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动视暴雪的电子竞技梦

Michal Lev-Ram 2017年08月27日

动视暴雪围绕《使命召唤》和《魔兽世界》等畅销游戏建立了一个视频游戏帝国。现在,它想成为电子竞技领域的ESPN。数百万电竞粉丝会配合吗?

一条满身菱形花纹的龙从一个带有圆点的蛋中孵出。它抛落外壳上斑斑点点的碎片,从巢穴中爬出,拍动着一双可爱的紫色小翅膀,一脸好奇地在四周游走。几秒钟后,三位来自外星的麻烦制造者突然出现,并肆意嘲讽这个源自神话的婴儿。“我爱龙宝宝,特别是中等稀有的龙宝宝。”长着三个手指的头目阴森森地说道。与此同时,他和两位同伙迅速地围住了他们的猎物。

这个娇小的龙宝宝突然发起猛攻,喷出一股惊人的强力火焰,将对手放倒在地。“哦,好棒,小龙斯派罗赢了!”他傲娇地大喊,并用他胖胖的,带有爪子的双腿在一个瘫倒在地的外星人身上蹦上蹦下。就在这时候,一位戴着维京头盔,身材高大的巫师不知从哪儿冒出来,给了它一块吃了一半的玉米热狗。“它几乎没有被触碰过。”他说。

在这一时点,我完全迷惑了。(撰写本文期间,这种感觉出现了好几次)。要是我年轻几岁,并且是一位游戏玩家,我恐怕会认出屏幕上这些生物是来自《小龙斯派罗》(Skylanders)的角色。这款价值35亿美元的“互动实体玩具游戏”是由视频游戏巨头动视暴雪开发的。从多人战斗系列《魔兽世界》到用来消磨时间的手游《糖果粉碎传奇》,这家南加州公司相继发布了游戏史上最受欢迎的几款游戏。《小龙斯派罗》发布于2001年,在6年内已经售出了3亿个玩具手办和其他玩具。

对于我身上那个假想的玩家身份来说,这个场景中唯一一个并非那么奇怪的部分是,它并不是发生在一款游戏中。相反,我刚刚观看了《小龙斯派罗学院》第一季的头两分钟。去年10月份,这个电视衍生产品在Netflix首次亮相。这个节目标志着动视暴雪翻开一个新篇章。这家游戏巨头正在尝试着斩荆披棘,华丽转型为一头更加多样化,更加庞大的娱乐巨无霸。

这家公司迄今为止的增长(仅仅依靠游戏一项),已经跻身高分荣誉榜之列。在上个财年,动视暴雪创纪录地斩获66亿美元营收,同比飙涨42%。过去五年来,其股价涨幅超过400%。首席执行官鲍比·科蒂克现在是科技类上市公司中任职时间最长的一把手——同时也是薪酬最高的高管之一。《纽约时报》最近报道称,科蒂克是去年薪酬位列第十位的美国上市公司CEO,总薪酬高达3310万美元,其中近2500万美元是股票期权。(此外,科蒂克的约会对象也是科技圈内响当当的人物——Facebook首席运营官雪莉·桑德伯格。)

今年,拥有37年历史的动视暴雪首次跻身《财富》500强榜单。在游戏行业,这是非常罕见的荣耀。此前,只有两家以视频游戏为主营业务的公司曾经登上《财富》500强榜单,即电子艺界和行业先驱雅达利。但这两家公司都是匆匆过客:电子艺界仅在2010年跻身该榜单,而雅达利的荣耀也仅仅持续了两年,即1988年和1989年。(经过几次所有权变更,雅达利宣告破产,它现在隶属于一家法国媒体公司。)此处的要点是:游戏或许属于主流娱乐,但游戏公司大多是由热门产品驱动的;截至目前,还没有一家游戏公司成功地扩展到视频游戏之外的领域。

动视暴雪希望成为第一家实现这一成就的游戏公司。正在从该公司庞大的专有角色地下室走出的,不仅仅是以小龙为中心的电视节目,还包括英勇的苏格兰狙击手和一位名为“泰瑞尔”的堕落天使——当他出现时,“地牢爬行”游戏《暗黑破坏神》的玩家们都会陷入癫狂。多部基于畅销战争游戏《使命召唤》改编的电影正在开发中。动视暴雪最近成立了一个消费品部门,它肩负着基于该公司IP角色开发动漫书和服饰等消费品的重任。

最值得注意的是,一个电子竞技帝国初具雏形。这是动视暴雪为挺进正在蓬勃发展的竞技性视频游戏世界所做的一个重大尝试。这个原本属于利基市场的领域,正在迫近一个临界点。2017年,全球预计有3.85亿人观看电子竞技赛事——主要是在线观看,但通过有线电视观看直播的观众日益增多。研究公司Newzoo提供的数据显示,源自电子竞技的收入今年将接近7亿美元;到2019年,这个数字势必会突破10亿美元。

