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From the end zone to Warzone: Johanna Faries on trading the NFL for the Call of Duty League

Activision Blizzard’s second franchise esports competition has endured a far from ideal debut season, but Call of Duty League commissioner Johanna Faries has always had one eye on the future.

by Sam Carp
From the end zone to Warzone: Johanna Faries on trading the NFL for the Call of Duty League

Johanna Faries admits that she was “loving every part” of a dream job at the National Football League (NFL) when video game publisher Activision Blizzard came calling in 2018.

At the time a rising star within the NFL, where she had made her way up the ranks from an entry level role to hold several vice president positions, Faries would have been forgiven for resisting the allure of an esports industry that, despite its many signs of promise, still has a lot of catching up to do to its traditional counterpart. But by her own account, Faries has not got to where she is today by staying within the confines of a comfort zone.

“The only reason I occupy this role is because I avoided the trappings of being too close-minded in what I thought success looked like for myself,” says Faries (right), now the commissioner of Activision’s Call of Duty League (CDL). “I could not be a bigger believer in not being too obsessed with traditional paths, in taking more risk, in taking more unexpected adventures.”

Named among SportsPro’s ten influencers for 2020, as well as being included as one of Fortune’s 40 Under 40 most influential young people in business, Faries is invariably modest when asked about her personal achievements to date – a virtue which becomes all the more apparent when she is reminded that her appointment in July last year made her the first female commissioner of an esports league.

“I don’t think I heard that until maybe a few months ago,” she laughs. “While it’s a huge honour - and it doesn’t mean to diminish anything about that - I often say I don’t want that to be the story. I wouldn’t have wanted that to be the story about why I got hired, and I certainly wouldn’t want that to be the story necessarily about what success looks like.

“I think success looks like when there’s 50 women commissioners one day doing whatever they do alongside 50 male commissioners, and everybody’s thriving, sharing information and supporting one another – that’s where we need to get to.”

Describing her own experience of the sports and entertainment industry as “very positive” and “very supported”, Faries notes that there are progressive trends in the business that might be "surprising" and bust a few myths. Faries' own path, which so far has taken her from the richest sports league in the world to the helm of the competitive gaming efforts of one of the most successful video game titles of all time, is certainly one that young women starting out in the industry can look to aspire to.

Faries labels her first 12 months in the commissioner role as a “whirlwind” – it has, after all, involved everything from finding franchises to navigating a global pandemic - but an equally “hyper productive” period that has seen the CDL morph from concept to creation at breakneck speed.

Launched with an event in Minneapolis at the end of January, the 12-team CDL now stands alongside the Overwatch League (OWL) as one of Activision's two major city-based franchise esports competitions. However, the Overwatch title cannot claim to have exuded the same cross-generational dominance over the gaming industry as Call of Duty (COD).

The makers of COD claim that, since its initial release in 2003, the first-person shooter video game has generated more revenue than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and double that of the cumulative box office of Star Wars. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was the best-selling video game of 2019, a year which also saw COD titles collectively rake in a reported US$1.1 billion from sales and more than 100 million people download the free-to-play Call of Duty Mobile game in its first month online.

The appeal and the relevance of Call of Duty as a brand cannot be overstated.

It is no wonder, then, that Faries views the CDL as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to take a big swing at something she herself has said can become one of the biggest sports leagues in the world.

“The appeal and the relevance of Call of Duty as a brand cannot be overstated,” Faries declares. “It was likewise part of the appeal for me. I was thinking, do I believe in esports? Do I believe esports leagues are going to be the sports leagues of the future? Yes, no question.

“But there’s something very specific about Call of Duty in my mind and why, for me, the role was so specific to that IP, because of the dominance that it’s had, because of the mega brand positioning it has in so many different spaces. You think about how many influencers, celebrities, athletes, actors are obsessed with this game, and have been for going on 16, 17 years…it’s a part of who they are, it’s a part of their identity.

“It speaks to the starting point being so advantageous when you think about Call of Duty even just through that lens of cultural relevance and mainstream appeal. I love that, I love that as a lever for us, and something that can drive more mass culture stakes for an industry I would argue is really starving for that.”

Fans queue patiently outside the Minneapolis Armory ahead of the CDL's launch weekend event (Photo Credit: Call of Duty League)

Given the cultural phenomenon that COD has become, it should not be a surprise to find that the CDL was oversubscribed with offers for its limited number of multi-million dollar franchise slots. Faries says the selection process was aided by her first year at Activision, which was spent defining what a city-based COD esports league might look like and identifying the markets where fans would be most likely to rally around a CDL team.

Eventually 12 franchises were awarded across 11 cities and four countries, with ten of the ownership groups coming across from the OWL. Nine of the teams are based in the United States, with one each in Canada, the United Kingdom and France.      

