Before we get started, I want to thank our presenting sponsor, the Entertainment Software Association, who recently launched their new Game Generation Campaign, as well as our supporting sponsor, the International Game Developers Association, for today's event.
And now let's get started with a short video to introduce our first segment.
Video Games for Good
MR. PARK: All right. Hello, everyone. Good evening. Thanks so much for coming. I'm Gene Park, and I cover video games and gaming culture for the Washington Post, part of the whole Launcher program that you just heard about, that just came out in October. Thank you so much for all of you for being here.
We have an amazing group of folks from like different corners of the gaming sphere, the gaming universe, to talk about how the industry is influencing culture at large. I, personally, like to call it the "Rock 'n' Roll of the New Millennium." So, introducing--introducing the panel here, we have Congresswoman Suzan Delbene from the great State of Washington, representing the First Congressional District. We have Lual Mayen, who is a video game developer, CEO and founder of Junub Games. We have Anita Sarkeesian, who is the founder of Feminist Frequency and a media critic. And finally, we have Mr. Ryan Green, also a game developer, and the founder and creator of the game that you just saw up there, That Dragon, Cancer, one--and that was a clip from the Game Awards.
So, before we begin, thanks--thank you so much for all--for you all coming here, coming from different parts of the country. I want to let our audience here and people tuning in online, Hey! Chat, that you can tweet questions using hashtag #PostLive, and I'll pose them to our panel later in the segment, and I'll be getting them right here on this little iPad. So, let's get started.
Lual, I want to start with you first. You were featured at the Game Awards last December, and you--where you announced your new game Salaam, which means "peace." Your journey to video games is particularly unique. You know, your status as a refugee and everything. Can you tell us about how you came about to found Junub Games? We have time.
MR. MAYEN: Yeah, for sure. Thank you for having me today. You know, video game are a very amazing medium that we can use to bring people together around the world. And the first time I got into video game, I never knew anything about video game. And one of the line I always say is that I never thought that video game are created by people; I thought they fall from heaven because like--like where I grew up I spent 22 years in a refugee camp and where because my family left South Sudan because of the war.
So when I was growing up in a refugee camp and with the journey that my family has taken for years, and I was born on the way as my family was going to the refugee camp, and all they wanted was to find a place of peace where they can be able to have like, you know, peace of mind and, you know, and have their children and everything. And it wasn't an easy journey.
So, growing up in a refugee camp, I remember one day I--I told my mother and said like I want to buy a computer. And she was like, what are you going to do with a computer because like there's no power. There's nothing. There's no school. There's nothing that you can do to be able to learn how to actually program and so on.
And being in a refugee camp wasn't like a place where someone deserved to be there, but for me I had a passion to be a programmer. And she spent three years looking for $300 to buy for me a computer. So, when she bought for me a computer, I went to an internet café where I walked three hours per day to go and charge my computer. And then somebody installed for me a video game called Grand Theft Auto.
MR. MAYEN: And so...
MR. PARK: Which one? Three? Four? Five? You forget.
MR. MAYEN: [Laughing] So I think that's like 3. And then so when I came back home, in the refugee camp, I start playing the game, and I realized the power of game, that people can be able to like, make decision whenever they are playing. You know, I'm from South Sudan. It's a country that is raped by civil war. And I realized what can I be able to do, to be able to make game for peace and conflict resolution. I never knew anything, so I had to train myself how to make my game. So, I made my first video game in the refugee camp so that I can have children in the refugee camp have something to play.
And then from there, I started like making Salaam, which is coming in--in the summer actually. So, it's a game that actually put a player in the shoes of a refugee because what we're looking at is that people have to understand the journey of the refugee. And when you're playing game, as you're making decision, you are taking a refugee from a war-torn country to a peaceful environment. And all the experiences in the game, it's about my life, it's about my mother, how she struggled.
And in the game, as you're going to your final destination, as you're going to win the game, you have to like feed your character so that they have the energy, give them food and give them medicine, so that they can go to their final destination. And what happened is that the more impactful way in the game, that when actually someone buy food in the game you are buying someone in a refugee camp food, using in-app purchases. If you buy water in the game, you're actually buying someone in the refugee camp water. So, it's a game that actually connect the virtual world and the reality on the ground.
So, like we are using the medium and the game industry to be able to give back and make people understand what is a journey, what does it take for someone to become a refugee. And that's amazing.
And one of the thing I always tell people is that when people play the game today, and in the next 10 years, they're going to be in a position where they can make decision and then they actually understand what the journey is. And that's why I love video games. They are amazing, yeah. Yeah.
MR. PARK: So, you just want people to empathize with the plight of refugees.
MR. MAYEN: Yeah. Then the empathy is the most important thing because it engage people. One thing, I was playing a game with my friend, and my friend kill my character. You know how I told him? I was like, why did you kill me? I didn't tell him, why did you kill my character? It was part of my life. It was part of something that I make the decision and work for it, yeah.
MR. PARK: And what has the response been to your game so far, like when people see what they're doing, that they're directly helping refugees?
MR. MAYEN: It's been amazing. It's been really great because it's something new which is a challenge and for us to like execute that. So, what we're doing is partner with organization and partner with people in the game industry that has been in the journey. And that has been really amazing to see game studios and helping us and supporting us through the journey, and it's been amazing.
Someone one day called me, and he said that, when
I see my son playing your game and having in-app purchases helping someone in a refugee camp, it's not like playing Fortnite and, you know, all this stuff. Right? But like people really understand what games are and how we can be able to help, and we can impact the world and make the world a better place, yeah.
MR. PARK: It's amazing, too, recontextualize in-app purchases in that way. It's pretty incredible.
MR. MAYEN: Yeah, thank you. Yeah.
MR. PARK: Yeah, thanks so much, Lual.
MR. MAYEN: Yeah.
MR. PARK: Congresswoman, let's start--let's go with you now. Before serving in Congress, you worked in business, software development, and in Microsoft for over a decade. You've also talked about playing video games with your son. I know that you play Golf Story because the Congresswoman was here for our Twitch program last year and she destroyed Political Reporter Dave Weigel in Golf Story.
MR. PARK: Like it was like not even like a competition.
REP. DELBENE: [Laughing]
MR. PARK: But as a tech industry veteran, a parent, a woman and a lawmaker, how have you seen video games evolve?
REP. DELBENE: Well, I think it's a medium. And just as you talked about how you were able to take this and use it to convey a message and to engage people, I think that's also how we should think about the opportunities when we look at games. It's a chance for folks to learn and be engaged, sometimes learn when they don't know they're learning because we sometimes learn the best when we're having fun and don't realize that we're being educated as part of it. It's a way to bring people together. And so, the creativity that's been unlocked as more people get engaged has been really interesting, and I think the work that you're doing has really shown that.
And it is--it's--there's an approachability to technology that I think is important. You have somebody who can maybe engage in a game that doesn't use technology as much and gets engaged and involved. And we find that when it comes to helping people learn to code, for example, making a game, things like Hour of Code, for a way of kind of making it a game, and people all of a sudden realize they were programming, and they didn't know that.
The ability to kind of engage both technology and creativity is so important when you have the artists who are working on games and the creativity that's involved because we know great innovation happens when people think out of the box, and creativity is a big part of that. We talk about STEM education, but we talk about STEAM. And I think when we talk about the types of products that come here, that interface, that interaction is so important. And those are helpful in a lot of other ways going forward.
So--but I do think the ability to tell a story, to engage communities in that story, to help people get to know each other in different ways, I think is an incredible opportunity that is--we're seeing more and more of now.
MR. PARK: I'm glad you brought up STEM education because a few years ago you hosted an event for Teach a Girl to Tech Day, and you played Mario Kart with elementary and middle school aged girls.
REP. DELBENE: I'm not as good at Mario Kart as I was at Golf Story.
MR. PARK: Yeah. And so how can gaming promote women in STEM-related fields?
REP. DELBENE: Well, because of that engaging folks in ways that they may not expect. I think sometimes you go in a room, and you sit down, and it has been--technology traditionally has been sometimes intimidating. And when you allow someone individually to get engaged and involved, to maybe get a--to find it to be approachable because it's something you're interested in. As I said, you learn without realizing it, and then you start to have ideas and maybe talk to other people about it and have the opportunity then to maybe get more involved and realize there are opportunities there.
Young women, in particular, I think have always kind of felt that there weren't as many opportunities in technology, and we find when you let them have that opportunity to engage and find ways that are interesting for them, you break down those barriers.
And I think we have the opportunity for people to engage with technology in ways that are comfortable to them. It might be the different type of game they choose, et cetera--
MR. PARK: Yeah, mm-hmm.
REP. DELBENE: --that helps get them engaged and involved, and then their great ideas are things that we can see in the future.
