The Call of Duty League is the latest major league to emerge in esports. Ran by Activision Blizzard, which launched sister competition Overwatch League in 2017, there was a reported buy-in of $25 million (£19 million) for each of the 12 slots in the league.
One of the owners in the Call of Duty League is Andbox, the company also behind Overwatch League franchise New York Excelsior and the forward-facing brand owned by venture capital fund Sterling.VC. We caught up with Rohit Gupta, Co-founder & General Manager of Andbox to discuss the company’s entrance into the CDL with New York Subliners, franchising, and investing in esports.
Esports Insider: What is it about esports that Sterling.VC found that made it think it’s worth investing in in such a big way?
Rohit Gupta: When we launched our fund, we saw gaming and esports as being a particular interesting segment for us to get involved in, partly because it was trending towards the sports angle which we have a deep relationship with. Investors in our fund are the principal owners of the New York Mets.
With this localisation happening and despite New York being the largest media market, no one was building esports here. When Overwatch League – and then later Call of Duty League – was being franchised with localisation in mind, we saw an opportunity to bring gaming and esports to New York.
“Our mission is building up the community in New York.”
ESI: Why did you decide to invest into Call of Duty League?
RG: We were already partnered with Activision Blizzard on the Overwatch League, we care deeply about the New York market and what’s great is that it’s one of the larger markets for Call of Duty fans and players. The Call of Duty World League was somewhat born out of New York with Mike Sepso and Sundance DiGiovanni, right?
All the events were done in other cities though so we felt incredibly excited to not only enter a new title but to finally bring competitive teams to New York. We’re incredibly excited to do that.
ESI: Was there ever an opportunity or a possibility that New York wouldn’t be the location that you represented in the league?
RG: We would not have been interested in any other city. Our mission is building up the community in New York and we know New York really well. We’re the only organisation based here and represent New York on the global stage with two franchises.
ESI: Call of Duty as a franchise is more violent and targeted towards adults that Overwatch. Was this an off-putting factor when deciding whether to invest into the league or otherwise?
RG: I think it opens a different audience. Also, from a sponsorship perspective, a different type of sponsor is looking to get involved. Not to take away from Overwatch – it’s a brand new game that’s very uplifting – but Call of Duty has a longstanding history and is very culturally relevant. The game publisher releases a new game every year and it’s pure entertainment. We look at it as a totally new and independent exciting opportunity for us.
“When we launched New York Excelsior, the reaction was somewhat similar but it became one of the most beloved brands in the Overwatch League.”
ESI: Do you think franchising, with localised events and solidified teams, will be what takes Call of Duty into the top-tier of esports?
RG: These are the major cities for Call of Duty, right? There was never an opportunity to bring people in New York to experience Call of Duty so we look at it as an opportunity rather than saying the competitive scene was small. It’s our purpose to help this grow and show people why those who play the game should care about the competitive side. Anyone who goes to event and experiences it are like, “Wow, this is amazing. How did I never experienced that before?”
That’s why we’re actually very excited about New York specifically because this was never done. As time goes on, it’s on all of us – the league, who’s investing a lot of dollars – to building an experience, the media, and the player profiles, rather than these one-off events that used to happen in the past. Those were core to the community and we deeply respect that but we’re excited about where the future of this goes.
ESI: The Subliners branding leaked prior to the official announcement and there was a mixed reaction to both the name and logo. How did you take that response?
RG: Honestly it was hilarious because I love how engaged the community is enough to find a name, it gets us excited that the community cares this much – it shows that we’re onto something. We were always excited about the launch of our brand and, yes, it is different to what exists in the market.
When we launched New York Excelsior, the reaction was somewhat similar but it became one of the most beloved brands in the Overwatch League. We’re excited for that to happen in the Call of Duty League too.
ESI: Can you provide some insight into the branding process? How did you decide upon the name and logo for New York Subliners?
RG: The name Subliners is born from the grit and chaos of the underground. Like our city, our team is built from the ground up to be a movement that challenges the status quo.
In short, when you think about Call of Duty and what it represents, we’re trying to mimic SEAL Team Six coming out of the water with their guns lined up with lasers, coming from the underground with a line of sight, right?
It’s not too dissimilar to how the trains work in the city, the subway system. That’s one of the inspirations that we got Subliners from. New Yorkers have where they need to go, what they need accomplish for the day, and they take the trains or the subways to go to accomplish that.
The branding is inspired by the dazzle camouflage on warships and our logo draws from bold contrasting colours and lines that intersect each other – being visually loud draws more attention than it deflects. But at high speeds, like when you play in the game, it disorients opponents and distorts their perception. We look at our logo as a provocation.
“We see Andbox as being the gaming brand for New York going forward.”
ESI: Why have you decided to partner with Esports Engine for your home series events in 2020?
RG: Adam Apicella is probably the only person in the world who’s ran events at the scale that he has for as long as he’s done it. He knows this community in and out and he knows how to run esports events in and out. So staying true to how CWL existed, we felt comfortable – especially for a city like New York – we want to host the biggest and best events in the world. Adam and Esports Engine running it puts everyone in comfort in making sure that we accomplish that.
ESI: Will you support like the amateur Call of Duty in the upcoming season?
RG: We were the first franchise to host an online tournament and that had a pretty significant price pool. I don’t have many details to provide right now but we look forward to continuing to support the path to pro and the amateur community at our future events.
ESI: Do you see a world in which Andbox competes in titles aren’t franchised or is its future solely tied into these exclusive franchised leagues?
RG: NYXL represents the New York Overwatch League team and NYSL represents the New York Call of Duty League team. Andbox is a representation of everything that we’re doing in New York, from an apparel line as well as other game titles we might enter. So yes, we see Andbox as being the gaming brand for New York going forward.
Franchising has its place and we think it’s one of the paths to be successful in esports – if not the most confident path to be successful in esports – but not every game or publisher will want to franchise. There are opportunities that we see in front of us that are good for us to enter and we will.
“We see many of the numbers that are of growth actually being conservative so we’re excited.”
ESI: What do you think of the organisation valuations published by Forbes?
RG: We’re not obviously in the know of every single organisation. I think Forbes does a good job to try to get ballpark area of valuations and there are probably misses in a lot of them. Regardless, I think it shows there’s a general interest in esports from major investors and name brand investors. This will only continue to rise because esports is a growing industry where the audience is highly attractive to brands. We see many of the numbers that are of growth actually being conservative so we’re excited and I’m glad that platforms like Forbes covers it.