Q&A with Blizzard ESports Head Kim Phan

When you meet Kim Phan in person, she might seem like any other fan of video games. But she has achieved a lot more than most fans: Kim is the head of the eSports division at Blizzard Entertainment, and she has played a major role in the industry’s enormous growth . She manages some of the top eSports events in the world, including the CEC (College ESports Championships), which is where I got to interview her in Houston. Blizzard Entertainment is one of the biggest (and best) video game developers, with a long list of top games including Overwatch, Diablo, StarCraft and World of Warcraft. Blizzard teamed up with both ESPN and Tespa to host this competition. Tespa is an amazing company that can be described as the eSports equivalent of the NCAA.

Recent years have seen enormous growth in the eSports genre. It now features streamers with millions of followers, and professional competitive leagues have been created. One of the top leagues is the Overwatch League, in which Houston has its very own team, the Houston Outlaws. Even the top sports leagues have begun to recognize the growth of eSports, with the NFL sponsoring a professional Madden League. I was lucky enough to get an interview with Kim Phan to talk about some events and recent developments in the eSports industry. Now, to quote YouTube star Philip DeFranco, “Let’s jump into it.”

Rickey Girouard: Is Blizzard currently working with any other communities to expand participation and audience in eSports?

Kim Phan: The Overwatch League is the only one currently that is city-based, with 28 teams announced for this season. The commissioner handles expansion and team management for that sector. The other leagues we do aren’t city-based. We work with several partners and communities around the world, so it doesn’t have to just be the United States. Partners who want to run tournaments in our IP or want to run with us in one of our league structures can be anywhere worldwide.

RG: Is there ever any worry over backlash from top players over changes made to games, like what Epic Games dealt with after their championship?

KP: Well, I don’t know what exactly happened in that situation. I would say I am not really worried about that, though, because our fans are really passionate and vocal. We try to adjust our games and tournaments based on the feedback we get from our gamers and fans. My question would be: Is this the first time we have heard this, and if so, why didn’t we hear this before?

RG: What was the process like for setting up the College ESports Championship (the massive gaming tournament hosted by ESPN in Houston)?

KP: This all started with an organization called Tespa, which is partnered with Blizzard. They are one of the largest eSports networks. They were started in 2010 by twin brothers, Adam and Tyler Rosen. Tespa started off at their campus with a small chapter. From there, they grew to having over 270 chapters in North America and South Korea. Those campuses are already hosting local events with campus leaders holding LAN events within their colleges. From there, we have a competitive pillar that focuses on the official collegiate leagues, kind of like they have the other sports leagues. They do that with the major eSports titles every semester. All of them are run online to limit the travel and time away from school for students. When we boil it down to the top teams, it makes a perfect opportunity to bring them all together in an event like this.

RG: What was it like bringing ESPN in on this event?

KP: ESPN is a partner we have worked with before, with Heroes of the Storm. They are super stoked about eSports; they have a history of college eSports in the past. They came to us and said they would like to host all of our championships under one roof, which we have never done before. Before this, we were hosting the championships at separate events all around the country. This is a great opportunity for the fans to come engage and cheer for their favorite teams, because so many different titles are all in one event.

RG: What is your proudest achievement as a part of Blizzard, with all the huge events you’ve helped to create?

KP: That is a tough question, because I have been at Blizzard for 13 years and the eSports division for 6 years. I have many moments I am very proud of. This, right now, is a very proud moment as it relates to the collegiate world, because we have never done anything like this with our college championship before. It reminds me of Blizzcon, which is a big convention where we make announcements about all our games. At Blizzcon, fans can come play games, and we host our world championships there. Blizzcon brings me the most pride, because it takes the whole team at Blizzard to put together, but it’s kind of like picking your favorite child.

RG: How do you feel about the video game environment now, with so much growth in recent years?

KP: I appreciate the number of people showing interest in eSports. Collegiate is an area where it is continuing to grow, because the younger generations are ones that love to play and watch video games. It’s not just about competing; it is also about competitive entertainment. Events like this allow people to watch the things they love at the highest ability levels. If it’s something people aren’t familiar with now, then I highly encourage them to check it out. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s likely your kids are, because it’s what they do now, and it’s still growing.

I would like to thank Kim Phan and Cassandra Reynoso of the Blizzard PR team for allowing me this interview.  Additional thanks to Christopher Broward for helping me with questions and being my go-to expert in the epsorts realm.

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