We were out at DreamHack Atlanta and the Hi-Rez Expo last month, and had the chance to sit down with the man himself; Todd Harris, Co-Founder and COO of Hi-Rez Studios and President of Skillshot Media, the developer’s new esports focused production arm.
Following a tour of the Atlanta based company’s ever expanding complex and HQ, we fired some questions at Todd to learn more about the plans for Skillshot’s growth through 2019 and beyond.
Esports Insider: Would you say that the primary purpose of Skillshot itself is to generate a profit in its own right, or is it to the support and help to build out and grow and sustain the esports communities of all the Hi-Rez games?
Todd Harris: Well, it’s both of those things. It is definitely to build and sustain the tournaments and leagues for Hi-Rez games. It is to make that sustainable, which really only comes from generating a profit. Thirdly, it’s to take those templates with Hi-Rez games and offer services to other partners who want to engage in esports in a similar way, without just writing a massive check and not getting a return. It’s really all about delivering value to other partners as well.
ESI: That was going to be our next question. How much of a focus is there now, or will there be on working with clients outside of, obviously, the Hi-Rez studios?
Todd: Going into 2019, we’ll start doing games beyond Hi-Rez.
Our first priority is to establish great platforms for Hi-Rez games, and that’s mainly because that way we can show other publishers and other partners what works well.
“Going into 2019, we’ll start doing games beyond Hi-Rez”
Right now at the studio itself, we can host two simultaneous LAN events, and we can really publish four simultaneous activities across 10 different livestream platforms at the same time. And that’s only one half of the studio built out, so we could build additional space if we needed. We’ve got some really good capacity. We’re already having some great conversations. Nothing that we can announce yet, but going into next year we’ll definitely be serving other games.
ESI: That’s cool. Because there’s not really that much else like it around in terms of an esports focus; the studio that you have built (and are building..) there?
Todd: There’s nothing quite like it, though there are comparables out there. One comparable would be our neighbor here in Atlanta; ELEAGUE from Turner. ELEAGUE is really built around a TV product, but of course they work with a bunch of different publishers and a bunch of different games, and they’ve built a good brand. We’re a similar approach, but it’s really built around the needs for livestreaming and the core gaming audience, which is on livestream not on TV.
There’s no other facility that we’ve seen that’s so custom built for just competitive integrity and livestreaming.
ESI: What would you say the aims are for it by the end of next year?
Todd: By the end of next year we just want to be full and expanding. We’ve built a great capability. We think it’ll be full by the end of next year, and then we’ll be thinking about what the next facility looks like.
ESI: And how many are working on just Skillshot right now?
Todd: It’s about 50 people. There’s about 35 to 40 full time in that building, and then about 10 folks that are remote, but basically contributing to the effort.
ESI: Since the split into the three studios, do you primarily hire for Hi-Rez still, and then allocate them to the most relevant studio for their profile, or those are all very separate? Moreover how much flexibility is there to move around the studios for employees?
Todd: The nice thing about the split, but staying under Hi-Rez, is it provides some flexibility and job security. If someone gets really burned out on Smite say, maybe they’ve worked on it for five years and they want a little different art style, they don’t have to leave the company and move and take a big risk. They can stay within the Hi-Rez family.
“If someone gets really burned out on Smite say, maybe they’ve worked on it for five years and they want a little different art style, they don’t have to leave the company and move and take a big risk”
We do try to work to let people transfer. Our process is when we have a new set of openings, say on Realm Royale, those are posted internally and externally, and so if someone on the current team wants to apply for that, then we give them preference but we still have to go through the process of making sure there’s a smooth transition and there’s time and that sort of thing. Skillshot is a bit different because the jobs at Skillshot in production are very different.
You want to serve your players first and foremost, so you want to make sure game has enough resources and then at the same time, you want to give flexibility to employees. I think we do a pretty good job of it, and the split to the multiple studios, the main thing it did is instead of making someone feel like they’re one part of a 400 person company and they may be can’t influence the direction very much, they’re now one part of maybe a 70 person or 100 person company and they really can make a difference in that particular game.
