The last time we checked in with Johanna Faries, the world was a little bit different. The Call of Duty League was on full display at opening weekend in Minneapolis, taking over the Armory in a blowout bash filled with celebrity guests like Vince Staples, live entertainment, and thousands of fans seemingly unaware of what the next 12 months would bring. For a league hoping to make a splash, live events were a big component of that, as was creating a sense of pride from city to city with the league attempting to organically grow fanbases in a way similar to how MLS built its way into 25-plus years of moving from survival to familiarity.
We all know what happened next, and rehashing it at this point feels a bit like shoveling snow in the Snow Belt during the winter. Sure, we’ll do it because we have to, but we know full well we’re just going to get buried again. Instead of using the pandemic as an excuse, CDL treated it like a chance to test in real-time with an unimpeachable excuse. If something didn’t work, well, it wasn’t working for anyone because these are [extreme ad you’d see on Hulu from April to July voice] unprecedented times. Along the way, a game that was always virtual to begin with and built on the backs of online communities went back to its roots. The live event component was always going to be a focus, but if no one could do anything in person, it was a lot easier to follow a league that could still play without gimmicks; no need for athletes to turn to esports while quarantined, no need for a league-wide bubble, no need for HORSE over Zoom or a live Peloton ride or altered schedules or expanded rosters.
Call Of Duty League was able to gain an immense amount of data in a short period of time, based off the pure fact that beta testing was critical for advancement in the first place. And entering Season 2, a milestone that can’t be discounted when looking at the bones of broken leagues that never got a second season (here’s looking at you AAF, we’ll always remember), Faries is more confident than ever. She’s also sporting a new title, as head of leagues for Call of Duty League and Overwatch League. Simply getting by has never been in her DNA; she’ll always challenge herself, her position, and the league she represents to be different, be better, and push harder.
In a time when fatigue is everywhere, those with the inertia to keep beating forward can’t help but be inspirational. So when Faries talks, there’s always the drive to listen a bit more closely, to make more eye contact, to sit up a bit straighter.
UPROXX Edge had the chance to explore a variety of topics with Faries in our in-depth interview, from the learnings of those early pandemic days to what to expect from CDL Season 2’s opening weekend from Feb. 12-14, and more.
Martin Rickman: Obviously in any 12 month period you have an opportunity to look back and reflect on things that grew, things that you’d change, things that worked and didn’t work, or you’d like to improve on, but going into probably one of the most cataclysmically strange years in recent memory, what have you looked back on that has helped inform you for where CDL is headed, but also really the future of esports has been heading?
Johanna Faries: It has been wild and it has been challenging, no doubt. I do have to say though, I think we have come out so much more resilient and so much smarter. After the pandemic, there was really this ability for us to not only pivot in a matter of weeks, but to do so with intentionality. And what I mean by that is really learning how to strategically pivot not only how we operated our live competitions, but also to really convey to the industry that esports has the ability to develop and produce world-class events and continue to scale growth. We saw subscriber count really start to grow on our YouTube channel. Really in the back half of last year, we started to hit those high watermarks in terms of viewership, obviously with Champs being the major culmination point for the season and the most-watched Call of Duty esports event in history. All of that, to me, pointed to the resilience of the team here at Activision Blizzard, certainly every single one of our organizations, all of our players.
And it also, to me, signaled that we were able to take so much time here in the offseason, regroup learn from what worked, what went according to plan, what didn’t go according to plan, and harness that into a very bold 2021. That’s why I think we feel a lot of momentum, a lot of positive energy, despite all of those challenges going into the next few weeks here, as we have all eyes on opening week.
You look back on those first few weeks of kind of real uncertainty and understanding of where world events were headed, but also the esports and Call of Duty‘s place in that world. I was at the L.A. event March 5th, I believe around there? That was the second to last public outing I had. And it’s now February of 2021. Even then I remember just there being this spooky feeling. It was overly calm and quiet and people were kind of on edge, but still were enjoying the matches and you could kind of just sense it wasn’t going to be the same anymore.
