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Episode 37: Head of Leagues ft. Joseph “Volamel” Franco and Wim Stocks

Imad Khan October 12, 2020 22

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With Johanna Fairies taking over as Head of Leagues for both Call of Duty and Overwatch, reporter Joseph “Volamel” Franco gives his insight. Also, with collegiate esports continuing to grow, HBCUs are now wanting to get into the mix. CEO of Collegiate StarLeague, Wim Stocks, joins the show to give the rundown on everything the organization is doing to bring HBCUs into the esports fold.


Head of Leagues ft. Joseph ‘Volamel’ Franco and Wim Stocks

Mon, 10/5 11:16AM • 24:15


esports, hbcus, overwatch league, games, league, leagues, overwatch, schools, csl, events, year, nba, wim, talent, players, european, hbcu, spitfire, activations, activision blizzard


Wim Stocks, Joseph Franco, Imad Khan

Imad Khan  00:03

What’s up everybody this is FTW with Imad Khan. I’m your host Imad Khan. And joining me today is Joseph “Volamel” Franco. Hello, and later on we’ll have collegiate starlink CEO Wim stocks on to talk about HBCUs but first Overwatch League. A lot of news has come out this past week from the league changing its executive structure to London Spitfire completely firing its entire coaching staff. There’s a lot to discuss, but let’s start at the top. Johanna Faries is the current commissioner of the Call of Duty League and Overwatch League Commissioner Pete Vlastelica has stepped down, but instead of finding a new hire to replace them Fairies is taking over as Head of Leagues overseeing both Overwatch and Call of Duty. The inaugural Call of Duty League season was a bit of a mixed bag. So Valvo let’s roll back to 2019. What have you been hearing as to why Pete Vlastelica stepped down.

Joseph Franco  00:47

As for why he stepped down that’s definitely unclear but we have seen a lot of former talent Monte Cristo, DoA, you know, these these kind of pillars of esports kind of coming out and being a little excited being you know, being kind of ecstatic that he’s left there were some early reports I believe in 2019 that you know, morale was down Blizzard and you know, in specifically in the esports sector because of all these you know, old traditional sports heads coming in and you know, maybe not having the the right vision to be politically you know, sound with it. So yeah, that’s that’s kind of the gist of what’s going on thus far. A lot of people are tapping John Spector is being the new Commissioner whereas Faries is heading you know, the leagues as a whole and kind of managing both of them but delegating, you know, maybe a position to each league so that at least somebody has some sort of control there, which all seems fine and dandy. I think Spector has a great reputation within the the Overwatch League community I think he’s definitely a forward facing figure and would do a good job at it. I’ve heard good things from Fairies, so definitely a sign of the times.

Imad Khan  02:00

It is a little bizarre that Fairies is taking over both leagues are overseen both leagues I don’t know I’m trying to think of like a real sports equivalent to it, but I really can’t like the idea of you know, one Commissioner looking over the NBA and the NFL. It just they seem so separate. But I guess in you know, it is still Activision Blizzard is still one company, ultimately, they are playing video games. So I guess there is this lumping together? Do you think there’s kind of a mistake by Activision Blizzard to kind of delegate this major role to oversee two leagues?

Joseph Franco  02:26

I think it is a little bit over, over optimistic for one person to be able to kind of understand two of these very different communities to a degree where you can properly you know, change rules delegate, you know, what resources need to go where I think the Overwatch league in particular still needs to kind of figure that out for itself. Whereas Call of Duty, you know, I think that’s an entirely different beast. So having one person to do both jobs feels a little optimistic. I’d love for her to kind of like build out a cabinet around her and really kind of attack these in their own individual lights, instead of just like, throwing her into the and into the den of wolves and trying to figure it out. It’s, it seems difficult to say the least side, I’d love for her to kind of have have people under her to kind of manage them individually.

Imad Khan  03:19

Well, you know, let’s step away from kind of the executive structure. Let’s go on to some of the teams right. So there, you know, there’s been some shake ups happening, and there have been some awards being given out. But I do want to start with London Spitfire, who, you know, had an incredible season. Well, I guess the first season, but then have completely fallen off and have have fired its entire coaching staff. So based on what you’re hearing kind of what’s happening over at Spitfire.