如今的电子竞技联盟所使用的某些游戏,正是动视暴雪制作的。但它不再满足于旁观者的角色。这个行业仍然很小,并且足够分散。有鉴于此,一家像动视暴雪这种规模的公司完全有能力“强取豪夺”。去年,这家游戏生产商收购了电子竞技赛事开发商和分销商职业游戏大联盟。科蒂克告诉《财富》,“它就像视频游戏领域的ESPN。”

职业游戏大联盟距离ESPN级别的统治力还有数光年之远。但要说有什么区别的话,科蒂克的类比其实并没有充分表达他的勃勃雄心:倘若ESPN不仅分销橄榄球赛事,而且拥有全美橄榄球大联盟,同时还制作世界上的所有橄榄球,这种说法可能更加准确。今年晚些时候,动视暴雪将基于该公司最热门的新游戏之一,启动《守望先锋》联盟。该联盟基本上将控制所有的参赛战队和所有游戏的分销权。动视暴雪认为,随着电子竞技观众的增长,这些机会,连同赞助和广告,更不用说还有像T恤和帽子这样的《守望先锋》授权商品,将为公司带来数十亿美元的年收入。作为一项彰显潜在收益的基准,该公司指出,NFL每年能够从大约2.4亿观众身上获得120亿美元的收入,其中包括61亿美元的媒体转播权销售所得。科蒂克说,“十年后,电子竞技领域的顶级玩家会像传统体育赛事的明星那样光芒万丈。”

A diapered dragon hatches from a polka-dotted egg. Casting off the speckled shards of its shell, it toddles out of its nest and crawls around curiously, flapping a pair of adorably tiny purple wings. Seconds later, a trio of extraterrestrial troublemakers appear, taunting the mythological infant. “I looove baby dragons,” their three-fingered ringleader says menacingly as he and his cohorts encircle their prey. “Especially medium-rare ones.”

The diminutive dragon abruptly lashes out, disabling his opponents with a surprisingly forceful flame. “Oh yeah, Spyro wins!” he gloats, trampolining on one of the fallen aliens with his chubby, clawed legs. Out of nowhere, a tall wizard with a Viking helmet appears and offers him a half-eaten corn dog. “It’s barely touched,” he says.

At this point, I’m completely lost (a sensation that will recur several times while I’m reporting this story). But were I quite a few years younger—and a gamer—I would have recognized the creatures on my screen as characters from Skylanders, a $3.5 billion “toys-to-life” franchise created by videogame powerhouse Activision Blizzard (atvi, -1.89%). The Southern California company publishes several of the most popular titles in gaming history, from multiplayer combat series like World of Warcraft to smartphone time-suckers like Candy Crush Saga. The Skylanders franchise, which launched in 2011, has sold 300 million action figures and other toys in six years.

The only part of this scene that might have struck my hypothetical gamer self as remotely odd is that, well, none of it took place during a game. Rather, I’ve just watched the opening two minutes of the first season of Skylanders Academy, a TV spinoff that made its debut on Netflix (nflx, -4.65%) in October. That program signals a new chapter for Activision Blizzard, a gaming Goliath that is attempting to hack-and-slash its way into becoming a more diversified—and even more gargantuan—entertainment juggernaut.

The company’s growth to date, on games alone, already belongs on some sort of high scorer honor roll. In its last fiscal year, Activision Blizzard reported record revenue of $6.6 billion, up 42% from the year before. Over the past five years, its stock price has risen more than 400%. The leader behind that performance, CEO Bobby Kotick, is now the longest-serving head of any publicly traded tech company—and one of the highest paid. According to a recent New York Times report, Kotick was the 10th-best-compensated CEO in the U.S. last year, with a pay package of $33.1 million, nearly $25 million of it in stock. (Kotick is also dating one of the most powerful leaders in tech, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.)

This year, Activision Blizzard earned a spot on the Fortune 500 list for the first time in the company’s 37-year history. In this industry, that’s very rare air. Only two other videogame-centric companies have ever made the Fortune 500: Electronic Arts (ea, -0.39%) and industry pioneer Atari. And neither had staying power: Electronic Arts graced the list just once, in 2010, while Atari lasted two years—1988 and 1989. (After several ownership changes and a bankruptcy, Atari is now part of a French media company.) The takeaway: Gaming may be mainstream entertainment, but game companies are hit-driven—and none has successfully expanded beyond videogames.

Activision Blizzard hopes to be the first. It’s not just dragon-centric TV shows that are being spun out of its massive vault of proprietary characters, which also includes heroic Scottish snipers and a fallen arch­angel named Tyrael (players of the “dungeon crawler” game Diablo go fanboy when he shows up). There are multiple movies under development, loosely based on the bestselling war-game franchise Call of Duty. There’s a newly launched consumer products division, tasked with developing everything from comic books to apparel based on Activision Blizzard’s intellectual property.

And most notably, there is an “e-sports” empire in the works—a major foray into the booming world of competitive videogaming. That genre, once merely a niche, is reaching a tipping point. About 385 million people worldwide are expected to view e-sports events in 2017—mostly online, but increasingly on cable television and at live competitions. Revenue from e‑sports will approach $700 million this year, according to research firm Newzoo; by 2019 it should crack $1 billion.