Those first few weeks, what do you kind of remember most that’s crystallized in your mind that allowed you to essentially say, “here’s where we are, here’s where we’re headed,” and then obviously learnings that developed out of that. Is there anything that sticks from that time?
It was interesting because it’s really it takes me back to how agile we were able to be, even as I think back to the L.A. home series. Everybody who touched this league, who had a role in this league never doubted for a second our ability to find a new way to orchestrate the rest of the season. That’s part and parcel of just the DNA in the people we have at CDL, kind of that grit and that focus on, look, we have the best and the brightest people, the best and the brightest minds in the business who can come up with creative solutions together to figure out new ways to create an event and new ways to drive success.
So there was definitely this sense of an impending challenge that was going to have to be faced head-on. At the same time, I felt like we were ready to face that challenge. When we were able to stand up our home series events and the remainder of the season in a more virtual-first, content-driven way, having moved out of the live event model so quickly, to me, it’s just one of the most inspiring memories that I have from last year, is that at no point were any of us in a position to think, “We’re going to get shut down” or “We can’t do this.” It was actually the opposite. It was, “How are we going to do this, and how quickly can we do it and make sure that everybody’s safe, make sure everybody can still deliver world-class experiences for our fans?”
The last point I’d say on that is that’s a little bit of a mark, a hallmark of esports in general. It was born in online spaces, as you know, and there’s this scrappy heartbeat to the esports community in general to just find creative ways to come together. So to see our fans turn out, be able to gather virtually for Champs, for example, in such a highly engaged way was such a high point not just from a metric standpoint, not just from the viewership standpoint and breaking those records, but from a teamwork and collaboration and people’s standpoint. It just was a really important moment for us, I think, as we capstone the season last year.
This was a situation where I was never worried about the scalability to move to remote and virtual the way that I was about every other sport. You didn’t have to put yourselves in a situation where you had to create a bubble at DisneyWorld. That’s not something that ever needed to happen. So you could come back to market with changes that were small enough, but also could have long-term, lasting effects on the future of the industry because of what you were able to beta test. I had wondered if you felt almost a sense of responsibility not just to the esports community, but to sports at large, as this outlet, as basically the folks that kind of came back first and gave everyone this thing to focus on that wasn’t the virus, so to speak.
Absolutely, we did, and we often feel that way at CDL, generally speaking, that we want to be leaders in these major conversations about where sports is going, where entertainment is going, where competitive events are going. For us to be able to dig deep into the well with technology and innovation and creative solutions that we had at the ready and, again, just great people, from our players to our GMs and coaches to the league office to, obviously, our owners and brand partners, everybody rallied to say, “Not only do we want to get back to a baseline, we can actually innovate in this new way. We can actually continue to see more growth, more scale.”
You see that here as we’re on the precipice of launching Season 2. Again, that’s why I often feel like through that challenge and being able to thrive through that challenge, it brought real attention not only to esports generally, but attention to the momentum that we’re feeling around CDL in particular, going into this year, where now we’re able to have real entrepreneurial conversations about, “What else do we want to do? What else can we explore?” versus feeling like the conversation is maybe akin to what traditional sports leagues have to focus on, which is, again, getting back to just baseline.
So it’s a real position of strength for us, and it’s been amazing to be a part of that.
It’s something you had mentioned about what’s in the DNA of gaming and of this industry. It hit everyone, even the people who weren’t gaming, even the people who hadn’t bought a console probably since an N64 or those who were just trying to understand or find something else. It really, truly was this moment where it was on full display, but it showcased the power of community. We talked even last year about combating that mindset and the potential stigma that has been surrounding these things for years and years. Well, if there was anything that could expedite that process, it was those few months. I was just curious if you kind of noticed just even a perception change overall or if there’s conversations you’ve been having that have really been enlightening or really exciting for you.
As you head into Season 2 that now we’ve got this establishment, but we also have this inflection point where the future is really untapped, and gaming can be – and this is our tagline that we use at Edge – that gaming can really be for everyone.