Joseph Franco  03:41

So back in June, there were multiple reports coming out about how London was entering this agreement with I believe they’re an entertainment firm called Guinevere Capital, who is also the majority shareholder in the LEC franchise. So the League of Legends, European side of things, Excel, which is a UK UK based esports organization, if memory serves me. So this kind of partnership, at least in my mind hints at you know, more of a local and that’s what all of the the press statements are saying that you know, they’re they’re looking at more of a local UK based, you know, attachment or logistics or you know, a lot of these buzzwords, but it just points you in the direction of maybe shifting or European. Instead of trying to attack the Overwatch League as a full Korean team, which they tried this year, presumably on a budget or with resources being a little limited. It didn’t necessarily land as well as they could have. Obviously COVID is a thing and they traveled from North America to Korea to participate, but it was it wasn’t it wasn’t strong. This wasn’t the the London Spitfire that won the 2018 you know, Overwatch league championship. This this, this team has kind of fallen from grace. They look like they’re at least pointing in the direction of possibly bringing in European talent, possibly restructuring around European focusing, you know, more on that endemic UK based audience and trying to build that out as we hopefully, you know, COVID COVID, depending enter back into the homestand model, enter back into this geo location that was kind of the the crux of the Overwatch League, building that base out so they at least can, you know, have a have a successful launch into that, let’s say. So, all of that to say it looks like they’re restructuring more towards the European market or, as a European team, they have this very strong contenders team, which is the amateur division of the Overwatch League, doing incredibly well being one of the the storied amateur teams, they look like they’re maybe bringing that team up, or at least tapping some of those players to kind of come up and participate for 2021. So it’s, it’s definitely interesting. There’s definitely enough talent in Europe to go around. I think there’s at least you can you can make a good I’d say, bid packed team with some of the top European talent, depending on what kind of resources they have. You know, definitely could. Could be good. I’m bullish. I’m excited to see what the New London Spitfire looks like there’s, but it does look European to say the least.

Imad Khan  06:32

You know, how has Overwatch as a game been faring in Korea? Is it still kind of like one of these topdog games that’s just creating tons of talent? Or are things kind of shifting there, which is allowing other areas of the world to kind of move up?

Joseph Franco  06:45

I definitely think they’re, they’re turning out talent as much as you know, we we tap that? Well, they continually are able to field the young talented players, they’re still kids that aren’t even able to join the Overwatch league yet, that, you know, we’re definitely eyeing to become, you know, stars of the future that are like 15-16 like that the talent is never the question. It’s usually just the interest in from every kind of loose metric, whether it be the PC bang stats, or you know, the popularity based on you know, Twitch and YouTube numbers. It looks to be doing fine. It definitely isn’t growing. And that’s the kind of concern with games like Valorant coming out with games on the horizon that are you know, a little bit more interesting or might be more for the Korean market. We need something that’s the kind of general theme with Overwatch right now. We need that shot in the arm to kind of get interest back up to get people interested back in the IP so that we don’t have this bleed off. Korea is definitely an Asia in particular is probably where we’re doing the best weirdly enough, I won’t I won’t say that we’re doing the best in Korea. That’s definitely disingenuous if it came across that way. But we’re not doing bad in Asia as a whole. Korea in particular, definitely has incredible incredibly talented players that we can you know, call up at any time but it’s it’s more of a an interesting can we kind of keep them interested? Can we even keep our own players interested in not, you know, dispersed to Valorant it we have a unique game on our hands, but it’s definitely hard we need we need Overwatch 2 that’s what we’re all holding our breath for. So hopefully in November we’ll get some news or I guess it’s not November anymore. I guess it’s early 2021. So well we’ll we’ll have to see.

Imad Khan  08:27

On Saturday, we saw the North America All Star game, you know what was and there were some cool little events like a Widowmaker kind of tournament or match I would say you know, what are some key takeaways from you know, this kind of light hearted more fun event?