And the diversity of folks who are involved in building different technology and building games, that diversity gives us the diversity of opportunities and experiences that we're starting to see unlocked because more--lots of people are coming together, not just a smaller group, but from across the country but also around the world.
MR. PARK: Mm-hmm. Engagement is boring--
REP. DELBENE: Yes.
MR. PARK: --you want them to be able to learn. I definitely didn't want to learn math but had to. So...
REP. DELBENE: But sometimes you learn, and you don't know you're learning--
MR. PARK: Yeah, exactly.
REP. DELBENE: --and sometimes that's the best part.
MR. PARK: Well, that's the best part. Right?
REP. DELBENE: Yes.
MR. PARK: Anita, I think this is a good opportunity to bring you in and talk about culture. Even backstage, we were talking about how your work has been about the broader culture and not even just about video games. But, how has your work as a media critic through Feminist Frequency helped open up dialogue in terms of female perspectives in the video game industry in particular?
MS. SARKEESIAN: [Laughing]
MR. PARK: I know there's a long history there. So...
MS. SARKEESIAN: Well, yeah.
MR. PARK: Right.
MS. SARKEESIAN: Which side of that would you like to know?
MR. PARK: Yeah.
MS. SARKEESIAN: I think that--well, what was it? Eight years ago now, I launched a series that looked at the way women were represented in video games, particularly the bad ways women are represented in gaming. There's a very long history of misogyny and racism and transphobia and homophobia in gaming. And the work that I do as a feminist media critic is to try to find those patterns and show people that they exist and give them tools for how to move forward and how to make games better. It was received...[laughing]. There was a lot of people very angry at me, if we want to be kind about it.
MR. PARK: Asterisk, asterisk.
MS. SARKEESIAN: Yeah.
MR. PARK: [Laughing]
MS. SARKEESIAN: But the part that I am more interested in than all of the hate was that the industry itself, many people in the industry itself, were really engaged with the work. They were very hungry to learn more, to--you know. One of the best things that I heard was developers would come up to me at events and say, "Hey, you critiqued my game, and I'm so glad you did, and I'm not going to do that again. Right? I'm not going to have a damsel in my game. I'm not going to use a woman's body as a reward for players."
And that, all of that, allowed us to start moving forward as an industry in some ways, to talk about like what do we want out of our games, what do those look like, what--whose stories are worth telling, and how do we tell them. And the other side of that is who gets to tell those stories, who gets hired, who gets the opportunity to make games, and what does that look like.
And so in addition to my work, I think that there has been a huge opening in the last decade of feminists, intersectional feminists, media critics talking about this across industry and really being able to have that perspective amplified in a way that previously was kind of stuck in academia or in smaller communities.
MR. PARK: Yeah, always with these like ludonarrative-type like discussions or whatever, and it kind of broke out into the mainstream.
Given what you've seen since then and these conversations that we're having, that you've been having, how hopeful are you? Like where do you think we are today?
MS. SARKEESIAN: I don't know.
MR. PARK: It sounds like there's been--the needle has moved a little bit, but--you know.
MS. SARKEESIAN: Yeah, of course. I mean, I think it depends on what day you ask me that question. You know. It is--it's one of those, you know, everyone wants to hear that things are getting better, and they don't want to hear that it's not.
The reality is a lot of things are getting worse, globally, politically, and that video games are a part of that space where we're having these massive cultural wars about like retaining and holding on to the status quo or really working towards a progressive future that is liberatory [sic] for everybody. And video games were one of the first mainstream arenas in which that war kind of erupted out of.
MR. PARK: Mm-hmm.
MS. SARKEESIAN: So, you know, in some ways, it's worse. I think that the communities--the hateful, aggressive, vitriolic communities are more emboldened and empowered to spread hate. And in other ways, I think that there is such a conversation blooming that developers are really trying to do better. And I have seen some of that progress over the years--
MR. PARK: Mm-hmm.
MS. SARKEESIAN: --where, you know, bringing in consultants or--or being mindful of hiring practices or, you know, taking--like if a particular aspect of a game is critiqued, correcting it without defensiveness, without, you know, all of it. And so, in that way, I think we are seeing some progress, but it does feel a little bit like one step forward, two steps back.
MR. PARK: Mm-hmm. A lot of it has to do with that the onus is on the developers, but is there an onus on the audience too, as well? You know, like as consumers. Right?
MS. SARKEESIAN: Sure. I mean, the audience can not be terrible [laughing] to other--to developers and other folks. I think--I think that for me it's important that the public and game players and media consumer--or media--people engaged with media in general have the tools to be able to interpret what they are engaging with.
And I think like you're saying earlier, that we learn the most when we don't think we're learning--
MR. PARK: Mm-hmm.
MS. SARKEESIAN: --and media is one of those arenas where we don't think we're learning. So, what are the messages and values embedded in our media that we are passively taking in on a, you know, day-to-day, decade-after-decade, for example?
And that's what I like to do. I like to give people the language to just identify it, not necessarily don't play that game. You know, I kind of scoffed when you talked about Grand Theft Auto, but it's not necessarily like don't play that game; it's play it, but be aware of what's in it. You know. Have your brain kind of turned on and engage with it.
MR. PARK: Mm-hmm.
MS. SARKEESIAN: And so that's--that's--you know. We have a motto at Feminist Frequency. "Be critical of the media you love." Really trying to give permission to folks to have that kind of complicated relationship with media, and I think that's how we move forward.
MR. PARK: Mm-hmm. That's fantastic, and I think that's a great way to kind of pivot to Ryan and the kind of messages that you put out there, specifically, That Dragon, Cancer. For anyone who might not know, can you just talk about the game in general?
MR. GREEN: Yeah, sure. That Dragon, Cancer was a poetic retelling of the life of our family and our third son, my wife and I, Amy's third son Joel, who was diagnosed with cancer, a very aggressive brain cancer, when he was one year old. And despite the terminal diagnosis that he received when he was two years old, he lived for four more years. And so, in that span of time, we endeavored to create this video game that reflected the--his life, and reflected our personal and spiritual journey.
And so, you know, I grew up in a culture that told me that the culture--a subculture that told me that broader culture would hate me for my faith. And as Christians, you know, we wanted to share with people the love and the power of God. And in the midst of this struggle, we thought, "Wow! What if we could tell this video game story about being helpless, being--having things out of our control, and the miracle that was happening in Joel's life. What if Joel lived."
And you know, you think often video games are spoken of as power fantasies. You know? And so, in that sense, we almost went into it with a power fantasy of our own. You know, what would it look like if God showed up in the way that we dictated and the world could see that?
Unfortunately, Joel passed away in 2014, and what started out as this story that we were hoping to tell of a miracle became Joel's memorial. And--but what was amazing is that that culture that we told, that was--you know, that I grew up believing was going to reject us, embraced us. They made room for us. At every level of the games industry and the broader culture in general, they made space for us to tell our story. It wasn't a story of power; it was a story of helplessness. And it was--but it was still the story of hope. You know?
And I think that the common thing that I see in this culture is that we all feel a little hopeless and helpless, and that things are swirling that are out of our control, that violently want to destroy us. You know?
And so, what we experienced in releasing this game was a moment where the people chose to love us in the midst of our weakness. And so, you know, it's--is a privilege to be able to have that experience, and I know that many people don't, especially people on this stage. But it was a glimmer, to me, of something that we could endeavor to when we consume and create our media because we love video games and believe that it is a medium in which we can introduce ourselves and that I can learn more about you and we can have a conversation about who we are.
MR. PARK: I just want to mention also that That Dragon, Cancer is available for playing outside in arcades. So, if you guys want to check out this beautiful game, you should definitely check it out. Just, you saw the art. It looks amazing.
I also want to ask you one more thing before we get to some audience questions too. What kind of stories have you told, like that have been told you to you, in terms of like how it's helped, it might have helped people process their grief and their own sorrow?
MR. GREEN: Oh, um...
MR. PARK: Or how has that made you feel? How--
MR. GREEN: Well, I think one of the things that struck me the most in going into the industry is how many people would just--I believe it was Jerry Holkins, one of the founders of PAX. He told me at the first PAX event; he's like, "You traded in a currency of intimacy, and people wanted to pay you back."
And so, what ended up happening is that we would be in these conventions with--if you've ever been to a consumer convention, it's 100,000 people all in costume, right, of their favorite characters and just--just hungry for their favorite games. And we were in there in the midst, hugging each other. They were telling us stories of their lives. They were telling stories of the children that they had lost, the family members that had gone before them. And we shared an intimacy that was rather peculiar in that context.
And so, I think that this game has given us permission to talk about hard things long after people stop asking about them.