Activision Blizzard makes some of the games played in today’s e‑sports leagues. But it is no longer content to have a spectator role—and the industry is still small and fragmented enough that a company of its size can commandeer it. Last year the gamemaker acquired Major League Gaming (MLG), a creator and distributor of e‑sports events. “It is like ESPN for videogames,” Kotick tells Fortune.

MLG is still light years away from ESPN-level domination. But if anything, Kotick’s analogy actually undersells his ambitions: It might be more accurate if ESPN not only distributed football games but also owned the National Football League—and made all the footballs in the world as well. Later this year, Activision Blizzard will launch the Overwatch League, based on one of the company’s hottest new titles. The league will essentially control all the competing teams and the distribution of all the games. Activision thinks that these opportunities, combined with sponsorships and advertising, not to mention Overwatch-branded merchandise like T-shirts and hats, could bring the company billions in annual revenue as the e‑sports audience grows. As a benchmark for how big it could get, the company notes that the NFL generates $12 billion in revenues, including $6.1 billion in media rights sales, from an audience of about 240 million. “Ten years from now, the role models in e‑sports [will] be like the stars in traditional sports,” Kotick says.

在暴雪嘉年华2016上,新加坡《守望先锋》战队玩家Marcus Tan Sin Yik与大批暴雪游戏粉丝见面。
图片来源:Courtesy of Activision Blizzard

就目前而言,所有这些仅仅是美好的愿景。就像该公司最近启动的其他业务一样,职业游戏大联盟尚未带来新的运营利润。即使它能够迅速获得成功,其收入也仅仅是NFL营收的一小部分。不过,现年54岁的科蒂克拥有辉煌的达阵得分经历。在长达26年的CEO生涯中,他成功地将动视暴雪从一家陷入财务绝境,濒临灭亡的企业改造为一家市值450亿美元,在全球拥有17家游戏制作工作室的行业巨兽。动视暴雪积极收购其他游戏开发商,持续不断地扩充其热门游戏版图。

要想在游戏行业永立潮头,你需要不断增长,不断发布热门游戏才行。作为科蒂克的最新战略,寻找从他的游戏IP中榨取利润的新途径,是扩大动视暴雪主导地位的方式之一。如果这个主意听起来有点像迪士尼之道,嗯,迪士尼专家也是这样认为的。“他所采取的方法正在引领动视暴雪走上一条类似于迪士尼在过去15年走过的道路。”迪士尼前首席运营官兼首席财务官,科蒂克的长期好友汤姆·斯塔格斯这样说道。事实上,科蒂克聘请了一大批迪士尼老兵来帮助他实现这个愿景。

These are just aspirations for now. MLG, like the company’s other recent undertakings, hasn’t yet resulted in new operating profits. And even if it were an instant hit, its revenue would be a teeny fraction of the NFL’s. Still, Kotick, 54, has had his share of touchdowns. In 26 years as CEO, he has transformed Activision Blizzard from a financial mess nearing extinction into a behemoth with a $45 billion market cap and 17 gamemaking studios around the world, aggressively buying up other gamemakers and continually expanding its franchises.

Relevancy demands constant growth and constant hits, and Kotick’s latest strategy, finding new ways of milking profits from his IP, is one way of extending Activision Blizzard’s dominance. If the idea sounds Disneyesque—well, Disney (dis, -3.25%) experts would agree. “The approach he is taking leads them down a road similar to the one Disney has been on in the last 15 years or so,” says Tom Staggs, the former COO and CFO of Disney and a longtime friend of Kotick’s. Indeed, Kotick has hired a host of Disney veterans to help him execute his vision.

粉丝们聚集在暴雪嘉年华2016赛事的现场。
图片来源:Courtesy of Activision Blizzard

不过,科蒂克的剧本还是有缺点的。长期以来,动视暴雪一直因过分专注于现有的专有游戏,不屑于投资开发新的创新产品而饱受批评。为你的专有游戏阵营注入新生命,和拼命地从它们身上榨取利润(进而吸干了它们的生气,赶走你的粉丝)之间,是有一条细线的。正如雅达利联合创始人诺兰·布什内尔所指出的那样:“基于这些大型畅销游戏的财务战略,可能会导致陈腐,因为你想做落基山脉第247号岩石,而不是创新。但娱乐的真谛恰恰在于给人以新奇感。”

哪怕你只是粗略地搜索一下玩家博客,你都会看到一些多姿多彩的抨击科蒂克的言论。(西班牙语环球电视台Univision旗下的博客Kotaku曾经称他是“电子游戏领域中最招人恨的人物,”但该作者也表示,他曾经跟这位首席执行官进行过一次“愉快的交谈”。)大部分仇恨来自科蒂克对投资回报率的专注。他曾经在一场投资者会议上表示,他致力于“剔除制作视频游戏的乐趣。”但没有人对他的成功提出异议。

