Chris Overholt explains Toronto Ultra’s branding, approach to Call of Duty

OverActive Media is one of 12 franchise owners in the Call of Duty League. Ahead of the company announcing the Toronto Ultra on October 24th, Esports Insider spoke with Chris Overholt, CEO of OverActive Media about the branding, building the team, and his stance on non-franchised titles.

Toronto Ultra Roster
Photo credit: Toronto Ultra

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Esports Insider: Why did you decide upon Toronto Ultra as the franchise’s name?

Chris Overholt: We went through quite a process. I think we were one of the first, if not the first, to signal to Activision Blizzard that we were interested in being a franchise holder in Call of Duty so we had the luxury of time.

We’ve had time to be thoughtful this time around. We’ve had time to be engaged and to really think hard about what we wanted for the fans and, frankly, to be informed by the fans. We did some research, we did some focus groups, we put together a team to lead this over the months. We’re really, really excited about where we landed.

There’s a lot of pseudo-seriousness to this title in particular, but what our fans told us consistently was that this is what they do for fun. So, as a brand, what we’ve tried to do is land on that nicely. What I think you’ll see from us starting tonight – and from we’ve already been teasing it a little bit – is a franchise that doesn’t take itself too terribly serious, that enjoys the fun of the game, and the engagement around the game.

“To have literally the whole country to ourselves right now is a blessing.”

ESI: Please explain the squirrel logo and mascot to us!

CH: We’re a Toronto-based organization and Toronto has a number of things that go into making up our city’s lore. In the West End of the city, there’s a beautiful park right in the middle of the city called Trinity-Bellwoods. It has, over the years, been home to a family of albino squirrels. Our offices are also in the West End.

When I was at the Canadian Olympic Committee, one of the things that we did was build ourselves a mascot. I wasn’t really sure how that fit into all of what we were doing at first. We developed not only a mascot character but a storyline for the mascot, and it basically birthed the personality around the brand.

I can tell you it was one of the better things that we did. We instantly had a presence in all things family-oriented, in some ways it served to bring youth back to the brand and it was just fun. So, from that experience, we kind of stumbled on this on the squirrel mascot. As you can imagine, once you get into these things, they really take on a life of their own!

Toronto Ultra Squirrel
Screenshot via: Toronto Ultra

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ESI: Are there any positives or negatives from your perspective about being the only Canada-based franchise in the league?

CH: I think it’s only positive, it’s amazing for a number of reasons. First of all, this is our home and what we’ve been doing every day from the first days of OverActive Media is working really hard to put Toronto on the global map for esports. We want to be leaders in the industry in terms of conversation and how we support and invest in our fans and communities.

To have literally the whole country to ourselves right now is a blessing. To go with all of that, we can not only be Canada’s team in a fan context, but we also have all of the commercial relations up here.

That’s a big part of why I’ve been excited to be involved. We really feel like we’re building a 21st century sports media organisation here. One that, not so long from now, others will look to and start to compare to the Madison Square Garden Company and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, except in the context of esports. So to have this city as our home, a fan base that we can build out here in a dedicated way, and a whole nation that we can speak to in the context of Call of Duty, this is pretty exciting for us.

“In an industry that’s growing and maturing and moving as fast as this one is, it’s hard not to get excited around every turn.”

ESI: What have you learned from Toronto Defiant that you’ve brought across to make things easier or better at Toronto Ultra?

CH: A year later, we’re all smarter. We’ve got people now literally all over the world, we’ve got a great team in Madrid, we have folks in the US and in Berlin. We’ve been working like mad since the end of the Overwatch League season to get reoriented and get ready for our arrival here.

We’ve realised the importance of engagement with fans and making sure that we’re listening right. They’ve got opinions and they’re highly, highly engaged and we love that. It’s also the most challenging thing to be as good a listener as you need to be with your community and to be as responsive as you can be in the context of the business that you’re trying to build.

We’ve learned a lot in our commercial relationships. There were a lot of lessons in getting the Bell deal done at such a significant level and we’ve taken those lessons into our new relationship with Canon and others we’ll announce later.

We’ve learned a lot about how to express ourselves as brands and commercially to make sense of this industry for big sponsors. We see opportunity in this industry every day and honestly, one of the hardest things has already been identifying what is truly an opportunity and learning to say no to things.

In an industry that’s growing and maturing and moving as fast as this one is, it’s hard not to get excited around every turn. We’re going to need to learn to stand back from it and take a breath. We can’t do everything so we’re thinking every day about how to be always strategic and smart in terms of where we place our time and energy and our investors’ money.

Toronto Ultra Branding
Image credit: Toronto Ultra

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ESI: Is there any news on the venue that the team will compete out of for the inaugural season?

CH: No, not quite yet. We’re taking it one step at a time. The first is, of course, to get the brand unveiled and to introduce our team. We’ll do that and then there’ll be lots of news coming – not only in Call of duty, but for Toronto Defiant – in the next few weeks.

“Our long-term thesis is the monetization and the enterprise growth of franchised leagues.”

ESI: Is your focus mainly on franchised teams or are open titles just as important to OverActive Media?

CH: A great question! When we acquired Splyce last year and earlier this year with Mad Lions, we acquired other teams that are playing in really important titles in the world today. Mad Lions had a team that was committed to Fortnite and a couple of players that were engaged in FIFA.

The model that Activision Blizzard first advocated for makes sense to us because it allows financial room for owners to grow enterprise value and build sustainable businesses.

The other titles that we’re supporting today or that we’re considering, we think of them certainly very differently than closed league models. Our long-term thesis is the monetization and the enterprise growth of franchised leagues that were invested in and the ones that allow us to share in that enterprise growth as we go. That’s our core, that’s where our focus is.

What that doesn’t mean is that we will be excluded from other great platforms. We’re exploring opportunities with Epic Games around Fortnite and what we can do there. We’ve got some other conversations going on around some other emerging titles. We can’t do everything, but we’re certainly trying to stay ahead of the conversation and be aware of what’s going on around us.

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