You’re 100 percent right in your analysis. I think what’s happened over the last year is we’re seeing a tremendous amount of new fan interest, new potential partner and potential investor interest, because they did see the agility, the resiliency, the viability, frankly, of esports as a product, whether if they were a brand partner and now they understand that we can not only host events, we can drive real, meaningful, highly engaged events with key consumers and key demos. So it’s really been amazing to see how many people now sort of call and say, “How do I get involved?” or “What you guys are doing is really amazing, and I’m ready to tune in. I get it now,” right? You’re right. There was this “aha” moment that happened where e-sports started to stand for something much bigger, just given its roots, but also its ability to innovate so quickly.
I would say even in the offseason, we had huge headlines that really help us continue to galvanize momentum and gather new audiences. You had 100 Thieves, obviously one of the biggest brands in gaming and entertainment, find their way into the league with the LA Thieves, a whole new swath of fans, both from yesteryear as far as Call of Duty esports, because they’re such a legacy brand in the space, but also the new demographics and fans that 100 Thieves reaches now are really leading into the LA Thieves and are really hyped for the start of the season. We had OpTic return to its founding father in Hector Rodriguez. Another huge beat here where fans of not just the franchise, but of what Call of Duty as esports has stood for, for so long coming back into the well, but seeing sort of all of this on display in a much more structured, much more bold form and fashion, given what we’ve focused on here in the last year for CDL.
We’ve got all the team rivalries. We have so many players who were playing in a different uniform last year that are now suiting up on different teams. You’ve got the likes of our champion in Clayster, now a Subliner in New York. So there’s all this tension there between Dallas and New York. There’s the battle of the North between Toronto and Minnesota. All of that didn’t exist a year and a half ago, and now we’re starting to see industry-wide intrigue in what we’ve built and this broader sense of fandom, given how rich and powerful these narrative arcs and these team and player base rivalries have already become so quickly.
The last part I would say is breaking through into the Call of Duty player base. A lot of what we’re announcing, even just in the last few days with our partner in YouTube, being able to offer account linking, being able to reward much more seamlessly for a Call of Duty player with incentives and meaningful in-game enhancements when they do tune in, all of that is part of the recipe for why I think we feel in the driver’s seat, going into 2021, and feel that we’re actually better for it, having taken the learnings from last year, but also seeing all that interest that you talk about that’s really grown and manifested in all these different ways over the last couple of months.
You’ve taken on, obviously, a bigger role as well. I was curious. In the new position, what have you taken into CDL from observing? Obviously, you worked closely with that side to begin with, but in more day-to-day operations with Overwatch, do you think that there are learnings, shared learnings that naturally have come out of it even from October to now that can help strengthen both leagues?
There are. I mean, constantly. We’re so efficient in that way in that we’re able to really think about “what’s working in Overwatch League? What’s working in Call of Duty League?” How do we think about how we cross-pollinate those strengths across both ecosystems and yet still make sure that we’re building unique, differentiated products? Because, obviously, these communities are different, and they expect different things from both of those leagues. So it’s really been awesome to have that type of purview, and I think you even see some of that come through in recent announcements that we’ve made and when you think about even just the season structure for both leagues.
A lot of the focus for both CDL and Overwatch league in the 2021 season will be on tentpole tournaments. We see how much engagement and excitement gets amplified around these major rapid-style tournament beats that we started to really level up last year. We’ve made that really part and parcel of the recipe for both leagues, coming up here in 2021, where we have much more stage-based play and these climactic capstones to each of those stages where the higher the stakes, the higher the prize pool money. But keeping a cadence that fans can really follow and really tune in for creates this ability to think about where do we want to be similar and what have we learned that can be applied to both systems that we think is really the right position for both, even inasmuch as we’ll see, again, unique aspects coming through for each week here in the coming year?