MR. PARK: Wonderful. We have a question from Katie [phonetic] on Facebook. Katie, thanks so much for watching. Have you all--and this is for any of you, by the way. Have you had--heard of any games for the elderly and for those with dementia? Is that something that we know about? I haven't heard.
MS. SARKEESIAN: No, but I believe that one of the speakers coming on later might know.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So, we can--we can address that later.
And here is the other question. What responsibility does the gaming community have to address issues like the addictive nature of video games and also violence as well?
MS. SARKEESIAN: Sorry. The what nature?
MR. PARK: The--what responsibility does the gaming community have to address issues like the addictive nature of video games? Video game addiction, basically. Any thoughts on that?
MR. GREEN: I would like to say that when I examine myself and I look at my consumer behavior, right, I find that I am reliant on subscription services to consume my media. Right? And so, I am part--you know, I am part of that. When a business looks at that, they're looking at like how do I optimize? Right? Like how do I optimize for people playing? How do I optimize for retention? How do I optimize for any of those things?
And so, you'll see that the designs follow that. Right? Like they have to optimize so that they can continue to run. Right? And with prices being--continue to press down because we want everything for less, it becomes more and more difficult for a diversity of voices to be included in the industry.
So, I'm not here to say that we should get rid of those things. I like gaming. I like gambling sometimes. I like things that, you know, may be--could be addictive. So, there's that as a consumer I have to be aware of.
But I think if our industry believes in the medium that we love, that we should be investing in the things that will diversify voices. And that's not just about all the typical spheres that we talk about, but it's also age, and it's also, you know, where we are in our time of lives and type of stories that we're telling as we grow older. I'm 40, almost 40, and I grew up with video games. The stories I'm interested are way different than they were when I was 18, but the audience hasn't quite--they're still a few years off. You know?
And so, I think that if we invest in the future, in being a patron of the arts in that way, that I think we're going to see continued growth.
MR. PARK: I think as a consumer it kind of reminds me of what Anita just said, too, about being a more critical reader, essentially. Right? And being critical of what you love and making sure that you don't get addicted to it. You know?
MS. SARKEESIAN: Yeah. I mean, I wasn't going to say anything because I don't--I'm not--there's a lot of research and work being done in the field of gaming right now, but I'm not--
MR. PARK: Yeah, and I also don't want to use addiction as like--
MS. SARKEESIAN: Yeah.
MR. PARK: --as too much a word either.
MS. SARKEESIAN: Yeah. And it's not an area of study that I'm--I feel like I can speak to, but I think that it is real and that we should provide, or we should have, mechanisms of support as we would with any other kind of issue that might arise. And if it's something specifically happening in games, then you know, we should definitely be conscious and aware of that and provide those tools.
I'm going to shamelessly plug something right now actually because it sort of doesn't smoothly go, but I'm doing it anyways because I've been thinking a lot about how do we support each other in the games community.
Last year "Me Too" hit the games industry where several women and nonbinary folks came out around abusive men in the industry. And at Feminist Frequency, we were like, "Well, crap. What are we going to do?" because we know something about toxicity, and we know something about video games. And we decided to launch a couple of initiatives, and so we're about to launch a hotline. It's the Games and Online Harassment Hotline, and it is for anyone in the orbit of games, whether you're a player, a competitor, a developer. It is a professionally staffed hotline that is there for folks when they need it. So, if it is around issues of addiction or you're having a hard time at work with crunch, or whatever it might be, we will be there to support you and provide referrals to other--other networks and resources that are familiar with games, specifically. And that's not live yet, but you can get information for it at GamesHotline.org.
MR. PARK: Wow.
REP. DELBENE: I was just going to add we have to remember how to engage at people-to-people again. It's not just gaming. Most people are on their phones right now. Probably a lot of folks in the audience have their phones, too. You can be in a room where you're supposed to be talking to people, and people are sitting there not actually interacting. And so, there's a cultural aspect that we have to think about, of the value of actually true, you know, face-to-face communication, talking to each other again, understanding how those--how important those connections are. And it's--that's, I think, a broader issue than just gaming alone, but I think it's something that's happening in our culture in a lot of different ways that we should be very conscious of.
MR. PARK: Yeah, I miss people's faces. So...
MR. PARK: The last question--and just kind of a lightening round. It's a lighter one. What games for good have inspired you, basically, or what games have you made you feel good?
MS. SARKEESIAN: Oh, shit.
MR. PARK: Ooh. We could start with...
MS. SARKEESIAN: Sorry.
MR. PARK: We can start with you.
REP. DELBENE: I just was--we were talking about Golf Story earlier.
MR. PARK: Yeah.
REP. DELBENE: I mean, for me, it's that fun, of that combination of being able to like play Golf Story with my son, to sit with someone and play and engage. It could be online, or it could be just sitting in a room with someone. I think there's an opportunity to do something fun, where you can have a little bit of a competition back and forth, and that's, you know, light-hearted and engaging.
And so, there's many different types of games out there. I don't spend a lot of time. I don't get a lot of time to play, but...
MR. PARK: You're not that busy. It's fine.
REP. DELBENE: But I think those are the things for me that kind of fit that mix, that are fun to do and that aren't--because a lot of gaming can be back to the kind of comment it can be hugely time-consuming. And so being able to do something, engage and disconnect and be done, I think that's a nice thing versus feeling like you have to, you know, stay on it forever.
MR. PARK: We have--we actually have a question for Lual, and I guess this will be the last one then. Can you discuss more about the specific ways video games can help build peace, reduce ethnic conflict, especially in the international context? It's a big question.
MR. MAYEN: Yeah.
MR. PARK: A big question.
REP. DELBENE: And you have two minutes.
MR. PARK: Can you save us?
MR. MAYEN: [Laughing] Yeah. I mean, that's really a big question for me because it's also area of my focus.
MR. PARK: Mm-hmm.
MR. MAYEN: And you know, to me, I feel like true peace is something that is built over time, and it's--we are an industry that is defined by people that love what they want to play. And to me, when we design game, more game should be more on stories and letting people understand really what are the causes of war, what are--what does it mean to live in a peaceful environment. So, the more you play that, it give you that idea of like having that peace of mind and understanding the stories of what are the--what are the causes of war and what can--what can we be able to do to respond to war.
I have a game that is more--that actually help people to really respond. How do they understand peace, or how do they understand war? How do they respond when there's war somewhere? So, it bring people together and discuss about war and conflict, and put their own input on what--how they can be able to resolve conflict. So, I feel like games are a really powerful tool to be able to like really help people think about that, yeah.
MR. PARK: Okay. We have two more questions, I guess.
MR. MAYEN: Yeah.
MR. PARK: So basically, we'll continue. Oh, go ahead, Ryan.
MR. GREEN: I was just going to say, I mean, the thing that I've most noticed about joining the games industry professionally is all the people that I've met that are not like me.
And so, like that for one has caused me to treat people like humans rather than groups. Right? And I think that the more we do that, and the more that our work both gets people next to each other on the couch, playing games together, or in their favorite sport, esports, playing game together, or sharing their stories through this medium, the more we will humanize each other, I hope.
MR. PARK: Anita, anything else you'd like to add?
MS. SARKEESIAN: I think I'm excited--you were asking about games that we're interested--
MR. PARK: For good.
MS. SARKEESIAN: Yeah, and I--
MR. PARK: The games that made you feel good.
MS. SARKEESIAN: My brain always just goes blank whenever anyone asks me about games--
MR. PARK: Yeah.
MS. SARKEESIAN: --like specific games. And I'm hopeful that games like Ryan's and folks who can do things that are different, that--I get so excited when we see games that are pushing boundaries, that are trying new things, that are telling different stories in different ways because the thing about games is that they're so unique. They're unlike any other form of media we have. And I would love to see this industry--and I'm enjoying watching this industry--experiment with what it means to use that interactivity and storytelling to make impacts.
And games for good can be everything from like, you know, we're going to educate you on a very specific, you know, conflict or issue or what have you, but it can also be--you know, it can be a queer woman of color who gets to go into space, right, as the main protagonist, and that like girls get to play that growing up, for example. And so, I'm excited about the range that we're slowly starting to see in this space.
MR. PARK: Okay. Well, that's about all the time we have for tonight. The four of you, thank you so much for coming all the way out here to D.C. and to our newsroom to talk about this. It's been such a pleasure to have you all here, yeah. Thank you so much.
The Growing Impact of Video Games
MR. TURNER: Hey, guys, how's it going?
Good. My name is Jeff Turner. I work at The Washington Post. I run ad product, here. My role is really to connect our brands with our community, here, our core readers and subscribers, and I'm going to be moderating the panel here today on The Power of Play, basically how the video game industry is creating its own community that--and that community is transcending culture, driving innovation, and that will ultimately transform the way that we teach, learn, heal, and play.