Joseph Franco  08:41

It’s definitely Overwatch in particular is more lighthearted. It is you know, or animated. It is kind of we have fun I think people enjoy you know, not taking the game and it’s it’s narratives incredibly seriously. We kind of had like the the birth I wouldn’t say it’s definitely not the birth of tiny Overwatch this this game mode where you know, all the heroes are like very tiny. And as they do more damage, they increase in size and the game kind of scales with them. And it’s pretty funny. We had obviously all the awards coming out coach moon of the Shanghai dragons winning Coach of the Year, Rookie of the Year. Going out it’s it’s it’s good to see everybody, you know, all the awards landed incredibly well couldn’t really disagree too much with any of them roll stars were a hit. That this is all good. Everything about the all star event was good. The worry the problem I hate to go back to it I hate to be the curmudgeon is that shot in the arm. We have seen continual growth across esports in COVID. In the COVID era, Overwatch, to be fair has transitioned to YouTube, maybe there is a bit of a transitionary process to that but we really haven’t  seen much in the way of growth. So 2021 as much as you know, I’m sure people are tired of hearing about it, it is going to be another pivotal year where we are kind of on that threshold of like, okay, what’s happening? Why aren’t we you know, where are we? What identity are we we’re kind of in that puberty stage, we need to figure this out as we go ahead. Because if we don’t have geolocation, if that’s not a well, we can tap then what are we going to do? So 2021 is definitely going to be important.

Imad Khan  10:29

I guess my final thought is that in 2021, I wonder if Johanna Fairies she’s already talking about possibly making Call of Duty league kind of a, you know, a bubble league like the NBA has done? I want to see, you know, maybe that would be done for the Overwatch league as well so they can start competing in person. And yeah, I do want to see you know what more Activision Blizzard can do with the to to partnership because unlike Twitch, where whenever you log on, there’s a sea of games and you kind of see exactly which games are being played live. Even though I’m subscribed to the Overwatch League, YouTube channels and whatnot, I still don’t get these notifications. I still like you know, if I’m a lay person who’s just kind of sort of interested in it, you know, where is the information on YouTube telling me like, hey, tune into this live event that’s happening right now. And I do feel that YouTube is kind of failing in that regard. But with that ball mill, thank you so much for jumping on. course.

Joseph Franco  11:12

Thank you.

Imad Khan  11:13

And now I’m joined by Wim Stoxx, CEO of collegiate star league.

Wim Stocks  11:17

Hi Imad, how are you?

Imad Khan  11:19

Earlier this year, it was announced that CSL along with Twitch we’re building an Esports league for historically black colleges and universities. Esports has largely been white and Asian with very little black representation, especially in PC games. The 16 team HBCU eSports league will include Morehouse Lincoln University, Stillman college, among others. collegiate esports has been around for a while, according to the international game developers Association 83% of black teenagers play video games. So Wim, what have been some of the hurdles preventing HBCUs from entering the space in the past?