这位辍学大学生的开发者生涯,起步于20世纪80年代初参与开发苹果二代电脑的时候。年仅19岁时,他创立了一家名为Arktronics的软件公司,其创业资金来自拉斯维加斯房地产开发商史蒂夫·永利——两人是在德州的一个聚会上相识的。Arktronics最终破产,但在1990年,时年27岁的科蒂克说服永利和另一位合作伙伴购买美国动视公司的控股权,后者是一家由4位前雅达利程序员开发的游戏公司。在视频游戏领域,美国动视是一位先驱者——它是第一家并非游戏机开发商所有的游戏制作商,但它当时陷入了与专利侵权诉讼相关的破产程序中。仅仅出资50万美元,科蒂克和他的团队就斩获了25%的股份。1991年,这位行事果敢的创业者出任该公司CEO。

科蒂克很快重组了这家公司。事实证明,在这样一个新游戏通常由初创企业创建的生态系统中,科蒂克尤其擅长发现拥有好创意和可持续盈利能力的公司——然后一根骨头不剩地将它们吞下(员工、IP和其他一切东西)。在随后的几十年,美国动视主要通过收购持续壮大,其收购对象包括Raven Software和滑板游戏制作商Neversoft。2008年,美国动视与法国媒体集团维旺迪的游戏部门合并。暴雪是该资产组合中的多个工作室之一:它拥有无可挑剔的声誉和一大批忠实粉丝。暴雪发布了多款热门游戏,其中最有代表性的当属《魔兽世界》。动视暴雪公司成立后,科蒂克继续担任CEO一职。

像所有争夺消费者眼球的公司一样,动视暴雪现在面临比以往任何时候都更多的竞争对手。“这包括在Netflix观看电视节目、电影或其他内容的人,”负责追踪该公司的摩根士丹利分析师布莱恩·诺瓦克如是说道。其他对手包括“休闲”游戏。设计一款图像密集的标准视频游戏通常需要花费多年时间,以及数千万美元的投入,而开发手游则快得多,便宜得多。动视暴雪不仅消解了这些威胁,而且还茁壮成长。(它近期最重要的一桩收购交易是,2016年吞并《糖果粉碎传奇》的制作商国王数字娱乐公司。)它现在还能够提供许多在线游戏——允许更快、更便宜的更新,最重要的是,允许玩家进行游戏内购买和升级。

Still, Kotick’s playbook has downsides. Activision Blizzard has long been criticized for focusing on existing franchises instead of investing in new and innovative products. There is a fine line between breathing new life into your franchises and pumping them so hard for profits that you suck the life out of them—and drive away your fans. As Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell points out, “The financial strategy for these big blockbusters can lead to things getting stale because you want to do Rocky No. 247 instead of innovate … But entertainment is ultimately about novelty.”

Do even a cursory search of gamer blogs and you’ll see some colorful vilifications of Kotick. (Univision-owned blog Kotaku once called him “the most hated man in videogames,” though the writer also said he had a “delightful chat” with the exec.) Much of the animosity comes from ROI-minded things that Kotick has told the investment community—he once said at a conference that his focus was taking “the fun out of making videogames.” But no one disputes his success.

The college dropout got his start as a developer for the Apple II in the early 1980s. At just 19, he founded a software company, Arktronics, with funding from Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn—the two had met at a party in Texas. Arktronics eventually went out of business, but in 1990, when Kotick was 27, he convinced Wynn and another partner to buy a controlling stake in Activision, a gaming company founded by four former Atari programmers. Activision was a pioneer—it was the first gamemaker that wasn’t owned by a console provider—but it was mired in bankruptcy proceedings related to a patent-infringement lawsuit. For $500,000, Kotick and his team snapped up a 25% stake. By 1991 the determined entrepreneur was the CEO.

Kotick quickly reorganized the company. In an ecosystem where new games are generally created by startups, Kotick proved adept at spotting companies with great ideas and sustainable profitability—and then gobbling them up—staff, IP, and all. Over the ensuing decades, Activision grew primarily through acquisitions, including those of Raven Software and skateboarding gamemaker Neversoft. In 2008, Activision merged with the gaming division of French media conglomerate Vivendi. Blizzard was one of the studios within that portfolio: It had an impeccable reputation for quality and a loyal following—among other titles, it published the popular Warcraft franchise. Activision Blizzard was formed, with Kotick still at the head.

Like all companies vying for consumers’ attention, Activision Blizzard now faces more rivals than ever. “That includes people watching shows on Netflix, movies, or anything else,” says Brian Nowak, a Morgan Stanley analyst who covers the company. Anything else includes “casual” mobile games played on smartphones. While it typically takes multiple years and tens of millions of dollars to design a graphics-heavy standard videogame, mobile games are fast and cheap. Activision Blizzard has managed not only to mitigate those threats, but also to thrive. (Its most significant recent acquisition was Candy Crush maker King Digital Entertainment, in 2016.) It can also now deliver many of its games online—allowing for faster, cheaper updates and, importantly, for in-game purchases and upgrades.