So, with me I have Stanley Pierre-Louis, who is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Entertainment Software Association. Stan and the ESA recently released a campaign called "The Game Generation," and that brings to light the positive social impact aspects of video games, beyond just having fun. So, we'll touch a bit on that during this panel.
Also, I have Renee Gittins, who is the Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association. Renee and the IGDA are on a mission to support and empower game developers, and recently released a developers' satisfaction survey, which we'll also get into.
And finally, Susanna Pollack, who is the President of Games for Change. And Games for Change and Susanna are responsible for the video game arcade that is outside. So, if you have not visited pre-meeting, please check that out. It's super, super cool.
So, thanks for joining me, I really appreciate it.
To start, my first question is really to Stan: The video game industry is the fastest growing form of entertainment in the United States. And what I think I'm really wondering is how influential is this community at large, and how do you really view that?
MR. PIERRE-LOUIS: Well, thanks for having us, and thank you all for coming.
You know, the video game industry is actually enriching our culture and strengthening our economy, and it does it in a number of ways. But first, let me just give some statistics so people understand the scale and scope of the industry.
65 percent of American adults play video games. That's 164 million American adults, and it spans all demographics. You have just as many people who are over 50 playing as you do under 18. And in fact, 46 percent of gamers are women. The average age is 33. Now, what that shows is there's a span of audiences that you need to reach, and we're seeing more and more games reach those audiences, and yet many times we find that video games are put in a negative light, and I'll give you an example.
If I'm binge-watching my favorite program over the weekend on my tablet, people would be excited to know what I thought of the show and did I get to the end. But if I spent the weekend trying to get all to the gaming levels of my game, they'll wonder what's going on.
MR. TURNER: Right, right, right.
MR. PIERRE-LOUIS: And the flipside should be the case, and that's why we launched the Game Generation, because we want to celebrate what video games bring to our culture, our society, to our families, and to our economy, but mainly what it does to bring us together.
And we're finding a few things. First of all, people play video games because they're challenging and they're fun. And if you haven't played in a while, go back and play the modern games and you will be very excited about what you see.
But we're finding that there are side benefits that people are talking about. And some of that got discussed on the first panel and some you'll talk about later on this evening. Community: You heard that word several times. 65 percent of people play together either in person or online because of community, and that's what really fueled the tremendous growth of our industry.
Esports, I think, is an offshoot of that. It's another form of communal playing.
You're also seeing inclusivity becoming a primary goal of the industry. And probably the most heralded of these developments has been the Xbox adaptive controller, which is a new controller out about a little over a year that allows people of different abilities, different physical abilities to play.
And you probably saw the Super Bowl ad last year for the Xbox adaptive controller, which was the most moving Super Bowl ad, I think, played. So, that's exciting.
And then, the other thing you're seeing in the video game community is a growth of video games being used in other fields. And so, in education, for example, the largest provider of civics education today is a company called iCivics. It's free to middle schoolers and was developed as a legacy project by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. And that's exciting to know that her passion for making sure that the next generation of leaders got a civics education comes through a video game. So, I think the future is really bright and bold for our society because of what video games do for us.
MR. TURNER: Yeah, and the tremendous scale that comes along with it, as well.
MR. PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah.
MR. TURNER: Renee, to you, so we were catching up backstage, and you were saying that you've done everything from marketing to building to playing around video games. So, you're--in terms of the size and scope and growth, you've been part of that.
How do you feel that video games are helping bring together people within the community, you know, from all different backgrounds, aspects, et cetera?
MS. GITTINS: Yeah, well, you really see communities based around games everywhere, whether they're in stadiums cheering for their favorite esports team or around late-night playing of Mario Kart and Halo, or even in online communities, both within and outside of the games themselves.
Last night, I was playing World of Warcraft with my guild of 14 years. Before I met games, I had been kind of an awkward, shy kid without any friends. And video games not only inspired confidence in me, but online games allowed me to--sorry, online games allowed me to practice my social skills and to make friends. So, now that these friends of 14 years--we've helped each other get jobs. We've supported each other through hard times and we've even, well, fallen in love. So, you can see the development of these communities everywhere.
And my story is really not unique. Games build bonds and friendships, whether they are online or in-person. I think we can really see that games bring people together everywhere.
MR. TURNER: To that point, so, Susanna, we were catching up on some of the actual--bringing together different abilities, actual physical abilities, and I know you wanted to elaborate a little bit on that, and how people from different physical abilities and backgrounds can really be--feel included as part of this overall community.
MS. POLLACK: Yeah, so, the wonderful nature about games is that you can step in and experience something, one, anonymously, or step into the role of another person, or connect with people from diverse locations, diverse backgrounds, and reach out and be an equal, right, and overcome perhaps sensitivities or maybe what you experienced before you discovered games.
So, games have this opportunity to bring people across countries, geographical locations, socioeconomic backgrounds, ages. You know, we have--one of the things that we've been seeing and tracking is the amount of activity that seniors are playing. I know there was a question from the earlier panel.
But the AARP has done a lot of research about how their community really enjoys games, and they've gotten to the point where they're starting to--commissioning and partnering on how to bring game experiences to their communities. So, there is this special quality about games that even the playing field and that anyone can participate in.
MR. TURNER: Fantastic. So, I wanted to touch a little bit about the IDGA's latest report card. I scanned through it. I was hoping you could elaborate for those in the audience who have not.
MS. GITTINS: Yeah, so the IDGA runs the developers' satisfaction survey to get an understanding of the state of the game development community and how it has changed over time.
And this most recent survey has shown a lot of really promising results. We've seen a growth in women within the game industry, now representing 24 percent of game developers, and we've seen a growth of participation in game development from countries all around the world.
We're really seeing the game development industry sort of blooming and coming into not only the best place it can be with diversity and creativity, but along with stability. And it really is showing the success of games and the growth of the game industry.
MR. TURNER: And so, Stan, we were talking a little bit about examples of the video game industry as a booming job sector.
I was hoping you could give just kind of your thoughts on how video games are changing other industries, not just the gaming industry itself, but kind of that path down the line.
MR. PIERRE-LOUIS: Sure, absolutely. First of all, in terms of the economic sector, we're an engine for economic growth. Right now, the video game industry represents $43 billion in revenue in the U.S. alone, and you're seeing that job creation is part of that story. More than 220,000 jobs created through the video game industry, and all high-paying jobs.
And so, it's one of these industries that continues to grow and have international impact because we're a trade surplus industry. And part of that is the fact that we are seeing a gamification of lots of other industries.
So, you're seeing, for example, in the medical field, doctors being trained using VR tools to enhance their abilities.
You're also seeing physical therapy sessions now involving games to enhance and increase the engagement that patients have in their rehabilitation therapy.
And you're also seeing it in job training. UPS, for example, uses VR training to assist drivers in looking for hazards and understanding what may come down the road, literally.
And you're also seeing Wal-Mart onboarding its new employees for store management but also for things like Black Friday management, when you've got an overwhelming number of people coming to shop.
So, you're beginning to see the gamification of everything, and that's fueling even more engagement with games.
MR. TURNER: Yeah, Susanna.
MS. POLLACK: Yeah, I'd like to add, too, about the opportunity that learning how to make games is also a fantastic opportunity for young people to learn STEM, STEAM skills, and other 21st century skills.
The process of making a game, of course, includes coding, right, and there's that piece of it, but thinking like a designer and thinking, like, how to problem solve, the critical thinking skills, some of the softer skills that are very transferrable to many different industries are skills that we're seeing are being activated and encouraged within the middle and high school level.
And of course, it opens up their minds, they're thinking, "Oh, my god, I can be a creator of this content I love so much as opposed to just being a consumer," and that has encouraged a lot of young people to--forward in this path.
MS. GITTINS: So, I mentored high school students in game development, and just over an internship of 6 or 12 months, they showed so much more interest in the topics they were studying in school, because they learned how they could apply toward something that they were passionate about.
I mean, any subject you can think of, even history, can have applications within video games. And seeing those all come together in one medium is really wonderful and inspires kids.
MR. TURNER: Yeah, and we were talking a lot about, like, the social good of that, like human empowerment of learning and accomplishing those tasks.
MS. POLLACK: Yeah, there's something, I mean, inherent in playing games, about that sense of, well, purpose, determination. You learn tenacity, resilience, and of course there's the motivation to achieve and to master a skill. All of that is inherent in any commercial game, but think about applying that to a learning environment, right?
MR. PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, in fact, in the learning environment, they are finding that it does enhance student interest. 71 percent of teachers, in fact, say when they use digital games for learning, kids not only want to learn more but they enhance their computational skills. So--
MR. TURNER: You mean they retain that--
MR. PIERRE-LOUIS: They retain it and they learn the computational aspects of it even more so. It is fueling a lot of interest in STEM, as you said, but also in learning, in general.