Wim Stocks  11:51

Well, thanks a lot again from for engaging with us on on this we’re super proud of this initiative. And and it’s been it’s been great to see the the wonderful response we’ve been getting, as a result of our announcement. This partnership with the HBCUs through the organization HBCU Esports. alliance with the nickname in The Yard, we are thrilled to be their partners and bringing all of our esports support, which is not just around competitive play and participation but also helping these schools build bigger presence for esports and gaming on their campuses through curriculum design. We’re helping students with internships, we’re helping schools build into their individual and their own customized invitation events that bring more presence for esports on campus, either as in a live setting or as a virtual setting. We been doing intramural leagues, meaning competition among students at the same college again, all of this coming to bear to help schools build more presence for esports. Really, the biggest challenge was just educating the schools about the opportunity around eSports. Still, so many schools aren’t aware that Nielsen just published a report that 90% of kids coming out of high school going into college would consider themselves gamers and that’s not just a hobby, this is gaming. Now as a lifestyle. It’s a as you’re well aware, millennials and Gen Z’s they don’t consume entertainment in a traditional way or an unconventional way don’t watch television, they don’t go to movies, they don’t read magazines, when they’re entertaining themselves or consuming media, they’re doing it online and when they’re online, largely are playing games. So this education about what students do, how they embrace gaming, and how and how immersed they are in gaming is really a central point. And it’s not just the HBCUs there are a lot of schools still aren’t grasping, the, the relevance or the importance of esports and getting gaming to their students that they’re serving and, and that they’re teaching. So but that was the probably the biggest challenge. But it was it was quickly overcome where I spoke a year ago at the White House Initiative on HBCUs. And it was well known this was going it’s going back a fall ago and really well known that what these opportunities were how big esports is becoming in the in the US college realm is becoming a really important factor in the overall ecosystem for esports. The acknowledgement was there then knowledge of it and that and the need to to embrace it was well known and has been well known for the last couple years but how to do it how to activate how to get involved. You know, what, what are the best resources to bring to bear on a on a on a college as it enters esports? Are these teams, the teams they support? Are they going to be sanctioned? Are they going to be student driven? All of those are considerations for the HBCUs. And we for the for the last two years. I know that there’s been a lot of you know, given this, the social unrest and impact from from the past summer, a lot of attention going to, to HBCUs. But we’ve been actually working on this for the last two years, through a handful of administrators that came to us and said, we would like to know more about esports we would love to get bring our schools into the esports realm, we’d love to give our students the opportunities to be involved in esports, not just from a competitive perspective, as I, as I said, but also the our careers in new sports, their their careers in gaming, and we as of this collection of schools, HBCUs don’t really have a lot of that expertise or the resources to, to bring to bear on that. So that’s how this got started. And, and it’s great to great to see and to say that the adoption has been quick you you mentioned 16 schools, we’re actually now up to 53 schools that have allowed that have come in for participation in our leagues and our our events and other other services and support that we’re bringing so and so there are a total of 104 HBCUs. And we’ve got a we’ve got a really nice assembly of schools that are that are interested they’re going to be involved at least from a competitive perspective to start then we are bringing our raft of services and support to help them build more substantial more substance around esports and gaming for their schools

Imad Khan  16:16

Is there going to be a an increased focus on like the more popular titles like League of Legends, like Counter Strike these PC games that have generally been the largest money drivers in esports?

Wim Stocks  16:27

As we start our programming for the schools, we’ve had an overwhelming call for two titles in specific NBA 2K and Madden. Now, in the overall scheme of things as you as you rightly point out, they are much smaller communities of competitive play than say League of Legends or or Fortnite or Counter Strike as you also say, and we do have those, those kind of leagues running and the rest of CSL but for the HBCUs we were wanting to start with start small, get some great interaction get some great engagement going and we also have great support coming from publishers have those games and in the case of the NBA 2K game obviously the publisher is take two 2K Not only is the publisher been supporting us also the the league itself the NBA 2K League, the Professional League has also been leaning in heavily to to help us get these programs off the ground. Same thing can be said from the Electronic Arts side EA side with their support coming for from for Madden. So that’s where we’re starting. But to your exact point our goal is to bring more league opportunities more league options for for the schools and we will expand to Rocket League this fall are going to be a series of Invitational events. We haven’t announced them yet, so I won’t, I won’t reveal them in a big way now but once we get into January, that’s when our official CSL leagues will start in collaboration with aga the yard and with the HBCU schools so so we will have we’re walking this fall and then we’re going to be jumping in big time in January. In our particular set of discussions with the administrators for our programming and the relationships we’ll have with HBCUs will be really at the administration level. So the schools these will be sanctioned programs will be sanctioned teams that the schools will be forming the schools that we’ve been in conversations with can’t really get their heads around shooter game but we do see League of Legends we do see Rocket League we do see other other DotA 2 we do see those titles coming in to be a big part of the mix for HBCUs but the shooters at least at this point in time this is going to also be a walk before you run kind of dynamic.

Imad Khan  18:37

You know one area in which there has been good representation has been the fighting games community. I mean what are you guys doing to embrace the fighting games community?

