Just hours before the new, franchised Call of Duty League was set to kick off at The Armory in Minneapolis – the home of Minnesota RØKKR – YouTube was announced as the exclusive platform for the competition. As part of a multi-year deal between Google and Activision Blizzard, the former had acquired the broadcast rights to not only the Call of Duty League but Overwatch League and Hearthstone esports, too.
We spoke with Ryan Wyatt, Global Head of Gaming at YouTube, to discuss the esports-focused deal between Google and Activision Blizzard and what it means for YouTube as a live streaming platform moving forward.
Esports Insider: Would you class this as YouTube’s step into the ‘streaming wars’ on the esports side of things? We’re seeing the ongoing battle with other platforms when it comes to streamers but not so much with esports.
Ryan Wyatt: I don’t know that I would say we’ve stepped up. Obviously the Overwatch League, Call of Duty League, and Hearthstone deal is big, I don’t think anybody would doubt that, but we already have some of the biggest esports leagues globally already distributing on YouTube. Everything from Fortnite, to PUBG, to Arena of Valor, League of Legends, and so on. I think bringing over these leagues really rounded out an already robust live offering, globally.
ESI: What is it about Activision Blizzard and its games that made you decide to make this deal?
RW: I think esports needs a really healthy game community that’s not just within esports in order for that league to be successful, right? You need to have this kind of groundswell of fans of the game – it’s a very necessary component for the esports piece, which kind of sits on top of that, to be really successful. I think it goes without saying that Hearthstone, Call of Duty, and Overwatch are all big on YouTube from the VOD standpoint.
You have these really big preexisting audiences that are already on YouTube consuming content around these games. I’m really excited to just layer on top of these leagues, just like we’ve done with all the other big games on our platform. We have esports tournaments for League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Fortnite, Dota 2, and so on, so it just made sense to continue to round that out.
“The main focuses of the deal are certainly Hearthstone, Overwatch, and Call of Duty.”
ESI: Can you say how long the deal spans?
RW: We’re not specifically talking about it but it is a multi-year deal so we’re excited for that partnership and the time that we’ll get to spend together working on it.
ESI: Would you say this deal is more mutually-beneficial than say the one previously held between Twitch and Activision Blizzard for the Overwatch League? Obviously, you have hosting and infrastructure included in yours.
RW: I can’t speculate on something I have no idea about, but I’m very happy that we’re partnering with Activision Blizzard across both Google Cloud and YouTube. They’ve always been a really important partner to Google, it’s really fun to up the partnership with the combination of our Cloud and YouTube deal.
ESI: Are all Activision Blizzard titles involved in the deal or is it just a select few?
RW: It is Call of Duty, Overwatch, and Hearthstone. There could be some other Blizzard content – they do a lot of great stuff across esports – but it doesn’t include things like ESL’s work on StarCraft II, for example. The main focuses of the deal are certainly Hearthstone, Overwatch, and Call of Duty.
ESI: Can you talk about Google Cloud being the preferred supplier, but not the exclusive supplier, for Activision Blizzard?
RW: Quite honestly, that’s more an Activision Blizzard question because I don’t know the ins and outs of the Cloud partnership and how they’re looking at their infrastructure and server capabilities. They are very leaned into Google Cloud, very leaned into YouTube, and we’re excited.
“It’s hard to pinpoint a specific time, it was more of an evolving dialogue with a partner that we’re close to.”
ESI: The deal was announced very close to the Call of Duty League’s launch but obviously deals take quite a bit of time to actually configure, how long would you say this was in the works?
RW: It’s really tough to pinpoint a very specific date to be quite honest with you because Activision Blizzard has been such a great partner at Google; across our sales business, across Google Play, across YouTube, and now Cloud. It really is the product of just an evolving conversation in the partnership.
“How do we keep working together? What are big opportunities for us to work together?” Those kind of questions of how to have a much richer partnership kind of led us down this road that got us to where we are now. Saying “Cloud’s really interesting. The media rights are really interesting. What can we do with this?” is kind of what led us to ultimately being able to partner up. It’s hard to pinpoint a specific time, it was more of an evolving dialogue with a partner that we’re close to.
ESI: What would you say the likelihood is that more overarching deals with developers, such as this, is in the pipeline for Google?
RW: It’s tough to say. We just will need to keep having conversations with these publishers on ways that we can continue to partner and work in this space. I will tell you, undoubtedly, that game publishers are really important to us and we want to have very strategic partnerships with them. So in that sense, you can always expect that to happen at Google.
ESI: What would you say the main benefits of partnering with Google is as opposed to another streaming platform?
RW: I can’t speak to other platforms, but I think what’s great about Google is we really care broadly about the games ecosystem. It’s shown through our investments in Stadia and cloud gaming. It’s shown through Google Cloud having a reliable and robust infrastructure to support massive-scale AAA publisher games. It’s shown in Google Play’s ability to have a world class platform on Android for games to be accessible to everybody. YouTube is the largest gaming platform in the world, right, so I think it touches all of these different areas and that makes us very unique because of the robust offering we have in our game suite across Google.
ESI: YouTube is primarily seen as a place to go to watch VODs and uploaded videos as opposed to streaming, at least in Western esports. Will this deal be what changes that perception or is it simply part of a bigger effort?
RW: It’s really important that we give our users a broad diversity of content on the platform. So clearly VODs are great, uploads are great – it’s the biggest driver of watch time in this space. But we felt that there was an opportunity to bring more live content to our users as well and so, in that regard, when you add more live content and you give people more options and content choices, it’s good for everybody. It’s good for the league. It’s good for the platform. It’s good for the creators and the users.
“I definitely am going to commentate an event at some point.”
ESI: Call of Duty esports has never have the highest viewership numbers so you can’t have been expecting anything extraordinary but how do you feel about the viewership for CDL’s debut event?
RW: We had over a 100,000 concurrent viewers over the course of three days, I thought that was great. We announced pretty late, I’ll give you that – leaving it about two hours before the league starts – but I was thrilled.
Call of Duty has such a great backstory on YouTube if you go back all the way using the Elgato capture card to record your montages. It’s got such a rich history on YouTube and, with my background in Call of Duty esports, I’m stoked to introduce this massive Call of Duty and first-person shooter audience that sits on YouTube today to the Call of Duty League. I think it’s going to get more exciting as each week passes for the league.
ESI: Does this partnership mean we’ll see you return to the stage or desk at a Call of Duty event?
RW: I definitely am going to commentate an event at some point. Maybe not an event, perhaps just a match, but I have to get on just once so you can expect me at some time, somewhere.