Blizzard's Dean of Collegiate Esports Talks 'Overwatch' and What's Next for Pro Gaming

Blizzard's Dean of Collegiate Esports Talks 'Overwatch' and What's Next for Pro Gaming

Adam Rosen – the big man on campus when it comes to esports Blizzard

Adam Rosen and his twin brother Tyler are on the front lines of the battle to bring esports to the masses on campus

Adam Rosen and his twin brother Tyler are on the front lines of the battle to bring esports to the masses on campus

Tyler and Adam Rosen are the most identical identical twins you'll ever meet. The only way to tell them apart is by how they part their hair (and even then, it's still a bit of a toss up). The two brothers co-founded and serve as co-presidents of Texas Esports Association (now known only by its acronym, Tespa) and are both Project Managers at Blizzard, working on bringing collegiate esports to campuses across the country – a task made considerably easier by the explosive growth of the peerless Overwatch, which now boasts over 25 million players worldwide.

Collegiate esports are an increasingly important part of game publishers' esports strategies – League of Legends creators Riot Games has been pouring resources into its own uLoL Series in conjunction with the Collegiate StarLeague, Tespa's biggest competitor – but (arguably) no one has done more for the scene than the Rosen brothers. Last weekend, I caught up with Adam (or was it Tyler?) at their flagship event, Heroes of the Dorm, which brought four of the best Heroes of the Storm teams from around the country to compete at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Why did you and your brother found Tespa in the first place?
Tyler and I started Tespa when we were in college. We went to UT Austin and we wanted to bring the gamers on campus together so we could meet and talk about games, and hopefully form teams that could compete against other universities. When we started,

Over time, at college, we grew this organization – then just a campus club – into a bigger and bigger group. We hosted huge events, we raised money from sponsors, we flew in top players from around the world to compete, we broadcast our competitions live, and we grew the club to one of the largest clubs on campus out of thousands of clubs. Then we graduated – I went off to join Deloitte and do the consulting thing. But we were still getting students coming to us, saying "Can you teach us? Can you help us?" so we decided we might as well.

And this is when you partnered with Blizzard?
We took Tespa and said "let's go national." We expanded it into an organization that has chapters on different campuses, and, as part of that, we approached Blizzard and started talking and found that there's a really great sponsorship there. As part of that, we're as much interested in nurturing the community in additions to the competition, because we see this feedback loop – players like to play, people like to watch players playing, and competition drives a lot of the dialogue, rivalries, and friendships.

So we built these two arms – one is a chapter program, now on 220 campus in the U.S. we give these groups tools, like funding and sponsorship, to host gaming events on campus. Then we host national competitions like Heroes of the Dorm. We first hosted Dorm three years ago, and it was the first major collegiate esports event we pushed on a national level; we gave out free tuition. The response blew us away; it was broadcast on ESPN2. All these brands and outlets started to pay attention, and so did universities.

What makes collegiate esports appealing to universities?
Intercollegiate competition is very relatable. So, take esports and show it to someone who may or may not be a gamer, and they have a hard time understanding. Who's Cloud9? Who's Fnatic? But if you see UT Arlington or LSU or Kentucky or UC Irvine, they get it. They're going to have some kind of loyalty to one of these teams because collegiate competition really lowers the barrier to entry. Even if you're not a fan of esports, there's a hook there.

At the same time, esports is being picked up with different levels of enthusiasm at universities across the country. Do the schools that have really taken esports to heart have anything in common?
Part of what makes this work for universities is a personal tie. One of the things we've seen among universities who want to get involved is that one of their teams have performed especially well; they get recognized or place well in a tournament. So it's not a coincidence that some of the most involved schools, such as UC Irvine and Arizona State University, are schools who have teams that won championships.

One thing we try to do is show value. Why should universities care about esports?

Do you ever meet with University administrators who are like “this is dumb” or are otherwise resistant to building their esports presence?
These days, there aren't a lot of schools that are "against" esports. It's really a question of what they're getting exposed to, and how it's being framed. One thing we try to do is show value. Why should universities care about esports? Well, there are obvious benefits – they have stable ways to compete against other universities, fans are more engaged (which drives donations), but there's also recruitment and retention. In esports, we have another hook for universities in that people who are participating right now are very technical – 70% of the players in the round of 64 for Heroes of the Dorm are STEM majors. Universities see that and say "we want to attract this demographic."

As with meatsports, media rights and franchising are going to be increasingly important. How do you see collegiate esports fitting into this new model?
Media rights is very interesting – if you look at sports, and college sports, the vast majority of revenue for sports leagues is driven by media rights. So, regional distribution, national distribution, etc., all cut and sliced in every way possible. But one major difference is that, in esports, the publisher owns the IP to games, and has much more control. Nobody owns football. So in many ways, the market for collegiate esports is totally unprecedented.

There's a lot of talk right now about the Overwatch League – how do you see Tespa's leagues fitting alongside of that? Will there be any formal relationship between the two?
A professional and a collegiate scene can work very well together. We're going to do a lot with Overwatch in the collegiate space, and just like the Overwatch League is taking a regional approach, we're trying to focus on that as well. It's the same idea of trying to create lasting affiliations between fans and teams.

Do you have any plans to partner with extant college sports associations, especially regional conferences
We've definitely thought about that. One of the things we do when we structure Heroes of the Dorm is break the field into four regions, and we do that partially because of logistics. But also, teams are more likely to play against their rivals, which would be very rare in a big open bracket. This helps with engagement – I'm from Texas, and I'd rather watch Texas vs. Oklahoma instead of Texas vs. a random school out there. So we're definitely thinking about ways we can recreate old rivalries, but also foster new ones. Many of the strong schools in esports aren't always powerhouses in traditional sports. So there's another opportunity to see some of these schools make a name for themselves.

This interview has been edited and condensed.