Wim Stocks  18:45

We have offered for the last few years we have offered for and this is now I’ll say this from the from the the superstructure of CSL we’ve we’ve had a series of Smash leagues Smash Ultimate most recently but also Smash Melee and Smash 4 pass we’re really moving because most of our events this year are going to be online obviously the pandemic is shutting down most live events but so so smash ultimate is going to be a big title for us for for the fall as well as Street Fighter we are bringing back our street fighter league that was in place last year we bundled them we put put them together into a fighting game circuit we call it the CSL FGC, but both games standalone they both have both have their own leagues. They both have their own standings, but we’ve from from the sake of most of those activations last year were were live events as we get these league started for the fall will be will be online iterations but yes, we couldn’t agree more and and we know that the HBCUs and, and the black students in that obviously fighting games are a big part of their appeal and the community there too.

Imad Khan  19:50

And then my final question, Latoya Peterson did a really interesting talk a few years ago at the Game Developers Conference in which he kind of broke down the kind of racial makeup of esport and why there were so few on the PC and and more on the console and and it came down a lot to like affordability and how consoles are treated as like a system for the entire family. While PC is seen as a very singular system for like one person. Just like traditional sports for a kid who wants to become a professional in basketball or baseball, or football, they have to start at a young age. So like to a certain extent, right? If a kid wants to really go pro and like let’s say League of Legends, they wouldn’t start in college, they would likely start years back when they’re much younger. So I mean, to what extent would CSL help develop that infrastructure for kids at a young age to get into these PC games, whereas like that would be generally unaffordable for a lot of people.

Wim Stocks  20:43

In our mix. And really, for the first time, this season, we are doing a lot more to develop funnels and develop developmental ladders coming out of high school. And it’s a result of our new corporate parents that has as a reach not only a collegiate reach, but also a reach into high school. And we’re working with a number of the State High School Athletic associations to be to bring esports activations organization to help them galvanize more school sanctioned support for esports. Not down now into the high school level. So we’ve always been sort of college and up our meaning caught both in the college, sort of the amateur realm, as well as the overall general market of amateur esports. But, but as a result of, of our new parent company, we are extending now into high school, and we do see the need for a big funnel coming out of high school helping players, you hit it on the head that contrast to a traditional sport. If you’re a baseball player, and you’re you’re six years old, and your parents think that you’re pretty good, and they want to put you on a path to becoming a pro, you pretty much know what what you need to do. So that path in the in the developmental ladder for a player in traditional sports is very well known no matter what the sport is, in eSports, that largely doesn’t exist. And so much of what we’ve done is as collegiate star league as well as on our other brand or other activation World Gaming Network is to help players who are aspiring to be better to help them understand what it’s going to take to get from point A to point B to point C. And we do that through our programming, we do that through our content, we do it through our events whereby a number of our of our college leagues when when we combinate, in the Grand Finals, at the end of the year, the winning team or the winning players will get a seat in a pro major. So we’re working closely with the NBA 2K that a that a player coming out of our NBA 2K collegiate league will be a high profile in the combine. So, so this notion of path to the pros is really important and you know, the the pro ranks of, of esports needs more of this and the publishers that we work with all are are liking what we do because that’s the value we bring. We are bringing organization we’re bringing galvanisation and we’re showing aspiring players, what it’s going to take to get from their amateur status to if they really are aspiring to be better. We show them the way to get there. That is a big part of our who we are what our brand stands for our mission and our overall place in the in the esports ecosystem.

Imad Khan  23:28

Well, with that thank you so much for jumping on my

Wim Stocks  23:30

Imad, thanks for having me.

Imad Khan  23:32

And that was FTW with Imad Khan. If you liked the show, please rate subscribe and share full transcripts of the show can be found at ftwimad.com. If you’d like to follow Volamel on Twitter he can be found @volamel. To follow Wim Stocks and everything going on collegiate starlink follow him at @wiiim or @CSLlol or @collegiatecsgo. To follow me in my writing over at the New York Times The Washington Post and elsewhere follow me @imad on Twitter. Annie Pei is our producer if you have any questions reach out to her at Pei_Annie on Twitter. And Ron lines are researcher. With that, we’ll catch you guys next week.

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