MR. TURNER: So, this is a good segue to my last question for each of you, which is if you're projecting ten years down the road, what do you think the lasting impact is going to be on the video game industry--of video games? Like, is it the social good aspect? Is it the technical aspect?
What do you think is going to have that lasting impact?
MR. PIERRE-LOUIS: Well, I certainly think the social good aspect is going to be enormous. And in fact, in addition to some of the things you heard on the first panel, you're finding that video games are now starting to play a role in larger societal issues.
One example is that the UN has started looking at sustainability in lots of areas, and they knocked on the door of the video game industry and said, "What are some of the things you're doing?"
And many of our industry leaders had a lot to announce. For example, Xbox announced that they are going to be putting out 825,000 consoles that are carbon-neutral as part of a larger plan that Microsoft has for being carbon-negative.
You're also finding that games are starting to put in themes about going green, and companies working with source materials that are ecofriendly. So, you're seeing the environment and social issues, but you're also seeing more health outcomes.
And I think also the future of 5G rollout and gaming in the--
MR. TURNER: Oh, yeah, completely.
MR. PIERRE-LOUIS: --cloud is going to be something that we're looking forward to in the future.
MS. GITTINS: Yeah, I mean, within the IGDA, we're seeing a lot of game developers really taking interest and supporting these social issues.
We just had a climate special interest group that got started. And of course, we have a ton of advocacy groups, like women in games, black [unclear] in games, LatinX, LGBTQ+, and it really shows that these communities come together within games and work to support others in their community and promote their values.
MS. POLLACK: I see the marriage between mission-oriented organizations and video games as something that we are going to be seeing a lot more of.
And at Games for Change, we see that already as being a connecter of these communities. But working with organizations like the UN or the Red Cross, or federal agencies like the National Institute of Health that's putting a lot of research into how these games can affect our lives in a positive way.
And it no longer becomes theory but it actually becomes evidence-based research that says how that can be achieved. And I think there is going to be more and more acceptance in seeing video games in all of the sectors of our lives, not just entertainment.
MR. TURNER: That's--I completely agree, especially with brands thinking so much about the social good impact and what they can do for everybody.
So, thank you very much. I really appreciate. Thank you, everyone, for participating, and this panel.
Like I mentioned, Games for Change put on the arcade outside. So, after this, please make sure you stop by.
Thank you very much.
Accessibility and Video Gaming
MR. PARK: All right. Hello again, everyone. I'm Gene Park, again, with The Washington Post. Good to see you, again.
And I am joined here by gamer advocate and Chief Operations Officer of AbleGamers Charity, Steven Spohn.
We're going to talk about how he makes video games more accessible, the mission of AbleGamers, and how controller technology has evolved, as well as your own personal journey.
Before we get started, I again want to remind you that you can tweet questions for Steve using the #PostLive, and I'll get to a couple later in our discussion.
But Steve, tell us about your story. How did you first get into gaming? Tell us about your gaming journey?
MR. SPOHN: Oh, you know, gaming for me was really a way of life. It is something that is very cliché in our industry, but for me it really was.
You know, when I was in high school, my friends were beginning to go into clubs and they were beginning to go to these social functions that I couldn't. And our local club in Pittsburgh had one stair just outside of it, that--well, it could have been a moat to the castle for me. It was all the same. You know, I couldn't participate.
But I could take my Nintendo to my buddy's garage and we could go play, you know, games--NES games and hang out with all of our people. And really, that just ramped up from there, when it was a matter of going to online worlds like Ultima Online, where you could meet people for the first time and really form friendships and bonds.
MR. PARK: It was the online community that really helped you kind of reach out with folks, right?
MR. SPOHN: Yeah, you know, the great thing about online video gaming is just the social exposure you get. If you have a mind that's willing and a body that's unable, you know, video games can really open a window to an otherwise inaccessible world.
We have these situations where people can't get out into just society as--at large. What we don't talk about a lot in video gaming and, really, just the general media and loneliness and how it's an epidemic, how everyone experiences loneliness now and again, and gaming can stop that. You know, you can form these bonds with people that are amazing.
You know, we were just joking about it in the green room when, you know, it's not about distance; it's about closeness. You know, you and I can be a country apart but we can still be extremely close and form a friendship that will last for decades by playing together in virtual worlds.
MR. PARK: Well, I mean, that's amazing because so much of us--back there in the green room, we've all known of each other.
MR. SPOHN: Yeah.
MR. PARK: You know, I've been following you for a long time. You've been following my friend, John, back there.
John, what's up?
And then, like, but we never really hung out, but it feels like we know each other pretty well, right?
MR. SPOHN: Yeah, you just click right into it. You know, when we think about when we were young and it was, don't talk to strangers on the Internet. And now, it's, you know, some of your best friends can be from the Internet. And I don’t see a difference between Internet friendships and real friendships because to me they're real.
MR. PARK: Yeah, and it doesn't freak you out when you meet someone from online, right?
MR. SPOHN: The only thing that freaks me out is whenever--it's like who--"Oh, you're so-and-so@twitter. Okay, got you. Yeah."
MR. PARK: Yeah. How did you become--how did you come to join the leadership at AbleGamers? Tell me about how you got involved with them. Where did that start?
MR. SPOHN: Yeah, that was an amazing story, where, so, an amazing gentleman named Mark Barlet started AbleGamers, founded 15 years ago. And right after the inception of AbleGamers, he had had a blog on--just a website with a blog, and it was an article up there about how you can't play World of Warcraft with only one hand. And I was 25 and I knew everything and I was, like, "Ha-ha, Mark Barlet, I got you now." And I sent off a message, "Ha, you suck. No, you can do this."
And fortunately for me, he didn't turn me away. I was the arrogant little 20-year-old that I was--he said, "All right, Steve, you think you can do better? Write it."
So, I wrote it and I wrote how you can play with just one hand, whether you're putting two hands together on a mouse, like I do, or whether you only have one hand that you can game with on the mouse, and you can play.
And it got some traction. Somebody actually reached out to me and said, "Thank you. I didn't know you could do that and now I can play World of Warcraft." So, then, I went, "Okay, this is cool."
So, then, I wrote another one and another one, and people kept coming to me and saying, "Hey, I didn't know this was possible and you changed my life." And I suddenly realized, wait a minute, so, I came to AbleGamers because I wanted to find a way that I could game, but then, I found out what felt even better was making other people be able to game.
MR. PARK: That's a great transition into what the work that you at AbleGamers have done with Microsoft and Microsoft Xbox.
MR. SPOHN: Yeah.
MR. PARK: There's a device called the adaptive controller. Amazing device, I've never used it, but it's gotten so much praise. It's gotten awards for what it's done. Can you--it's helped widen the spectrum of who can play.
Can you talk to us about the collaboration? How were you involved? What did they ask you? What were some of the things that their designers had to keep in mind?
MR. SPOHN: Yeah, no, it was amazing working with Microsoft and Xbox on this controller.
So, AbleGamers had come up with a controller called an Adroit Switchblade, and it essentially did exactly what the XAC did, but it was about $400, which is a hefty price tag.
MR. PARK: Not exactly accessible.
MR. SPOHN: No, not even accessible to most of us, let alone if you have a disability, right?
So, what Xbox was able to do was take that idea, take that concept of being able to put switches all around your body--just think about the Staples "easy" button. Right? You can't hold a controller but I can put a bunch of buttons around you and you can play them like a keyboard, then you can play on an Xbox, right?
So, if you can do that for $100 or a little bit more, then that's grandma money, that is friend money. They can give you an Xbox controller for Christmas.
So, what was amazing about that was working with them in secrecy for three-and-a-half years. I can't believe we all kept it a secret, and it was mostly because there were golden robots in my closet that were going to jump out and beat me if I talked about it.
MR. PARK: Jeff Bezos, get on that--no, kidding, kidding.
MR. SPOHN: So, but it was amazing, because we got to consult very early with it and help them from the ground up.
And my favorite story to tell, which I'll probably be visited by a golden robot later tonight is they couldn't show us the original prototype because the lawyers didn't want us to see it, even though we were ground-level consultants. So, they drew it on a piece of paper, and they're like, "Here's what it's going to look like." And then, we got to tell them sort of where our pain points were and, you know, what they could do better than we could, working.
And again, we built these with a company called Evil Controllers, one at a time, literally, and that was as cheap as we could make them, was $395. So, you know, being able to make them was a dream come true because we got to help a lot of people.
MR. PARK: What were some of the pain points? And there was a discussion backstage where you were talking about "easy mode," right? And you don't--like, easy mode on video games obviously helps players get through.
MR. SPOHN: Right, yeah.
MR. PARK: But you were talking about the difference between having an easy mode and having a game that's accessible to you.