首席执行官鲍比·科蒂克。这张照片拍摄于位于加州福斯特市的动视暴雪子公司大锤游戏工作室。
图片来源:Cody Pickens

不过,一些旗舰游戏正在显露老态。根据研究机构NPD集团提供的数据,2016年,拥有15年历史的《使命召唤》仍然维系着最畅销视频游戏的地位。但分析师表示,新版本的销量远低于其前辈。这个版本的背景设在外层空间,许多粉丝抨击称,它显得过于未来主义。今年的《使命召唤》(这款游戏每年发布一个新版本)将回归它的二战根源。

科蒂克承认:“我们应该更加深入地思考这款走进太空的游戏究竟在多大程度上远离了它的根源。”但粉丝们的小暴动也凸显了这门生意变幻无常的特性,以及用新方式延续经久不衰品牌的重要性。

5月中旬一个温暖的午后,我在加州尔湾的暴雪工作室遇见了科蒂克。就像许多硅谷公司一样,这家工作室的员工团队大多数是年轻人,以男性为主。但相较于充满年轻面孔的Facebook总部,你在这里能看到更多的纹身,和染成紫色的头发。工作氛围也不像Facebook那样欢快活泼,令人愉悦。事实证明,游戏开发人员和设计师对地牢般的光线情有独钟。在这种背景下,坐在自助餐厅一角的科蒂克显得格外醒目。他身穿卡其裤,棕色乐福鞋,扣角领衬衫上套了一件毛衣背心,他看上去不像是一位技术大亨,倒像是一位刚刚下班,来探望一群酷爱编码的孩子的律师。

科蒂克的声音非常小,近乎静音,我不得不探过身子才能听到他的话。然而,他的野心如雷贯耳。“事实证明,我们能够娱乐世界上每个国家,每个地方的人。这一直都是我所渴望的愿景。”科蒂克说。

事实上,虽然动视暴雪的绝大多数收入来自游戏,但科蒂克最近聘用的一众高管的谱系暗示,他多么热切地希望推动这家公司发展成为一家主流娱乐商。前ESPN和美国橄榄球联赛电视网CEO史蒂夫·博恩斯坦出任动视暴雪电子竞技部门董事长(前福克斯体育执行副总裁皮特·弗拉斯蒂卡出任该部门CEO)。前迪士尼高管蒂姆·基尔潘最近受聘掌舵该公司的消费品部门。(与“米老鼠之家”的另一个联系是:科蒂克的女友桑德伯格目前担任迪士尼公司董事。)著名导演昆汀·塔伦蒂诺的长期制作搭档史黛西·舒尔,现在是动视暴雪新成立的电视和电影部门的联席总裁。

科蒂克自信满满地认为,他把赌注压在了正确的人身上;只有时间会告诉我们,他是否挑选了正确的游戏。

在互联网上的某个地方,一个名叫莱利·扬斯的年轻女士正在吃一个鸡肉三明治。数十人,包括我自己,正在实时观看这个再世俗不过的动作。扬斯是一位崭露头角的“流媒体直播玩家”——一种以在线玩电子游戏谋生的职业。她选择的论坛是Twitch。这是亚马逊旗下一个极其流行,供玩家直播游戏实战的网站。

约有15万名粉丝在线观看扬斯做她的事情——她的工作是玩动视暴雪游戏《守望先锋》——以及偶尔直播的午餐时刻。今天的视频流标题是“请关注我的新发型。”她刚刚剪了一头低肩长发,上面是深棕色,下面几乎是金色。

观众们如约而至。这个繁忙网页的主框是其电脑游戏场面的动态截图。在左边,一个较小的正方形屏幕通过网络摄像头显示坐在显示器前的扬斯。网页右侧持续滚动着数千名观众的评论和问题。观众们想知道她接下来打算拿出什么虚拟武器,她的新发型花了多少钱,等等。

这个视频流将持续六个多小时。(现年24岁,来自密歇根州的扬斯后来告诉我,她每天直播4到8个小时)。相较之下,我的注意力持续时间要短得多,但我观看的时间长度足以让我明白,为什么《守望先锋》这样一款由多位玩家参与的第一人称射击游戏,已经成为暴雪迄今为止增长最快的游戏——自一年前推出以来,这款游戏业已创造了超过10亿美元收入,积聚了多达3000万玩家。我也终于明白,为什么科蒂克试图以这款游戏作为杠杆,撬动他的电子竞技野心。

扬斯扮演的角色穿过一座被白雪皑皑的山脉环绕的寺庙,开枪射击一些移动得极其迅速,以至于很难辨认的生物。对于游戏中的扬斯,你所能看到的,只是她用来杀死对手的那把充满未来派风格的金黄色枪支的枪口。在较小的屏幕上,我看到“现实生活中”的扬斯的脸庞——在大部分时间里,她都聚精会神地眯着双眼。

