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What must e-sports’ first female commissioner do to become a true trailblazer? Turn a profit

January 15, 2020, 9:00 PM UTC

As the first (and only) female commissioner of an e-sports league, Johanna Faries serves a prestigious, high-profile role within competitive video gaming. And as a former NFL vice president of club business development, she brings a traditional sports background and experience to the post. But laurels and pedigrees aside, as the commissioner of the new Call of Duty League, Faries faces the same hurdle everyone else in e-sports leadership must overcome: Bringing the outfit to profitability.

“To see how the NFL has grown the sport of football in these insanely impressive ways from different viewpoints during my time there was a leg-up,” says Faries of her nearly 12-year run at the league. “We truly believe a Call of Duty League has the potential to do that—if not more—just because of what e-sports can bring to the table.”

The Call of Duty League is made up of 12 teams across the U.S., Canada, England, and France and is run and operated by Activision-Blizzard. Its first season kicks off later this month, when teams will turn the popular first-person shooter game into a professional battlefield.

Overall, when it comes to e-sports, optimism abounds. Its arenas sell out. High-profile investors include Michael Jordan and Drake. And the flashy tech that comes with the territory can even leave e-sports heavyweights wide-eyed. But these leagues have yet to yield big fruit—and Faries isn’t arguing that point.

“I don’t think any of us got into this game for a quick buck, if you will,” Faries says. “That’s not what this enterprise is asking—this is a sports league of the future.”

That’s why Faries is using decades of winning business lessons from the gridiron to jump-start Call of Duty League. For instance, she has developed uniforms for the teams—with jersey, hoodie, and bomber jacket styles that embrace the “sneaker culture” of players—to help fans distinguish between teams. The league is also building a city-based league structure “that is very much a reference back to the NFL’s way of franchising,” Faries says.

And then there’s Call of Duty’s approach to broadcasting events. “We all know on Sundays there’s football,” Faries says. “Appointment viewing is part of the secret sauce there.” Starting January 24, Call of Duty League will have three full days of broadcasted live match content and experiences for fans. “We’ll probably level that up and really make Sunday the day for Call of Duty League,” she adds.

The league’s plan for presenting the first-person-shooter is already next-level. Faries acknowledges that e-sports has challenges from a watchability perspective. “It’s hard to follow,” she says. “Unless you are highly engaged with the game, it’s oftentimes a frenetic experience.” The Call of Duty League aims to solve that problem by rolling out new ways to visualize the game, be it from a third-person view, aerial views, or with cameras that follow the players in a 360-degree manner, Faries says.

Though it’s in an early stage of development, Faries contends that the Call of Duty League has a path to profitability, citing global sponsorships, apparel partnerships, and micro-transactions, among its revenue options. “We believe that these franchises will grow in value at a fast clip over the next several years,” she says. “But we also know that this is a marathon and not a sprint.”

“Operating and launching brand-new team franchises that are going to be on par, ideally, with the likes of city-based traditional sports entities takes time,” she adds. “They take investment, they take resolving.”

And the stakes may be higher for the Call of Duty League than its e-sports competitors. After all, Call of Duty is one of the most successful franchises in gaming history, and its yearly releases have been the best-selling titles for most of the last decade. Faries wants to leverage that massive popularity, partially through efforts like celebrity endorsements and events.

“If you’re going to design an e-sports league and put Call of Duty in front of its name, this thing has to be ambitious and on-par with everything else that comes under that brand,” she says.

To answer that call, Faries is embracing the very thing most people working at the NFL—with its decades of history—would fear: Moving to an up-and-coming e-sports league. She likens the e-sports revolution to a tidal wave, one she plans to surf, rather than let it crash over her.

And leading the e-sports league not only as a woman but as a person of color, does not phase Faries in the least. Instead of gamers challenging her, she says she’s had far more instances of both men and women approaching her saying they’re happy, excited, and inspired that she’s leading the league.

Faries says her first two hires were women. “It’s important to make a statement that Call of Duty League can also have great people who happen to be women developing this league,” she says, boasting that her team is “incredibly diverse in every way that you would define that—backgrounds, ethnicities, race, gender, the whole nine.”

She says she thinks the group is as close and as productive a team as any team she’s ever been a part of, especially when you consider that the organization has gone from being a white sheet of paper to ready to launch in 14 months.

“It proves the point that diverse teams generate the best work,” she says.

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