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ESPN veteran to lead new Activision e-sports unit

The video game publisher has created a unit devoted to contests in which professional gamers face off against each other in front of spectators.

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Activision has formed a unit devote to professional gamers who play each other in front of spectators. Activision

Activision Blizzard said Thursday it has formed a new division that will be devoted to e-sports video games, in which professional gamers face off in front of spectators.

The video game publisher's new division will be headed up by veteran leaders of the sports and gaming communities, including Steve Bornstein, the former CEO of ESPN and NFL Network, who will serve as the unit's chairman. Mike Sepso, president and co-founder of Major League Gaming, will back him up as vice president. The Santa Monica, California-based company said the pair will be responsible for refining its e-sports experience across multiple game titles, platforms and even geographic locations.

"Celebrating our players and their unique skill, dedication and commitment is the essence of our esports initiatives," Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, said in a statement. "There are no better leaders for this new initiative than Steve and Mike. Steve has unparalleled experience in creating a sports network powerhouse and his groundbreaking leadership at ESPN and the NFL Network shaped how the whole world experiences sports. Mike's entrepreneurial vision helped make 'esports' a household word and he is uniquely positioned to take the experience to the next level."

The creation of a unit devoted to e-sports is a testament to the impact the competitions have had on the gaming world. E-sports have become a major industry, as some of the top gamers around the world battle each other in a wide range of games over the Internet. In some cases, individuals will play each other, while in others, teams will compete.

Like traditional sports such as baseball or football, these competitions are watched live by an audience as they play. The trend has spawned entire businesses, creating careers for professional gamers, who have taken in $15.7 million in the first five months of 2015, a 97 percent increase from the same period a year ago, according to market research firm Newzoo.

Companies backing the games are also cashing in, with revenue generated from merchandise, tickets, online advertising and sponsorships expected to grow 30 percent this year to more than $250 million, Newzoo said. The researcher estimates that there are more 113 million e-sports fans worldwide who tune in over the Web or attend events to see gamers competing, while another 147 million watch occasionally.

Some of the world's largest tech companies are jumping in, with Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4 streaming games live to the Internet. Amazon-owned Twitch and Google-owned YouTube, which last week launched a dedicated gaming hub, dominate e-sports viewership. Microsoft has also announced its intention to host its first-ever Halo World Championship later this year, a competition that will sport $1 million in prize money.

Even sports channel ESPN has joined in, with its magazine publishing its first e-sports issue in June featuring US National Football League player Marshawn Lynch on the cover, accompanied by stories about video games, including a profile of a League of Legends superstar player from South Korea. The company also partners with game makers to stream the world's most popular tournaments online on its ESPN3 channel.