MR. SPOHN: Right. Well, you know, there's an amazing research team at AbleGamers who does all of these high-end studies on what it's like to be a gamer.
And you know, what we're finding is that the levels of challenge for everybody are different depending on what you have available to you. So, if you have the ability to move all your hands together, and I have the ability to only use the mouse, then for you and I to then play the game at the same level, we need different accessibility options, right?
So, what's really been great about that argument, although it was feisty and there were lots of people on the Internet who yelled at me about it, it really came down to we don't need easy modes in video games, we need equality modes. We need a mode where if you're very super great at Dark Souls and you can play it without any options, fantastic, but maybe I want to have a good time with it, too, and maybe a couple of accessibility options would be just enough to put us on the same level and with that level playing field we can enjoy the game at the same level.
MR. PARK: Companies like Microsoft, Naughty Dog, among others have had a bigger push for accessibility in games in the last few years. Some companies, like Nintendo, have had a harder time implementing this.
What is holding some of the bigger companies back? Is it a mentality issue? Is it financial? What is your take on that?
MR. SPOHN: Yeah, Nintendo is a very small, poor company. I don't think they can afford to work on accessibility. It's really sad.
No, you know, what's amazing about Nintendo is they were actually first. They built a controller that someone could use if all they could use was their head. And it looked sort of like a harness around your neck. And then they got away from it and they never came back.
And we don't know why they don't reach out to AbleGamers. They don't reach out to advocates like me. But we hope that, with time, they'll see that Microsoft, Xbox, and PlayStation, and even now, coming up, Google, are working on accessibility, and that they should join the party and let people with disabilities enjoy the virtual worlds we all love.
MR. PARK: Which is incredible, because Nintendo is known so much for the whole accessibility thing.
MR. SPOHN: Right.
MR. PARK: It's just not for disabled gamers.
MR. SPOHN: No, and it's sad, because we just actually launched a controller adapter called "The Freedom Wing." And the Freedom Wing is a really cool adapter where I can plug my wheelchair that you see me sitting on the stage with today into an Xbox and I can play on an Xbox with this wheelchair. And that was not something that was even possible a week ago. Well, I mean, I had the adapter for a little while, so, I could, but nobody else could.
MR. SPOHN: But it's great. Technology is coming along, and I hope that all the juggernauts in the industry will get on the bandwagon.
MR. PARK: Have you noticed the industry becoming more open to the subject? I guess you have, right, especially with Microsoft kind of going all in on this.
MR. SPOHN: Yeah, absolutely.
MR. PARK: I mean, they had a Super Bowl commercial about the controller last year, didn't they?
MR. SPOHN: They did. They had the Super Bowl commercial, which was great. But it's important that we not get caught up in running around the room and talking about how great one controller is when there's 46 million gamers with disabilities who need help and they all need different adaptations.
And when we're talking about these setups, they can be a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand. So, it's not cheap, it's not easy, and it takes a specialized set of skills to figure out how to put it all together.
MR. PARK: So, what are some of the bigger stigmas that disabled gamers have to face? What are--in terms of, you know, you said earlier that a lot of people got mad at you, and you're quite prominent on Twitter.
MR. SPOHN: Thank you, yes. Follow me @StevenSpohn.
MR. PARK: Yes, follow him.
MR. SPOHN: Shameless plug. So, no, you know, the great thing about being vocal and out there on the Internet is that I have this platform. I am blessed to have people who want to follow me and listen to what I'm talking about. But that stigma that we're talking about hasn't gone away. It's not going to go away any time soon, but we're fighting it, you know?
When I started streaming on Twitch--the only reason I did was because a friend of mine named Craig kept telling me how great Twitch was, and Twitch is, you know, where it's at, man. "You need to go stream. You need to go play games."
And he started challenging me. He literally said, "Steve, you're on social media but you don't talk about your personal gaming setup. You don't talk about your own life and the personal side of it." And I say, "Well, I'm afraid. I'm afraid people are going to make fun of me." And you have to open yourself up on those platforms. So, even though Twitter is open, it's also where I can just not answer somebody's tweet if they make fun of my weight or my wheelchair or whatnot. On Twitch, it's live, it's happening.
And I'm lucky to say that, in the end, Craig was right in that it was a very welcoming place and I have been able to forge friendships with people that--on a massive scale. I have more friends now than I did before streaming. And you know, I don't know that I'm necessarily the most entertaining--you know, next DrLupo kind of guy.
But I'm just trying to form a small community where people can get along and feel safe, and to me that's sort of what's important.
MR. PARK: Have people come up to you and said, "It means a lot to see your setup, to see how you game"?
MR. SPOHN: They have, and that's honestly what's continuing to push me to keep streaming. You know, I put in, you know, my 40 hours a week, 50 hours a week with AbleGamers. And then, I have my own advocacy that I'm trying to do. And now, I'm trying to be a streamer, too, and there's only so many hours in a day no matter how many letters I write to Congress to make more.
So, what I'm really out there doing is trying to be a representative. I am in a privileged position where I can tell the stories that I wish I had seen when I was that young. I have people who are 16 years old who are coming up to me and saying, you know, "I didn't want to do this because people were going to make fun of me. And you talked about how you were worried about that and you did it anyway, and now people are coming to you and respecting you, and I think I can do that, too."
And it sounds cheesy, like a staged answer, but you can see on my streams I talk about the same thing. I just want to have that representation out there, and I reached a point in my life where I said, "I can't keep asking for representation to be on the screen outside of Professor X."
I swear to goodness, if one person mentions--Wolverine to me. But you know, I had to be one of those people. I had to show myself and been willing. So, it's been fun and I'm glad that we decided to do it.
MR. PARK: Yeah, and I'm glad you're out there, and I'm very happy that you're here to tell our story--or tell your story.
So, thank you so much, Steven, for being here.
Thanks so much, all, for listening. Appreciate it.
MR. HUME: Well, hello, everybody. I’m Mike Hume. I’m the editor of Launcher, the Washington Post’s home for dedicated coverage of video game and esports. We are here to discuss the rise of esports.
Before we begin, I just want to see a quick show of hands. How many people here are familiar with esports and what it entails? All right. It’s pretty good. We’ll try and educate the rest of you here with our esteemed panel.
Next to me, I would like to introduce Chris Greeley. He is the commissioner of the League Championship Series, the North American pro esports circuit of the League of Legends from Riot Games. Next, we have Grant Paranjape, the VP of Business with the Washington Justice, D.C.’s Overwatch League team. And finally, we have Zach Leonsis, the senior VP and general manager of Monumental Sports & Entertainment. You probably know him from the Washington Capital, Washington Wizards, Washington Mystics, several other ventures there. He is also the Breaker of Chains and on the board of directors for Team Liquid.
MR. LEONSIS: I like that title. I’m going to tell my dad about that. That’s a good one.
MR. HUME: Before we begin, remember, you can submit questions to the panel using the #PostLive on Twitter.
But let’s get started, shall we? So, following this past season, Chris, I got an email from Riot Games that claimed that the LCS was the third most popular major professional sports league in the U.S. among 18-to-34-year-olds.
MR. GREELEY: That’s right.
MR. HUME: Okay. That’s according to data from Nielsen, and presumably includes leagues like National Hockey League, Major League Baseball.
MR. GREELEY: It does.
MR. HUME: Okay. My dad’s head just exploded. How can you explain this? Because I mean, obviously we know about the growth of esports, but this is quite a claim.
MR. GREELY: Yeah, we’re a digital-first sport for a digital-first audience. That’s the catchphrase. We have--the audience has grown organically since 2011, when League of Legends hosted its first world championship and has continued to grow every year since. We saw such dramatic growth between 2011 and 2012 that in 2013 we started a domestic league in North America and in Europe that created a league structure that you would see in conventional sports. And since then, we have continued to grow every year. Viewership is up year over year with the normal variance that you expect to see. But when we go out to St. Louis or to Detroit or to Frisco, Texas, where our spring finals are this year, our fans show up early, they’re loud, they’re passionate. And you wouldn't know--if you didn’t realize you were in an esports event, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the fans.
MR. HUME: And, Zach, you obviously walk in both of these worlds. How do you compare the interest and the rise in interest in esports to the interest levels of traditional sports?
MR. LEONSIS: Well, you know, 2019 was a really interesting year. Gaming as a category surpassed music, at-home entertainment, and box office in terms of just size and scope. So clearly it was something that was growing for quite some time. We first invested into esports nearly five year ago when we found Team Liquid, and we realized the writing was on the wall. We are very invested in our cable world, out traditional media world with the Capitals and the Wizards, and we see the trends with the cord cutting and cord shaving, and we thought this is really the first-ever live event category that’s digital-first and linear second.