对于外行来说,这种体验就像是盯着一幅埃舍尔艺术绘画的数字版本。但对于数百万粉丝来说,这个网站,以及其他类似网站,能够提供长达数小时全情参与的娱乐时光。动视暴雪在全球拥有大约4.5亿月活跃用户。去年,这些用户总共花费了430亿个小时打游戏。值得注意的是,在同一时间段内观看游戏的时间达到30亿个小时,创下新纪录。

绰号“海鸥”的布兰登·拉尼德是最知名的《守望先锋》流媒体直播玩家之一。他说,“当人们询问我的职业时,我会说我是打视频游戏的。他们认为这是件很酷的事情。”拉尼德解释说,游戏玩家通常面临两条职业路径:其一是流媒体直播——它可以让那些拥有众多追随者的玩家分享广告利润。其二是参加职业竞赛,赢得赞助费和奖金。

Still, some flagship titles are showing their age. Call of Duty, a franchise in its 15th year, maintained its position as the bestselling videogame in 2016, according to research firm NPD Group. But analysts say that edition sold less than its predecessors. Set in outer space, the installment was criticized by fans of the franchise for being too futuristic. This year’s Call of Duty title (a new version is published each year) will go back to the game’s World War II roots.

“We should have done more work thinking about how much of a departure from the franchise going to space would be,” admits Kotick. But the mini-uprising also underscores the fickle nature of the business—and the importance of extending durable brands in new ways.

It’s a warm afternoon in mid-May when I meet Kotick at Blizzard’s studio in Irvine, Calif. As at many Silicon Valley companies, the studio’s workforce is mostly young and largely male. But there are a lot more tattoos and purple hair than you’d find at, say, Facebook’s fresh-faced HQ. It isn’t as bright and cheerful here, either—game developers and designers, it turns out, have a penchant for dungeon-like lighting. Seated in a corner of the cafeteria, Kotick stands out. In khakis, brown loafers, and a button-down shirt under a sweater vest, he looks less like a tech mogul and more like an off-duty attorney visiting his coding-crazy kid at work.

Kotick’s voice is so low and muted that I have to lean in to hear him (my recording would barely pick up his answers). His ambition, however, speaks loudly. “The fact that we can entertain people in every country, everywhere in the world—that was always an aspiration I had,” says Kotick.

Indeed, while games provide the vast majority of Activision Blizzard’s revenue, the pedigrees of Kotick’s recent hires hint at how eagerly he wants to establish the company as a mainstream entertainer. Steve Bornstein, a former CEO of ESPN and cable’s NFL Network, is the chair of Kotick’s e‑sports division (former Fox Sports EVP Pete Vlastelica, meanwhile, is its CEO). A former Disney exec, Tim Kilpin, was recently hired to run the company’s consumer products division. (One more Mouse House connection: Sandberg, Kotick’s girlfriend, serves on Disney’s board of directors.) And Stacey Sher, the long-time producing partner of Quentin Tarantino, is now copresident of Activision Blizzard’s fledgling TV and film business.

Kotick feels confident he’s placed bets on the right people; time will tell if he’s picked the right game.

Somewhere on the Internet, a young woman named Riley Youngs is eating a chicken sandwich, and scores of people—myself included—are watching the mundane act in real time. Youngs is a budding “streamer,” someone who plays videogames online for a living. Her forum of choice is Twitch, a wildly popular, Amazon-owned website that showcases gamers who broadcast themselves.

About 150,000 fans have watched Youngs do her thing online—her thing being playing Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch, along with the occasional live-streamed lunch break. Today’s video stream is titled “LOOK AT MA NEW FOKIN HAIRCUT,” which refers to her below-the-shoulder-length locks, dark brown on top and almost blond underneath.

Viewers follow along. In the main box on the busy web page is a dynamic screenshot of the game on her computer. To the left, a smaller square shows Youngs via webcam as she sits at her monitor. And to the right runs a constant feed of comments and questions from her thousands of viewers—inquiring minds who want to know what virtual weapon she’s going to pick up next and how much she paid for her new hairdo.

This stream will last more than six hours. (Youngs, a 24-year-old from Michigan, later tells me she streams for four to eight hours a day). I have a much shorter attention span, but I watch long enough to see why Overwatch, a multiplayer, first-person-shooter title, has become Blizzard’s fastest-growing game to date, generating more than $1 billion in revenue and amassing 30 million players since its introduction just a year ago—and why it’s the game to which Kotick is harnessing his e‑sports ambitions.

Youngs’ character runs through some kind of high-elevation temple, encircled by snowcapped mountains, shooting at creatures that are moving so fast it’s hard to make them out. All you see of her in-game self is the tip of the futuristic, golden firearm with which she kills off opponents. On the smaller screen, I see the face of “in real life” Youngs, mostly scrunched in a concentrated squint.

For the uninitiated, the experience is like staring into a digital version of an M.C. Escher print. But for millions, the site—and others like it—presents hours of engaged entertainment. Activision Blizzard has about 450 million monthly users globally, who spent a collective 43 billion hours playing its games last year. Notably, a record 3 billion hours were spent viewing its games in that same time span.