ESI: Moving away from just Skillshot a little. What do you think Hi-Rez does well right now when it comes to esports in particular, and what areas do you think you could improve on, or are you looking to improve on?
Todd: One thing we do well; we try to be community focused, and I think generally we are. We try to be transparent around the decisions, around why we do things, and so we do that fairly well too. I think another area I see us as being strong is just the fact that we’ve made playing video games professionally sustainable for players, even though we’re not the biggest esports on the planet.
“..the fact that many of the winners on our first Smite World Championship are playing competitively five years later means we’ve built an ecosystem that is sustainable”
There are bigger esports games, but the fact that many of the winners on our first Smite World Championship are playing competitively five years later means we’ve built an ecosystem that is sustainable. We try to do that as well. I think we also do a good job of communicating with the team orgs and with the players. We try to be good partners there and set up win-win relationships.
As far as what we can improve on, we’re taking a very bold step in 2019, which we announced, of having our competitions all be played on LAN, and all be broadcast live. That was an area where we lagged behind some of the others and production values, because you have to when it’s online. But going into 2019, there’ll be some shakeout, because of that there’ll be some changeover, but that really hopefully shows everyone the confidence that we have in the Smite League and the Paladins League. I think it will actually require increased commitment, not only from us, but from the team orgs and the players, and that’ll be healthy. I think we were maybe a little bit not asking enough commitment from all parties towards the long-term growth, and this forces that issue.
ESI: Can you tell us more about the research initiative with Emory University; will the results be shared with the wider industry and when can we expect them?
Todd: No, we plan on sharing it with the industry and my hope is that by the first quarter of next year there’ll be some information that we can share.
No matter what they find, I don’t expect that Hi-Rez or Skillshot would decrease their investment in esports because we honestly love it and are just passionate. It’s why we started the company to begin with. Honestly, more than making money it was passion to make games, and yeah, make them for the competitive landscape.
That said we might increase or tweak the way we do things, and invest based on the findings.
A bit more detail on the partnership with Emory. In short, this analytics centre has, over multiple years, built up models for traditional sports around fandom. They do work for the Atlanta Hawks, the basketball team, for the Atlanta Falcons, the football team, and for the Atlanta United, our soccer team.
“Essentially is it worth the money we, and others, spend? Everyone feels like it is, and we’ve done a lot of our own research, but it’s always hard to tease out what is causing what”
So yes. Those models exist, and then there’s two PHD students who are working with the data that we’ve provided, which is anonymized, so it’s not like they care about what ‘Todd’ watches, they just care about the player profile. Those are the basic ingredients, and again, the very first question that they’re tackling is how watching esports contributes to playing games and contributes to monetization in games also. Essentially is it worth the money we, and others, spend?
Everyone feels like it is, and we’ve done a lot of our own research, but it’s always hard to tease out what is causing what.
There’ll probably continue to be some questions after, but it will be a more academic and deliberate look at that question. For now we have just used Hi-Rez games as we have been providing the data, but we can potentially add more in the future.
ESI: When it comes to higher education institutions getting involved in the space; is an esports focused degree program needed, or a positive, right now? Are we ready for that yet?
Todd: It reminds me of where Game Design degrees were 10 years ago. Because it’s a fast moving industry, there’s not a lot of academics that actually know about the industry simply because it’s so new.
It’s very early, but nothing is perfect when you start. What I think will happen is some universities will take a leadership role, and it’ll be a little bumpy, but things will develop over time. I already hear Emory doesn’t offer it, but other universities like Georgia State, for example, is a university that has varsity esports. They play League of Legends, they play Smite, they play Paladins with varsity teams already, and they already also have a huge production curriculum in place, because there’s a lot of film and TV that’s done here. They’re adding esports to that. Maybe you don’t just learn how to operate a camera as a cinematographer for a movie, but you might learn things about esports production.
I think that’s the way it’s going to grow; production companies will add esports production business degrees, some might add esports business, Sports Marketing programs might add esports marketing elements. I suspect that five years from now there’ll be many, many programs, just like there are for Sports Marketing.
It’ll be shaky over the next year or two, but it’ll happen, just piece by piece.