And like you just mentioned, there are a lot of eyeballs on it, too. The monthly active users are dramatic. The monthly active viewers are even bigger for games like League of Legends. And so, we really needed to be students and understand what was happening here. And as we went through our journey, we’ve learned a lot. We learned that authenticity really matters. And I think that one of the most spectacular things about esports is that it’s truly organic, it’s communal. I sometimes compare platforms like, you know, Epic Games’ Fortnight is more like a social platform, with kids coming home from school and putting on their headsets and that’s how they’re socialized these days.
So, we have learned a lot and we continue to learn more. We’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth with Team Liquid. We do think they’re learnings that the esports world can take from traditional sports in the future as localization happens. And Grant can tell you a lot about that with the Overwatch League. We’re doing a lot with the NBA2K league with our team Wizard District Gaming. And we’re also launching an esports endeavor on the Caps’ side called Caps Gaming, too. So, we believe, and we’re happy to be a part of it.
MODERATOR: Grant, as Zach alluded to, Overwatch League is taking a very ambitious step this season: localized weekly events in regional markets. Obviously, that includes the Washington Justice.
MR. PARANJAPE: It does.
MR. HUME: So how has your sleep been trying to organize that?
MR. PARANJAPE: Yeah, there has not been much sleep in the Justice office really since the offseason started, yeah. So, I think we term Overwatch as the first city-based global franchise esports league. So, you have the city-based teams. You have Washington Justice, Philadelphia Fusion, NY Excel with New York. And I think the Overwatch League had an incredible first two seasons out in L.A. You know, we treated our players like all-star athletes, very similar to the Wizards and Caps. And there was always a little bit of a funny feeling, I think, in that you had a team that had a city tie-in and they were never home. And so, for the 2020 season we are really excited to bring all the teams home. And for us, that means hosting five homestands here in D.C., the first three of which will be at the Anthem down at the Wharf and the following two at Events DC’s new arena, actually the Wizards’ practice court and the home court for the Mystics and Go-Go as well over at ESA.
So, I think we are really excited about it. I think it unlocks a lot of doors that were previously closed to esports. You know, you have a really passionate local fan base that can attend and can see their home team in person, and then you have local sponsors, you know, the Leidos, Giants, you know, Geicos of the world who are right here in the DMV able to activate not only digitally but also in person with assets that they’re familiar with.
MR. HUME: And how has that local partnership aspect been going, in your experience?
MR. PARANJAPE: Yeah, I mean, Events DC has been a huge supporter of the team since before the team was actually founded, which was remarkable and obviously being able to take events to one of their venues was really important to us. I think, you know, we’ve had a lot of good conversations with partners and a few announcements to come in the not so distant future.
But yeah, I think for brands wanting to be active in esports, there’s obviously a huge educational piece to it. And Zach and the MSE partnership team can certainly speak to that. But once you have time to kind of explain, you know, this is a highly captive 18-to-34-year-old audience and you also get assets that are local and that you’re familiar with, we have had partners who are really excited about coming on board.
MR. HUME: Zach, in our reporting with Launcher, it seems that sponsorships are certainly one of the biggest revenue drivers for esports leagues and for teams. How does that compare to traditional sports in terms of demand? Are there companies out there that are craving esports more than traditional sports, these days, or what’s that dynamic like?
MR. LEONSIS: Well, I think, you know, a criticism of esports is that there’s been a lot of hype and have the revenues that matched that. And I think that very quickly the revenues are. Team Liquid has grown revenues dramatically from when we first invested. It’s not just prize money. It is sponsorships. It is dollars from streaming. They have a landmark agreement that’s in the tens of millions of dollars with Twitch.
And, you know, we see interest on the--in the sort of the professional sports crossover esport leagues, too. People are very interested. We just announced earlier today a partnership actually with the UAE. There is an international appeal in terms of using esports as a platform for inclusivity and, you know, fostering global connections, too.
So, I think it really just depends on the brand and, you know, what their objectives are. A lot of engineering firms really finding esports to be a hotbed for recruitment and the like because, as Grant mentioned, it is a really wonderful, younger, very attractive audience. These are engineering savvy, highly quantitative, very smart people.
When I hired Grant three years ago, and one of the things that sold me on Grant was Grant said, well, I built my own computer. And I said, well, I don’t know how to do that. So, you really are a true endemic, and that is something that I find very admirable.
MR PARANJAPE: Yeah, I think it’s remarkable. You know, you think of--hopefully there are not too many of millions of me out there exactly, but there’s probably a few. I like to use myself as kind of the worst example for a sports owner. I’m 26. I’ve never owned a cable package. I was a neuroscience major and got my MBA after. But I’m not a fan of hockey or basketball or the NFL, really--other than the halftime show for the Super Bowl. So, for me, like my Super Bowl was always the LCS finals, right, and watching Faker, you know, destroy everyone for SKT. So, for me--and I think there are a significant portion of the population that are like me, esports is kind of our sports of the future.
MR. LEONSIS: That’s right. He’s our case study. [Laughter]
MR. HUME: Now, Chris, obviously Riot Games announced a very significant partnership late in 2019 ahead of the world championships in Paris. Louis Vuitton partnered with Riot Games. What does that say about where esports is in our cultural awareness scale?
MR GREELEY: I think it speaks volumes. The partnership with LV covered a lot of different things. So, they created a trophy case for our Summoners Cup, which is the trophy we give away at our world championship--that’s I guess won at our world championship. We’re not really giving it away. So, it has digital panels on it. It opened up during our opening ceremony. They work with us to create digital assets in the same. So, we have characters who are wearing Louis Vuitton skins inside of the game. It’s a far-reaching partnership. I think it shows that fashion is taking notice, especially high fashion. Usually what you see in esports is streetwear and street fashion and sneakerheads, and we hit that demographic really hard. But for LV to step in, especially in a year when our world championships were in Paris, I think really shows how far along that esports has come.
MR. HUME: Right. And just to transition a little bit to another big topic: broadcast rights. Recently the Activision Blizzard group cut a deal with YouTube, undisclosed terms, which we’re working on.
MR. HUME: We’re getting to the bottom of this yet. But it is definitely a very lucrative source of revenue for traditional sports leagues. To date, we have not really seen that for esports proportionally. What can esports leagues and teams do to really raise that revenue up closer to on par with professional traditional sports leagues?
MR. GREELEY: I mean, I think the biggest driver for it is there are still platforms, especially linear platforms, that look at advertising rates as just being much higher on linear. I don’t think that the audience that we’re hitting on digital--and Grant called them a highly captive audience, which is, you know, I think the only piece I’d add to that is that they’re also highly engaged. So, I don’t think that advertisers and platforms are properly valuing how important those eyeballs are and how our fans internalize the advertising messages that are being provided to them.
When we announced our Mastercard sponsorship, we had fans who were on Reddit and Twitter talking about how they were going out to get a Mastercard because they want to support the sponsors that are supporting the thing that they love. So, I think that that is going to be a big piece and I think that one day there’s going to be that watershed and the dam’s going to break and we’re going to see advertising rates start to rise. And I think deals are going to help raise it as well.
So, Riot announced a deal with MLBAM--well, I guess it was BAMTech at that point--back in 2016. And although that deal eventually morphed into something that wasn’t exactly what it began as, between that and the deals that had been announced by Activision Blizzard, I think that there is a good base on which to continue to build out broadcast rights.
MR. HUME: And, Grant, obviously with the news of the move from Twitch to YouTube, a bit of a seismic shift in that Twitch was sort of regarded as the flagship platform for esports live broadcast. From a team perspective, are you guys happy with this move?
MR. PARANJAPE: Yeah. I mean, I think we’re really excited about it. You know, YouTube has, you know, obviously they just kicked off things with the Call of Duty League a few weeks ago, and they’ve been a tremendous partner. You look at, you know, Google and I think YouTube disclosed, you know, its ad revenue for the first time as 15.3 billion, I believe.
So, when you look at, you know, how do you take live esports beyond just the audience that’s already consuming it--I mean, Twitch is obviously an incredible platform as well, but you look at, you know, the other types of content. And you have on YouTube audiences consuming how to videos on how to play Overwatch, how to videos on how to cook a steak, right? You have so many ways to kind of reach a whole new audience that wasn’t already just consuming esports content.
And I think for us that is a really big piece of the localization angle as well, right? We want folks here in the DMV to realize, you know, the Justice are your hometown team, right? Again, I’m not a sports guy, but I know people have very passionate feelings about the hometown team where they were born. And I think when you have localization, you have a media partner that can reach beyond just the captive esports audience, that is where you can kind of truly get to the scale that Chris was talking about, where you do have media companies, you know, properly valuing the eyeballs that they’re getting.
