Meet Blizzard's eSports boss
Kim Phan shares the secrets of the studio's success with the competitive gaming community
One of the most surprising things about the recent eSports boom that has taken place over the last couple of years is just how many of the big AAA studios are still struggling to find their place in it. Blizzard is not one of those studios.
"I don't know that anyone at Blizzard would try to take credit for eSports," says Kim Phan, the company's senior manager of eSports.
"We'd probably take credit for creating the game that was really fun to play and that people rally behind, but eSports itself was built by the community and the organizers that wanted to run the tournaments. I don't know that we had a head start, I think we've learned a lot from just watching what people are doing and then putting our take on it."
Blizzard's Starcraft franchise was one of the first to build a large eSports community, especially in Korean territories. Today its card battler Hearthstone is a Twitch hit as gamers watch their favourite players build decks and stream practice sessions through the night.
And Blizzard has another couple of potential eSports hits currently in the works, arena battler Heroes of the Storm (due out in June) and FPS Overwatch, which should enter beta at the end of this year. Phan predicts that along with the new games will come growth for the sport and growth for her eSports team within Blizzard.
"I think because we have so many different franchises, each community is different as well and we recognize that, so it's not a one solution fits all. What we do for StarCraft does not work for Hearthstone and does not and will not work for Heroes and Overwatch, and WoW. I think that's the beauty of it, that we are able to be adaptable and we just iterate. Even whatever we do today is not going to be the same as what we're going to do next year."
"[Streaming has] impacted us, I think, throughout the entire company; even how we market the game."
When it comes to Twitch, Phan is quick to recognise the role it has played in growing the reach and accessibility of eSports and to Blizzard's entire development process from design to marketing.
"It certainly has impacted the way our players experience our games. Usually when people play the game, it's what they do with the game directly. Now, with streaming, it's a whole other way to experience it," she explains.
"It's impacted us in a way where we're now learning what it is that our community likes to watch, what they like to do, what type of content is interesting to them. That has helped us shape - I'm sure on the design side how we do things - but it's also shaped how we want to do eSports.
"It's very important now that we always have streams and we find out where our viewers are from and what languages they like to watch, and which games they enjoy. I think that the data has helped us learn a lot from that. I think it's going to continue to evolve. It's impacted us, I think, throughout the entire company; even how we market the game."
Phan also wants to see the eSports community be a welcoming and supportive one for all types of players. She was a great speaker on the recent GDC panel - which we covered here - and reiterates that in our interview.
"Our approach at the end of the day is to do what is best for our community. Our focus is to try and make eSports as awesome as possible for everyone. That means trying to create a safe, fun, welcoming environment in everything we do. Not only in the games but in our tournaments and in the community. I think that will always be our driving force on how to achieve that."
She reports that so far the community has been good at dealing with any potential issues themselves.
"We do reach out to the influencers who are really involved in our game because we want to support them. We obviously appreciate the work that they're doing and the promotion that they're getting. We do reach out to them in that area. I don't know how often it happens that it's for a negative reason, but I think the community kind of polices that themselves," she says.
"What I would love to see grow, is not necessarily the cable television side, but the events side"
"With Reddit and everything like that, they're very quick at policing each other so usually Blizzard doesn't have to get involved in that area. If we had to, we will. Usually I don't see us having to do that."
But what's next for eSports? When I ask if we'll see it appearing on ESPN one day, alongside sports like baseball, Phan smiles and suggests that the future isn't about something as retro as TV, but about content on mobile devices and live events.
"People who are watching TV and cable, do they even know about eSports? That would be the win, to reach that audience and then to help them see… I don't know how long TV is going to last but because we're on the go all the time and we're always on our mobile devices and we're always walking around, I see that that might become the norm of how people consume."
"What I would love to see grow, is not necessarily the cable television side, but the events side, like going and attending an event. I think when you make parallels to sports and stuff like that, why go to a stadium event or whatever when you could just watch on TV? I think it's because of that camaraderie that you have, just engaging with the community that is just as passionate as you are about something."