Q&A: Johanna Faries on Esports, CDL Phenomenon

    • Under Faries' leadership, Call of Duty League pivoted during the pandemic swiftly and successfully.
    • CDL has seen steady gains in viewership since its debut a year ago, in line with the swelling popularity of esports.

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Johanna Faries took her pro sports league and returned to live competition less than five weeks after the global shutdown one year ago. The Head of Leagues for Activision Blizzard and Call of Duty League (CDL) Commissioner capitalized on esports’ unique ability to bounce back faster than stick-and-ball sports. 

CDL’s transition from live-stadium competitions to remote online events obviously wasn’t an option for traditional sports. But Faries’ success in pulling it off for the inaugural season was immense — and speaks to the continued massive rise of esports.

Other live sports’ 2020 viewership dipped dramatically during their seasons and championships among the 18-34 age bracket (ranging from 8% to 67%, Activision Blizzard told Front Office Sports). 

But CDL was up 23% year-over-year for its regular season and over 100% for the championship event. CDL also saw steady increases among all esports throughout 2020 on its YouTube channel: from a 27% share of live esports in Q1 to 44% by Q3, when the league hit its stride.

Sunday’s final match of CDL’s opening weekend of play was the most-watched regular-season game in the league’s history, and the first slate of matches were nearly a 50% improvement over a year ago.

Faries, a former NFL executive, chatted with Front Office Sports prior to this weekend’s opening of the new CDL season. One of the most powerful women in sports spoke about her singular perspective leading one of America’s most popular pro leagues, keeping the game clean, and how the former sports “genre” is now a certified sports phenomenon. 

Front Office Sports: The pandemic interrupted the CDL’s first season, idling the 12 teams around the U.S., France and Canada. Take us through how you pivoted when COVID spread globally and you had to scrub arena shows.  

Johanna Faries: 2020 as you can imagine was as challenging for us as it was for everybody. But I would say there were moments that I think were major feathers in the cap — not just for CDL, but for esports more broadly.

You think about the fact that a lot of traditional sports shut down, then what we were able to do in a matter of weeks. That speaks to the strength of our technology and the strength of our product that we could start to bring back elite pro competition in a world-class way, albeit in a different way.

FOS: This season you’re going to 4-on-4, down a player per team from your first season and a throwback to CDL’s precursor, Call of Duty World League. What was behind the change? 

JF: We had a lot of feedback sessions actually over the last six months or so with players, GMs, coaches and certainly with members of the league office. We were just kind of assessing gameplay and thinking about where we wanted to take things. In many ways it’s a return to roots. 

In those sessions, we definitely got the sense of the overwhelming preference to return to the playing style that the community would be really receptive to — which they have been. But also when you think about just general fan development, we really liked the way spacing, pacing, and strategy unfolds on these maps in these modes.

FOS: Popular U.K.-based gamer Vikkstar announced late last month that he was quitting Call of Duty: Warzone over hackers ruining the experience. Activision Blizzard announced a couple days later that it banned 60,000 accounts for using cheating software. How do you go about ensuring your league isn’t ripe for players gaining an unfair advantage? 

JF: From an esports perspective, making sure that we are maintaining the integrity of the game and maintaining a fair and balanced experience for all involved is always going to be mission critical. 

We feel really good about how the pro play is going to unfold here. There are a lot of steps that our league office, our teams, or our players themselves are continuing to take just to make sure that’s not part of the experience. We want to make sure that our pros are well-equipped to do what they do and to put on a great show. I am confident about the mitigations we’ve put in place.

FOS: You left the NFL after nearly a dozen years, serving as vice president of club business development before you joined Activision Blizzard in 2018. Outside of yourself, interim NWHL Commissioner Tyler Tumminia and NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird, there aren’t many women in league leadership roles. What’s your experience been like having switched to the male-dominated gaming industry?

JF: Look, I think the opportunity to sit in these types of chairs is rare across a number of fronts, but you’d be surprised. Both from the NFL experience that I had and even now here at the CDL as Head of Leagues, there are so many women who are making an impact each and every day. 

They may not necessarily be even close to the majority — and of course we want to see more representation because it only makes us better — but I’ve not felt alone in the process. And I will say having made the transition [to gaming], one of the things that I’ve appreciated is, generally, the very inclusive and progressive perspective that gamers have. 

FOS: The continued popularity of esports, and the fact many pro sports franchises have created their own esports teams, has done a lot to legitimize this sports genre. How has the level of acceptance to esports from the general public grown since you arrived in your role? 

JF:  It’s been amazing, right? Even in just the last two years that I’ve had this role here with Activision Blizzard, the amount of mainstream interest and validation that I, for one, did not see happening at the clip that it’s happening now, compared to three, four, even five years ago has been phenomenal. 

I think it points to this general cultural appreciation and adoption for these new leagues and what they can do, what they can represent and the high-quality experiences that they’re delivering. It’s been great.

We want to see esports grow as an industry and we’re continuing to see more and more personnel, talent, franchise owners, and investors coming in from traditional spaces into our space. I think that bodes well for how quickly we’re going to see growth here — not just for CDL and the Overwatch League, but again for the entire industry.