“When people ask me what I do, I say I play videogames,” says Brandon “Seagull” Larned, one of the best-known Overwatch streamers. “They think it’s pretty cool.” Larned explains that there are two career paths for gamers. The first is streaming, which allows players with considerable followings to share in profit from advertising. The second involves endorsements and prizes for competing in pro tournaments.

一个来自视频游戏《守望先锋》的角色在好莱坞星光大道附近与粉丝见面。
图片来源:Courtesy of Activision Blizzard

少数顶级流媒体直播玩家和电子竞技参赛者能够获得七位数薪水;大多数玩家没有这个福分。尽管拉尼德没有透露他的收入,但他表示,他从华盛顿州的一个计算机科学项目退学,因为一位职业玩家“有太多的钱可赚”。以“不可思议的源氏玩法”(不要问,我也不懂)著称的拉尼德,可能很快就将迎来一个更大的职业机会——这位24岁的年轻人是《守望先锋》联盟席位的有力竞争者。

目前,观看游戏与观看高尔夫没有什么不同——如果你打高尔夫球,你就会看高尔夫球。但科蒂克希望让电子竞技变得更加主流,更具粘性。他正在尝试的方法之一是,建立基于城市的战队——这是职业电子竞技领域的一个首创。就像绿湾包装工队一样,《守望先锋》战队将与城市挂钩。(动视暴雪还没有透露将在哪些地点建立多少支战队。)当然,与NFL、NBA、MLB或NHL不同,《守望先锋》仅仅面世一年之久。摩根士丹利分析师诺瓦克表示,“如果我是一位潜在的赞助商,我非常有信心洛杉矶国王冰球队将在未来五年继续存在。但我怎么知道《守望联盟》能够存活这么长时间呢?”不过,动视暴雪认为,尽管它是一个新事物,《守望联盟》仍然拥有一些优势。追随一款新近推出的游戏,有助于这个联盟从零做起。一些更加成熟的游戏,比如《使命召唤》或《魔兽世界》,已经被现有的几支电子竞技战队和联盟占据了。

同时,动视暴雪不需要应对多年来一直牢牢掌控传统体育赛事转播权的传统电视网络。前福克斯体育执行副总裁,现在执掌MLG的弗拉斯蒂卡指出,“电子竞技是第一项数字原生态运动。我们不受付费电视生态系统的束缚。坦率地说,正是这个生态系统,导致体育节目远离年轻人,因为他们根本就不看电视。”与此同时,转型为“视频游戏领域的ESPN”这一愿望有助于动视暴雪推动电子竞技更容易受到大众认可。“游戏本身正在演变为一项拥有更广泛吸引力的观赏性体育项目,我们正在目睹这一进程。”科蒂克说。

对于这种演变,真正的ESPN当然不会视而不见。这家隶属于迪士尼公司的体育媒体去年在其官网推出了一个专门的电子竞技频道。ESPN全球业务和内容策略执行副总裁玛丽·多诺霍表示,观众数量“并不是很庞大”,但“粉丝们充满热情,全情参与,运动员和团队都很有吸引力。”她补充说,“在我们熟知的人口群体——即年轻人——当中,这项竞技极其受欢迎。”

虽然这个人口群体利润丰厚,但科蒂克的计划(包括《守望先锋》联盟)可以使动视暴雪超越它。就像大多数玩家一样,电子竞技职业人士的绝大多数都是男性。但像扬斯这样的玩家提醒人们,他们在视频游戏中的能力并不依赖于肌肉量或块头。其他体育联盟的营销和扩张通常导致观众的性别比例更加平等。比如,NFL表示,女性现在约占其粉丝群体的一半。

随着《守望先锋》联盟加速运转,科蒂克显然怀抱着这种理想。他说,“我认为这是第一款大约一半角色为女性的大型游戏。这是一个公平的竞技场。” 事实上,《守望先锋》拥有相同数量的男女英雄,外加三个“omnic” (意为机器人)角色和一位其实是大猩猩的男科学家。

然而,在现实生活中,动视暴雪的领导者还没有反映出这样的平等。在九位董事会成员中,仅有一位是女性;一个由8位高管组成的“高级企业管理”团队更是连一位女性都没有。值得注意的是,作为该公司为数不多的几位女性高管之一,新近聘用的史黛西·舒尔肩负着引领动视暴雪的IP进入电影和电视节目之重任,而电影和电视恰恰是更容易跨越性别鸿沟的媒体。舒尔表示,“你必须得控制你的脚本和电影。”她担任制作人的电影包括《情归新泽西》和《八恶人》。

去年,舒尔在洛杉矶一个寓所组建了一个“作家室”。在长达一个月的时间里,六位精心挑选的创意人士每天坐在这里集思广益,碰撞改编火花。有三个项目正处于不同的编剧阶段。当然,它们都是《使命召唤》系列的变体——在这款由战争驱动的专有游戏中,男性角色占据绝对主导地位。事实证明,在动视暴雪的DNA中,睾丸激素的含量高得可怕。