MR. GREELEY: And we’re seeing big deals in other markets, too. Our Chinese league, the LPL, which has a home and away system inside of China, announced large deals selling their broadcasts and our world’s broadcasts inside of China exclusively as well. So, I think we’re going to continue to see those tides continue to rise.
MR. HUME: Well, we have a very good Twitter question about the growth of esports at some lower levels. Colden [phonetic] wants to know what are your thoughts on the role of esports in high schools, both as a tool for further STEM education and for teaching social studies?
MR. LEONSIS: I think it is a huge opportunity. Varsity sports are not for everyone. We can be honest about that. And creating an environment where you have a team with a shared goal--I mean, there are tons of studies out there that show the benefits of that. And so, for that audience, I think it’s an absolutely critical part of development, and I highly encourage high schools to start to adopt that. We hosted a couple dozen D.C. principals just a couple of months ago to try to encourage that, because there is still a little bit of a stigma. They think that video gaming is bad, that it’s a waste of time, that you’re not studying and doing your homework. It doesn’t mean that video gaming is bad. Video gaming can be an incredibly inclusive platform. And I think we just need to illuminate that and raise awareness of the good that esports can really bring.
MR. GREELEY: And at its heart it’s competition. So, it's not--esports aren’t only for the kids who can’t play varsity sports. I played varsity baseball and lacrosse. I still went home every night and played video games with my friends. So, I think you will start to see that a lot more, too, that it’s an additional outlet. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a substitute outlet.
We have a partner called PlayVS that runs high school League of Legends tournaments in several different states. They have a state champion. It’s formatted the same way you would see varsity baseball, where you play through in playoffs and have a champion. And I know that there are programs like that for other games as well. And I think as that continues to expand, it’s going to be a kind of great anchor for parents to be able to look at and see the benefits that video games are bringing outside of just the my kid never goes outside to play because they want to sit and play video games with their friends online all the time.
MR. HUME: I have one question I’m hoping to get the perspective of each of you on, and that is over the last 10 years we’ve obviously seen exponential growth in esports. There are some that would point to that as a bubble, that this is the function of a lot of a lot of surplus investment capital flowing into esports franchises. What is the most important thing for esports collectively as an industry to do to succeed and take it to the next level, to say, hey this clearly isn’t a bubble, this is legit, it’s a thing?
MR. LEONSIS: Well, I don’t think it’s a bubble. I see the revenue certainly at Team Liquid and the valuation that that team is driving from getting third-party dollars. It’s pretty amazing the revenues have track behind it, which is fabulous to see.
We have worked to foster Team Liquid’s endemic brand and foster the community that they have. We want to trust them and amplify what they’re doing and then nudge when they ask for it and nudge towards professionalization. One of the great things that I think we did was we encouraged them to move out of their gamer house and into a real practice facility. We have a spectacular facility in Los Angeles--the Alienware Training Facility. We’re going to open a new one in the not too distant future in Europe. And, you know, at that facility we’ve got in-house chef, we’ve got sports psychologists. We’re treating our players just like we would Alex Ovechkin or John Wall. So, it’s very, very important.
And I think you start to raise the expectation level of players in terms of really treating their platform with respect. There’s a big followership. People look up to these players. And they need to rise to the task to remember that that’s really the case for when they’re talking on social and talking online. It really matters.
MR. PARANJAPE: Yeah, I think for me it’s always about, you know, collectively working together to build the esports industry. I mean, I’m on a panel with the commissioner of LCS, right? I’m on a panel with Zach from TL and NBA2K League, right? I think esports, you know, we tend to forget why we got into it, right? Like we got into this because we all collectively love video games and we wanted to make our passion to more than just a hobby. And too often it is this league is doing this, this league is doing that. Like, why isn’t this better, why isn’t this this way? And I think like as leagues and teams start collectively working together and saying, like, no, like, we all work in the esports industry, like how do we make this professionalize and something that everyone wants to be a part of, that’s how we kind of ensure that it’s not just a bubble or something that people want to have a flash in the pan for.
MR. GREELEY: I think you can--when you look at outside perceptions looking in, it started in 2012 and 2013, with people saying why would you want to watch somebody else play video games, and then we sold out the Staples Center and the Galen Center and Madison Square Garden, and people were like, oh, well, sure, but it’s not a sport. And then we continued to bring in sponsors like State Farm and Mastercard and Bud Light and Honda, and they’re like, well, okay, sure, but now you’re only on a digital platform and you’re not mainstream enough.
I think that esports is in a growth phase. And even though we joke all the time that three months in esports is like three years in the real world, it’s a nascent industry. And there is going to be a lot of growth over time. The people who started in esports, some of them are going to continue on and some of them are going to move out as more seasoned professionals come in. I’m sure in two or three years my owners are going to walk around and say, like, hey, it’s been great, Chris, but you know, now we need someone who can--thanks for getting us to $100 million in revenue. We need the man or woman who is going to get us to $500 million in revenue. Please never say that.
MR. LEONSIS: I would never say that.
MR. GREELEY: But it’s all growth. You know, we try a lot of things. We try to fail fast and iterate the way startups do in Silicon Valley. And I think that you are going to see over time that attitudes are going to shift the longer that esports can stay around, can become sustainable, can stay in the mainstream. I think games will come and go, but ultimately, as long as the kind of core tenant of competitive gaming continues on and continues to grow, you’re going to see people kind of shedding off some of those opinions, and especially the idea that we’re sitting in a bubble.
MR. HUME: And this will probably be our final question, but I do want to ask it, because this is something that’s come up quite a bit since we’ve started at Launch, right, and a number of people have asked us to pursue as we expanded our coverage, and that is diversity. We see a medium in esports where physical attributes shouldn’t matter, and yet we do not see a lot of female esports athletes.
What can leagues and teams do to foster diversity, particularly from females, in their leagues, on their teams? How do we increase those numbers of esports competitors?
MR. GREELEY: I think I’ll speak for the LCS. We look at the environment around the game and making it more inviting. So, like, League of Legends is not a game that you have to be male to be good at. There are lots of women who are in, our we call them high Elo. They sit at the top of our competitive ladder, and they can compete with the pros who are on stage. But in our discussions with them, in the surveys we’ve taken and the conversations we’ve had, I think the thing that comes up over and over in those interviews is that they want to feel like they can sit on that stage and be accepted by the other pro players that are on stage and by the fans. We’ve seen especially in some other games as females have tried to go pro, terrible backlash against them.
So, for us, a lot of that education starts with our existing pro players and working with them to make sure that we can create an environment where that abuse doesn’t happen at the pro level. And when they see it from fans, our existing pros, the men can stand up and say, like, this isn’t okay, this isn’t who we are. And that’s a process. You have to--once you start to get that education in place and you’re confident that your pro players are in the right area, you need someone who’s willing to take the risk and step out first and, you know, I hate to keep beating the dead horse but it’s a process, but I think it’s ongoing.
MR. PARANJAPE: Yeah, I think from a team perspective, right, it’s about giving females and everyone equal opportunity, right? So, at the Justice we had last year the first female assistant coach, AVALLA, and this year we actually continued and had our full GM is Analynn and is also a female. So, for us it’s not about specifically looking to hire, you know, females or whatnot. It’s about, you know, if you’re the best person for the job and there’s absolutely no reason you couldn’t have a female general manager or a female coach in Overwatch or any sport. So, I think for kind of like Chris mentioned, it’s about having teams and people in the positions, you know, making those decisions who are willing to have an open mind and truly just have the ability to give everyone equal opportunity to be in esports.
MR. LEONSIS: I think it has been a problem, but I think that esports in general is directionally certainly heading in the right direction. I think there have been a lot of advancements in the past five years. I think the NBA2K League has actually done a very commendable job.
The NBA2K League is actually the only truly co-ed NBA platform league. We had a female player in the league last year, and the league rolled out a female gamer development platform where they were inviting streamers in to try to help them become a pro, what does it take to become a pro. And I think all of our expectations is that we will have more women in our league this upcoming season. We are developing our own female gamer platform at Monumental. I know Team Liquid is as well. Team Liquid has also been a tremendous leader when it comes to supporting the LGBTQ community, too. So just like you were starting off, you score is your score. It’s a great equalizer. And I think it gets back to elevating the conversation, informing our players and the influencers who matter that they need to be the change, that it needs to be an active change. It can’t be a passive experience.
MR. HUME: Well, that’s all the time we have for our panel, but the event will continue. Please stick around. I would love to meet with all of you, as would the team of Launcher. We also have some games that you can play out in the reception area. So, dust off the joysticks, loosen up the thumbs, we have some good stuff out there for you. Remember you can find a replay of tonight’s event on the washingtonpostlive.com, and in the meantime I hope everyone has a very pleasant evening.
Thanks for joining us.
[End recorded session]