“I hope and expect that we continue to see demand for the league, especially now that it’s launched and we’re strengthening the product each and every day,” Faries continues. “The process was great in as much as we had so much learning already from having launched Overwatch League, and it set us up well to learn about that process, how we think about markets, how we think about what the right owner profile looks like for CDL specifically.

“I think part of the calculus for Call of Duty - which was very different from Overwatch League - is where players congregate and the markets that light up around Call of Duty as a game franchise. While it has worldwide dominance across all platforms, it made the most sense to really start where COD is most relevant and most highly engaged, which is North America and Western Europe. We picked that on the map well before we decided to take the vision to market.”

The CDL's debut season has featured 12 franchises across four countries (Photo Credit: Call of Duty League)

In changing lanes, Faries believes she has gone from an "incredibly saturated and maximised product” to a growth project where the ceiling remains largely unknown. However, that does not mean the Harvard University graduate will not be drawing on the experience gained in her 12-year stint at the NFL offices in New York, where at different times she was responsible for areas ranging from sponsorship and sales to retail marketing and fan development.

Those that have made similar moves to Faries have often pointed out that esports organisations make much of their revenue in the same way traditional sports do, and the CDL is no different. The league is streamed exclusively by YouTube Gaming, which dropped a reported US$160 million to prise exclusive rights to Activision’s esports competitions away from Amazon-owned Twitch. Sponsors on board for this year’s inaugural season include PlayStation, Mountain Dew AMP, Outerstuff and Mitchell & Ness.

Esports is better positioned for the future than more analogue, more traditional forms of competitive content and sports leagues.

“There probably isn’t a week that goes by that I’m not pulling from past experiences,” considers Faries, who says she wants the CDL to emulate the NFL by becoming appointment viewing for fans. “I think that was part of the reason why Activision Blizzard felt that people like myself coming from those traditional sports properties and industries could speak a language that is very beneficial to thinking about how we replicate certain things and formulas and structures that we’ve seen in traditional sports leagues that we do want to apply here.

“But I would argue that it can also be a trap. While the traditional sports formulas are incredibly powerful, incredibly viable and you don’t need to reinvent wheels unnecessarily, gaming, virtual and digital-first experiences are in my estimation the future of where sports and entertainment more broadly is going to go.

“So I actually think that esports is better positioned for the future than more analogue, more traditional forms of competitive content and sports leagues. That’s the appeal to me, is not over confining ourselves or constraining ourselves to those models, but having them inform how we grow.”

NFL star Todd Gurley competes in a Call of Duty League Hype Battle at the Los Angeles Home Series (Photo Credit: Call of Duty League)

Faries believes the CDL can gain traction through influencer partnerships, celebrity engagement and fashion brand collaborations, but also from its live event experience. The league introduced ‘Hype Battles’ as part of its debut season, essentially pitting local celebrities against each other – Premier League player Jamaal Lascelles and Dutch DJ Nicky Romero took part at the CDL’s London home series in February – in popular COD game modes.

All of that, though, is of course on hold for now. Garnering loyalty for any new sports league has proven difficult at the best of times, but rarely have those fledgling competitions been unable to even physically interact with their fans. The CDL and its teams had barely had a chance to show people what they were all about when the inaugural season was put on hold after just four live events due to the coronavirus pandemic, which in March forced the league to cancel all live events for the remainder of the campaign and pivot to online competition.

“It’s a little heart-breaking because you’re ready to rock,” admits Faries, “I’d say almost more so because we had four events under our belt and every one of those was stellar in terms of production value and fans coming through for multiple days on end.

“But on many levels I think being able to overcome the pandemic as far as the challenges it presented, by not being paralysed, by not being shutdown outright, and being able to take the five, six, eight weeks it took us to really optimise for online competitions…is an incredible feat.

“It’s not something we are interested in pounding our chest about. This is incredibly challenging and no one wants it this way. It’s severe, what the world is going through. But we’ve learned a tremendous amount in having to be resilient in that way.”

Resilience is a skill that businesses will need in the wake of the pandemic, and Faries seems the calming presence many organisations would have been grateful for in the first half of 2020. While the CDL’s much-anticipated debut season has not been quite what the organisers had in mind, Faries is confident that the league is now even better positioned to serve its followers when normal service resumes.

“It’s been a whirlwind of emotions – both good and bad – in light of having to switch,” Faries says. “It’s such an amazing storyline that validates once again why esports can position itself as a content experience of the future, even in light of some of the most challenging things the world has ever faced. So that excites me on a level, and it’s been an incredibly fruitful and highly productive time since March.

“Now we can sit back and start thinking about - God willing, come a vaccine, if and when the world triumphs over Covid - how we can make live event experiences really excellent and amazing, as well as non-live remote online driven experiences really amazing.

“And that is arguably a position of strength that I never expected to have at this point in time.”