不过,科蒂克的策略表明,他愿意改变这一代码,进而将动视暴雪打造成为一家规模更大,增长更快的娱乐公司。在今年2月份发布的最新年度报告中,动视暴雪表示,与2016年相比,今年的游戏发布日程相对轻松。(比如,今年不会新发布一款《小龙斯派罗》的“完整游戏机”版本。)隐含的讯息是,现在到了该公司利用其有利地位投资新领域的时候了。如果动视暴雪不这样做,它很可能会重蹈先行者的覆辙。事实证明,无论他们创造了多少爆款游戏,这些曾经辉煌一时视频游戏公司最终都沦为昙花一现的过气明星。(财富中文网)

原文刊载于2017年6月15日出刊的《财富》杂志。

译者:Kevin

A few high-end streamers and e‑sports competitors make seven-figure salaries; most do not. While Larned doesn’t disclose his income, he does say he quit a computer science program at Washington State because “there was too much money to be made” as a professional gamer. Larned, known for his “dazzling Genji play” (don’t ask), may soon have an even bigger career opportunity—the 24-year-old is a contender for the Overwatch League.

At the moment, viewership for gaming is not unlike golf—if you play golf, you’ll watch golf. But Kotick hopes to make e‑sports more mainstream, more sticky. One way he’s doing that: instituting teams that are city-based—a first in professional e‑sports. Just like Green Bay’s Packers, Overwatch teams will be tied to cities. (Activision Blizzard hasn’t yet said how many teams will exist and in which locations.) Of course, unlike the NFL—or the NBA, the MLB, or the NHL—Overwatch has been around for only a year. “If I’m [a potential sponsor], I have a pretty good confidence that the L.A. Kings [hockey team] will be around in five years,” says Morgan Stanley’s Nowak. “But how do I know that Overwatch will?” Still, Activision Blizzard thinks Overwatch has advantages, despite its “noob” status (gamer-speak for new). Going with a recently launched title lets the league start from scratch—more established titles like Call of Duty or World of Warcraft are already played by several existing e‑sports teams and leagues.

Meanwhile, Activision Blizzard doesn’t have to deal with the legacy TV networks that have tied up traditional sports rights for years. “E‑sports is the first digital native sport,” says Vlastelica, the Fox Sports veteran who heads MLG. “We’re not encumbered by the paid-TV ecosystem that keeps the content out of the hands of young people who, frankly, don’t watch TV.” At the same time, the hope is that transforming itself into the “ESPN of videogames” will help Activision Blizzard make e‑sports more recognizable to the masses. “What we’re seeing is the evolution of the games themselves to becoming more broadly appealing as a spectator sport,” says Kotick.

That evolution is not lost on the real, Disney-owned ESPN, which launched a dedicated e‑sports vertical on its website last year. The audience is “not enormous,” says Marie Donoghue, EVP of global business and content strategy at ESPN, but “the fans are passionate and engaged, the athletes and teams are compelling.” She adds, “It’s also incredibly popular among a demographic we know well—young men.”

As lucrative as that demographic is, Kotick’s plans—including the Overwatch League—could enable Activision Blizzard to reach beyond it. The vast majority of e‑sports pros, like the majority of gamers, are men. But players like Youngs are reminders that capability in videogames doesn’t rely on muscle mass or size. And the marketing and expansion of other sports leagues has generally led to more gender parity in their audiences—the NFL, for example, says that women now account for almost half its fan base.

It’s clear that Kotick has this ideal in mind as the Overwatch League gears up. “I think it’s the first game on a broad scale where about half the characters [are] women,” he says. “This is a level playing field.” Indeed, Overwatch features equal numbers of men and women heroes plus three “omnic” (that means robotic) characters and a male scientist who happens to be a gorilla.

Activision Blizzard’s real-life leaders don’t yet reflect such parity. Only one out of nine board members is female, and there’s not one woman on its eight-person “senior corporate management” team. It’s notable that one of the company’s few leading women—the newish hire, Stacey Sher—is tasked with bringing Activision Blizzard’s IP to movies and TV shows, media that more easily cross gender lines. “You have to have control of your script and your movies,” says Sher, whose production credits include Garden State and The Hateful Eight.

Last year Sher put together a “writers room” in a house in Los Angeles, where six handpicked creatives sat every day for a month to brainstorm adaptation ideas; they now have three projects in various stages of screenwriting. Of course, they’re all variations on the Call of Duty series—a war-driven franchise where male characters dominate. Turns out there’s a daunting amount of testosterone in Activision Blizzard’s DNA.

Still, Kotick’s strategy suggests that he’s willing to alter that code to make Activision Blizzard a bigger, faster-growing entertainment company. In February, in its latest annual report, Activision Blizzard said it will have a light slate of game releases this year when compared with 2016. (There won’t be a new “full console” Skylanders game, for instance.) The implicit message: It’s time for the company to invest in new areas, from its position of strength. If it doesn’t, it risks going the way of its predecessors, companies that became one-hit wonders, metaphorically speaking, no matter how many games they created.

A version of this article appears in the June 15, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline "A Giant Enters a New Arena."

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