Commissioner, Call of Duty Esports at Activision Blizzard
By Eric J. Cheng AB '20
While at Harvard, Johanna Faries (AB ’03) had no idea that she would be doing what she’s doing today. This is fair; in the midst of recruiting for financial services positions and graduate school programs, Harvard students rarely ever see themselves as the commissioner and designer of a professional sports league. Neither did Johanna. But by taking things year by year and doing away with tradition, she achieved the unimaginable.
“If I do well in the next 12-24 months and am hyper-present, it will open new doors.” Thinking about her career and life as a brick building, “taking it one by one” has proven to greatly benefit Johanna. While many people especially today (and even more especially Harvard students and graduates) stress about the future, Johanna has learned to be a proponent of taking the pressure out of the long-term vision and maximizing the present. In a time in which being present in the day-to-day is challenging, yet necessary, this insight resonated the most.
Now the Head of Leagues for Call of Duty (COD), the game that generated Activision Blizzard more revenue than the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the box office and double that of the cumulative box office of Star Wars, she’s proving that the only path for her is the one she builds herself.
With a title that those in film, TV, and other, more traditional forms of media may not be familiar with, Johanna oversees all aspects of the experience of the Call of Duty League (CDL), from production to "event-izing" to developing microtransactions, on top of all the general management aspects of operating a city-based sports league. Say you’re a mega fan of the Atlanta Faze. Under Johanna’s supervision, you can deck out in gear, tune into the playoffs live, and follow your favorite players, no matter where you are in the world.
When it comes to providing viewers and fans the best sports experience possible, this isn’t Johanna’s first rodeo. She previously worked for the NFL for over 12 years, most recently serving as the Vice President of Club Development. In developing fan and business development, she’s brought her expertise to a whole new context—a familiar responsibility within a completely unique venture.
“Activation Blizzard is taking a page from traditional sports leagues," Johanna says. Having years of experience under her belt, she understands how to keep the pages turning. To her, it’s the same competition, mega-brand appeal, and beloved player culture that is behind traditional sports—it’s “the sports leagues of the future”. And even in an increasingly virtual and global fan business, what remains true, as with all forms of media, is the importance of storytelling.
“There’s a massive storytelling component” in elevating the players, she says. It’s about bringing their stories to life—not as elite professionals, but as humans. Johanna and her team maintain their focus on “star-building”—making sure that COD and Overwatch (a game in which Johanna also heads the league of) are not only brought to the mainstream, but also that the human-interest story is enlivened through depictions of players’ backgrounds, journeys, and resilience. Johanna mentions the first season launch of the CDL, facilitated by a Youtube docuseries about the Chicago Huntsmen. “Who are these people? Where do they live? What are the back-and-forth aspects of who they are as people as well as players?”. When it comes to using the CDL as a story-based medium, Johanna believes that they are only scratching the surface.
Like all players, Johanna has a story of her own. As a woman of color, she’s not who you might envision as the quintessence of the gaming world. But for her whole life, she’s considered herself a gamer at heart. “Gaming was always something I subscribed to, but I wouldn’t have described myself as a gamer”. She particularly loved Call of Duty in its provision of social experiences. And in her position today, she knows that she stands for more than just the role itself. Fortunately, her experiences with people on the job have proven to be positive and welcoming: “gaming communities are extremely inclusive, even if you may hear about the negative aspects. It has very much been the exception to the rule—coaches, players, GMs, owners, sponsors, vendors, employees, are incredible supporters and collaborators.”
If it weren’t for such a group of supporters and collaborators, 2020 could have put CDL’s launch to game-over territory. After spearheading the nonetheless widely successful first league in one of the most unpredictable years, Johanna’s biggest learning was the power of a strong, connected, resilient team. At Activision Blizzard and CDL specifically, it came down to values: “agility, collaboration, openness, service, and excellence”. The mighty team had to harness every single one of their values and adapt to challenges with grit and innovation. This, to Johanna, has been one of the most rewarding professional experiences of her life.
Being a storyteller at heart, Johanna has taken up plenty more endeavors granting her a lifetime of memories. While she was overseeing marketing at the NFL, her team was given the opportunity to partner with Ad council. They went to the 2017 Pro Bowl and shot the “Love Has No Labels” campaign in real time (yes, that Love Has No Labels campaign).
“There were stunts where we used jumbotrons to station different real couples who stood for the message of 'love truly has no labels', crossing ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, racial, and physical disability lines”. It was one of the most difficult --yet rewarding -- projects Johanna has helped execute. And she executed it well: the campaign was seen by millions of people and went on to be nominated for an Emmy. But of all the victories she and her team gained, what moved Johanna the most was what the campaign stood for and what values it presented.
As someone who follows the values and humanity behind every game, Johanna will continue to tell the story in each pursuit she embarks on. Nothing can stop her—tradition, a global pandemic, or otherwise.