Where does Warzone factor into all this for you guys? I mean, obviously, there was an expectation that it would have success and would be a product that would be very viable for a lot of testing things out, trying out new items, anything that could help out from a map standpoint. But I have to imagine that you guys even were a little bit surprised at the phenomenon that it turned into, with celebrities, major musicians, sports players, people who were probably already gaming in the first place, but really never wore it on their sleeve as heavily as they did, because they simply just didn’t have the ability to do anything else since they were being stuck at home.
Yeah. I mean, it was very interesting timing in that regard, which no one could’ve planned or foreseen. But you’re right. I think Warzone was something to us that said, “Man, there’s still so much on the table,” as far as being able to take CDL and competitive Call of Duty to new audiences within the franchise. The same goes for COD Mobile, right? We’re starting to see just the franchise have this renaissance all over again, breaking its own records, but also expanding into so much more of the globe, because we’re so cross-platform and so multi-platform at that now.
So it’s been amazing. I think what’s been a part of the recipe, again, as we think about CDL Season 2 is how do we appeal to those audiences? The example of tuning in to earn rewards is a great one that can carry over whether you’re a [Battle Royale] fan of the franchise, whether you play campaign, whether you play all three modes of our sport and the multiplayer experience. How do we make that meaningful? How do we speak to our COD player base on their terms?
And you’re right. We’ve also enjoyed similarly what the franchise has seen for so long, being a mega-brand in entertainment, having these A-listers and the biggest household names in sports and music and movies, you name it. They’ve had such passion for this brand. Now, even in the nascent stage of CDL, we’ve seen so many of these household names being a part of CDL and asking us constantly, “How can I be a part of it?” We saw a lot of major celebs coming through our live events, and when we had to move to virtual events, they found their way in with other ways. Many of them have also become part owners in our franchise. It’s just been really amazing. It was awesome to see Post Malone telling everyone in social media last year to root for the Dallas Empire, heading into Championship Weekend, right? That’s something that only Call of Duty can really do as authentically as you see it being done, and it’s been awesome to see these types of big names and personalities coming into CDL.
— Dallas Empire (@DallasEmpire) August 29, 2020
You obviously mentioned some the storylines, which you don’t want to force anything like that, especially early on. There’s some things you kind of maybe expect to happen naturally, that certain cities will fight other cities because they always do in sports, or when a player migrates to another team, that’s going to create a natural rivalry. But part of what was exciting organically of being along for the ride is watching these things that you never even expected come about. But over the course of Season 2, are there other things that maybe you guys are pushing that still allow for that organic entertainment value?
It’s a great question. I would have to be honest and say we are so focused on trying new and different things as often as we can, right, and forego the ones that maybe don’t take, or they don’t scale as quickly as we’d like. But we really believe in that recipe of we are in this nascent stage. We are in an entrepreneurial moment. We are only in our second swing of forever, one might argue. So we should continue to always explore pushing boundaries.
The biggest difference, to your point about organic engagement, is while we at Activision Blizzard and the league and our teams are always sort of thinking about what new ideas can we bring forward, and we will hear as we continue to unfold the 2021 season and even beyond that, there was just such an amazing energy, we even felt, this last weekend, with the Kickoff Classic, which was in many ways purely organic engagement, and yet was outpacing the viewership we were experiencing in our regular season last year. Part of why we wanted to do that was to really start to give a primer to the strength of these rivalries, really showcase these brands that showcase the game, and the game design looks and feels so good. I mean, you could hear that from the community.
You could see it in the gameplay. This is as good-looking a sport as we’ve probably ever enjoyed, and that’s thanks to the partnership that we’ve had over the last several months with our studio partners, with our players, who inform how the competitive experience needs to be designed. You’ve got the shift to PC. We’ve opened up the ability for our pros to choose the controller of their choice, so it just brings in a little bit more of that engagement and that open funnel, the work we’ve done from a viewership enhancement perspective in making these broadcasts visually resonant and beautiful.
