competitive excellence."

Activision Blizzard CEO Robert Kotick added his own statement, saying he's confident this acquisition will help the gaming juggernaut create the "ESPN of esports."

"MLG's ability to create premium content, its proven broadcast technology platform--including its live streaming capabilities--strengthens our strategic position in competitive gaming," the executive said. "MLG has an incredibly strong and seasoned team and a thriving community. Together, we will create new ways to celebrate players and their unique skills, dedication, and commitment to gaming. We are excited to add Sundance and the entire MLG esports team to our competitive gaming initiatives."

Sepso said one of Activision Blizzard's goals going forward is to shine a light on professional gamers and help make the best players in the world better known, not unlike stars of traditional sports. People outside of gaming circles may not understand or appreciate how incredibly talented some professional gamers are--and Activision Blizzard hopes its efforts in the competitive gaming space can change that.

"It's pretty much business as usual, but better" -- Sepso

MLG will continue to run the MLG.tv online broadcast network, as well as the MLG Pro Circuit and the GameBattles online gaming tournament system. In addition, this deal doesn't mean Activision Blizzard will only spotlight its own games at future tournaments, as MLG will "continue to work with its partners and other publishers across the industry," according to the press release. Sepso echoed this sentiment in our interview today, saying that, with the help of Activision Blizzard's resources and reach, MLG fans should have more to look forward to. In some cases, Activision Blizzard's team might help outside game developers create "additional content" around their games in the area of esports functionality.

"We're not here to interfere with things that are going on. We're here to add to it. It's pretty much business as usual, but better," he explained. "We'll have more resources, more capabilities--and I think over time, our fan base and our community are going to see tremendous value come out of that."

Another area of focus for Sepso and Activision Blizzard is establishing more accessible ways for people to get involved with competitive gaming as participants. Sepso points out that traditional sports like basketball and baseball have well-established infrastructures--the path from Little League to Major League Baseball is a concept that people understand. "That doesn't really exist yet in the esports world," Sepso said.

Activision Blizzard was reportedly not the first big-name company eyeing MLG as an acquisition opportunity.

In October, a report claimed Yahoo was in "advanced" talks to buy MLG. A source familiar with the matter told GameSpot back then that reports about Yahoo buying MLG are "not true," however, they did confirm that MLG and Yahoo held some discussions.

Overall, Activision Blizzard is bullish on the opportunities for competitive gaming.

"There's more games being created for esports [today], there's more people interested in watching every day. It is a rapidly expanding universe," Sepso said. "We want to help lead the industry to what that future looks like, which is a much bigger and much more mainstream, global phenomenon that we all have felt for a very long time that esports could be."

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