58.4 million people around the globe will participate in e-sports competitions this year, up from 49.8 million in 2016, according to Newzoo's 2017 Global Esports Market Report. Additionally, sponsorship dollars in e-sports are expected to exceed $260 million this year and surpass $650 million by 2020.
It is undoubtedly an exciting time to be involved in the business of e-sports, and Inc. has certainly recognized same, naming e-sports company Riot Games its 2016 Company of the Year. In 2017, e-sports is no longer a fad. We are actually witnessing seasoned executives shift from jobs at major enterprises to perhaps more risky, but enjoyable, e-sports movers; however, it is not always by choice.
One such individual who has made the move isMarshall Zelaznik, who spent 10 years with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, first as President of its UK Division and later as Chief Content Officer, before becoming unemployed in October 2016. Zelaznik was a victim of WME-IMG's purchase of UFC and subsequent downsizing efforts, but it didn't take long for him to find an opportunity in the rapidly expanding realm of e-sports.
"I was one of the executives that was called out as part of a cost cutting initiative after IMG came in," admits Zelaznik. "It's not as if I was looking between staying at UFC and moving to e-sports."
Zelaznik has now officially come on board withMLG.tv -- a wholly owned subsidiary of Activision Blizzard -- as its new global head of business development, continuing the trend of so-called traditional sports media execs heading to the e-sports ranks, along with Steve Bernstein (ESPN) and Pete Vlastelica (Fox Sports; hired as MLG CEO in August 2016).
The former UFC executive is a great example of the instability of any corporate environment, which is true even for high-level executives. As soon as UFC was purchased, the purchaser looked to reduce costs, which meant terminating employment agreements. Zelaznik needed to be nimble and ready to explore new opportunities, much like any person early in a career would need to be prepared for based on variables beyond their control.
Now, Zelaznik needs to move beyond the drama at the UFC and figure out how to use his skills to benefit e-sports and, in particular, MLG.
"I need to figure out how to take this sport to the next level," says Zelaznik about his new role in e-sports. "There's an attempt by many groups to figure out how to organize e-sports. They want to make it more palatable to a wider audience, but we need to make sure the community is still served. We must balance getting content in front of the community to understand that it's still for them, while adapting and layering on other opportunities."
At MLG.tv, Zelaznik is primarily responsible for maximizing the revenue opportunities around the distribution of MLG and Activison Blizzard's e-sports content. Zelaznik will have a direct role in building and executing on the growth strategy for MLG's proprietary content distribution platform MLG.TV and the MLG mobile apps.
He has applicable experience in this area through launching the over-the-top subscription serviceUFC Fight Pass, helping build UFC's content business into one of the most widely-available sports properties in the world.
"My limited experience in e-sports to now is that a lot of intellectual property owners see it as marketing/engagement tool to buy more micro-transactions or games," explains Zelaznik. "It's still a very important part of e-sports, but we need to find a way, much like UFC, to develop the right distribution strategies to turbocharge engagement and create new revenue opportunities."
Zelaznik believes that e-sports not only has to be dominating the likes of online streaming through platforms likeTwitch, but also build an audience in over-the-top programming, social (i.e. YouTube), broadcast, cable and Pay-Per-View. It will be up to Zelaznik to lead the way in expanding how you consumer e-sports in the future.