Then, again, to see so much engagement from fans, so much smack talk around LA Thieves versus Chicago, or is it going to be Toronto or Minnesota’s year, plus the stellar gameplay, those are the little things that really add up to that sense of boldness, better, that we’re constantly improving on the product, while also layering on these added new ideas that you’re talking about that we’ve either recently announced or will continue to announce in the coming weeks. There’s so much more for the fans to see. Even in the next 14 days, I’d argue, before we start things on February 11th, there’s just so much more to come. That speaks to this spirit of constantly trying to find ways to be better and to deliver better for our fans. So I couldn’t be more happy and I couldn’t be more excited. I think I speak for all of us at the league that we feel really well-positioned to put on a great second season here.
Just to kind of piggyback off of that, how has the relationship with YouTube continued to evolve to where you guys have the product, but you also have this distribution from a partner who’s really been so critical to bringing gaming into the overall societal consciousness and has been the steward for a long time now of basically doing exactly what Call of Duty was doing, anyway, which is making gaming accessible, making gaming relatable, but distributing it to the masses in a way that certain indie games can’t? No matter how powerful, no matter how much heart they have, no matter how creative they are, they’re just not capable of doing something like that with the reach that YouTube and what Call of Duty has.
YouTube has been an incredible partner. Again, we’re super psyched even this week, just seeing how much positive energy and pick-up there’s been about the announcement for account linking to create more of that seamless way not only to watch, to your point, but also search for CDL content. If you want to see any of the matches you missed from the weekend, you can go do that in a matter of seconds on a platform like YouTube. If you want to tune in and set your accounts to be ready to earn rewards, you can do that in a matter of seconds now with a partner like YouTube. If you want to watch non-live, original scripted content or docu-series that we’ve done about CDL, it allows for any part of the fan spectrum to dive in quickly and get the CDL content that they’re looking for immediately.
You just can’t imagine the power of that. To be able to be partners in that, I think we all feel we’re just scratching the surface of how we’re going to maximize that platform experience here, going forward. I even felt that last week. We were joking about the mainstream emergence of esports, to your point, when we were seeing CDL show up in the Presidential Inauguration show, of all things, through a major singer in Ozuna wearing one of our beanies. No one expected that, but, again, it stood for something much broader. Yet people who didn’t know maybe what Call of Duty League was or has have not yet really made it a part of their everyday experience are now able to go to a platform like YouTube, search for that, and get served up our kickoff classic content or other reasons to watch content that we’re delivering each and every day on the platform. So it creates that 360 funnel for fan development as well as we begin to show up in these more mainstream cultural places.
Singer @ozuna was wearing a Call of Duty League beanie during his performance in the Biden-Harris inaugural celebration
— Call of Duty News (@charlieINTEL) January 21, 2021
What does success look like for you in season two? What are the benchmarks that you’re trying to reach, and kind of knowing that this is a handicapped situation even now with the year, so there’s some house money you get to play with, but what are some of the things that you guys definitely are honing in on, moving forward here?
We’re going to continue to look at viewership around our live major moments in time. When I say majors, I really mean those major tournaments in particular, right? With our five stages in the regular season and restructuring the format of the season to have these pinnacle moments, where these high stakes tournament beats happen five times throughout the regular season are really important moments for us and how we think about bringing as much value and content and reasons to watch to those moments, because they’re so compelling. So really thrilled to think about viewership aggregation in that way, and then certainly just how do we continue to stretch into culture? How do we continue to think about fashion collaborations, partnerships and sponsorship collaborations driving not only the business goals that we all have here, not only at the league level, but also amongst our ownership group, but perhaps more importantly, just putting CDL in places where our Call of Duty player base can really have more of an attachment to what this league represents.
These are the best of the best players in the entire player base, and now we can really put them in a position to be more seen and to create more bridges back into our Warzone community, our MP community, our mobile community, and can really put this on display so that more of our player base really comes into the funnel. So I’ll be looking for those two things in particular, but I think we’re in for a fun ride. We’re super excited about what’s to come and can’t wait to get started here on February 11th.
This interview has been edited and briefly condensed for clarity.