In 2022, ESL Gaming and Qualcomm Technologies announced the start of the Snapdragon Pro Series, a platform consisting of various mobile esports titles allowing players from all over the world to compete amongst one another through three specific tiers. These tiers feature Open, which serves as an entry point for aspiring players, Challenge, where people vie for regional supremacy, and Masters, which decides the world’s best through international competitions.
Since then, the SPS has expanded to numerous regions and nine mobile games, the latest of which is Call of Duty: Mobile, whose publisher Activision agreed with the ESL FACEIT Group to add the title to the platform. At the same time the partnership was made, EFG also announced that Sam Braithwaite, who last worked for as the Global Director of Esports for Blizzard Entertainment in games like Hearthstone, World of Warcraft and Heroes of the Storm, would join the company as Vice President of Game Ecosystems, Mobile.
Under this role, Braithwaite would take charge of managing the vision, the product, the financials and overall scope of the SPS. More specifically, he has been instrumental in helping organize the 2023 CoD Mobile World Championship in DreamHack Atlanta.
BLIX had the chance to talk to Braithwaite about his current position in EFG, how he’s managing the Snapdragon Pro Series, organizing the CoD Mobile World Championship, comparing different regions in mobile esports and much more.
Working in EFG
Pedro Romero, BLIX: Being the Vice President of Game Ecosystems, Mobile at EFG is a position that is fairly new for you since you joined in April so I'm curious on exactly why you decided to join EFG in this position and lead the SPS front?
Sam Braithwaite: I have been doing esports products for about 15 years now. I've worked at a lot of major companies with most of my tenure being at Activision Blizzard where I was the Global Director of esports and was overseeing multiple IPs. And then before that, it was Heroes of Newerth so for me, I've always been on the publisher and developer side and working on esports and ecosystem management, but when you work at a developer, you are focused purely on one specific game. Your career, success and budgets are necessarily dependent on one single game and whether or not that game is thriving. You live and die by that.
One of the things that really attracted me to this role is that what we're doing with the Snapdragon Pro Series is innovative in a sense that we are multi-game multi-genre. We have the nine largest mobile games on the planet that are a part of our ecosystem and, for every year, we're tweaking. I felt I had the opportunity to build something that wasn't reliant on one specific game or IP but rather building an ecosystem that will thrive as the coming and goings of various IPs from around the world kick in in the mobile sense.
BLIX: And it's interesting that you went from working in various different games Heroes of the Storm, Heroes of Newerth and also Hearthstone to the mobile spectrum. What kind of differences or adjustments had you had to make when it comes to working from those other other titles that I previously mentioned and right now with SPS and just being focused on the mobile side of esports?
Braithwaite: It's definitely a bit different. Fortunately, one of the things that makes Snapdragon Pro Series so great is the collaboration that we have with other juggernauts in the space. To break it down, we really have three major players that are part of this. We have us as EFG, who are excellent in esports operations and ecosystem management as well as building and developing a thriving commercial space, we have our partners with Qualcomm, who deliver the Snapdragon part of the Snapdragon Pro Series--and really what they are is they're the innovators of 5G technology and they're putting the most powerful chips in the most powerful phones--and that's where Samsung comes in as our this partner.
We have the technology, we have the devices, we have the esports infrastructure and all of this together is able to create what we do with the Snapdragon Pro Series. For me, in terms of learning, one of the things that is very cool is, coming from a Western background, I was very surprised that mobile esports already exists and it's massive. We look at some of the games that are out there like Mobile Legends: Bang Bang and it is not just the number one mobile esport, it is a top esport in the entire world generating hundreds of millions of hours watched and millions of concurrent viewers.
For me, [the question] was how do we take the experience that I have with PC esports and build a multi-layered ecosystem from open-level competition inside of the actual game client all the way to a world championship like what we have here and then applying it to the various mobile ecosystems.
BLIX: With CoD Mobile, this is the first time that the CoD Mobile World Championship has been held in collaboration with SPS and it's also, in effect, the result of the partnership with Activision in order for this whole thing to carry out. Talking about that partnership with Activision, how did that even come together for it to come to this result?
Braithwaite: We wanted to work very closely with Activision given that Call of Duty is one of the largest IPs in the world and not only that but Call of Duty Mobile is one of the largest mobile games that is continuously growing year over year. We reached out to them with an idea of how we could collaborate and work together and I think they welcomed us and saw the potential in understanding that we have mobile esports capabilities globally. For them, and I think for all developers and publishers out there, you're able to create and build mobile games but to have the operation to run it at an esports level at the scale that we can at EFG is very hard if not impossible so it was very much a natural fit for us.
I think one of the things that I really value about the partnership that we have with Activision is the level of trust that exists between the two teams. It's very difficult to take two distinct brands and merge them together in a way that is honest and authentic to both of those brands and both of those communities, and if I look at what we're doing downstairs at the Call of Duty Mobile World Championship, it feels like a Call of Duty World Championship. You walked down there and the atmosphere, the environment and the way that we've built our broadcast packages and the scenic view of the stage makes you feel like you're there to watch Call of Duty. And yet the entire package that surrounds it feels authentic to Snapdragon and finding the way to merge those two brands together was a creatively challenging but very fulfilling process. We wanted to demonstrate not just to Activision but to all of the partners out there what we can do and how we want to be stewards of their brands.
BLIX: In relation to that, as you mentioned earlier on with the SPS and their working in various mobile esports titles throughout its existence. A two-part question: now that you've been able to have more than half a year's worth of time working within that role, what do you feel has been the hardest part of working within that role? Also, what do you think is the most difficult mobile title that you feel you had to work in?
Braithwaite: For the record, I have been here for a year so I joined in October of last year. I'm just settling in a little after a year, which is a great time to be able to answer that question. For me, one of the most difficult things is launching and getting all of the pieces together to announce our ecosystem and what I mean by that is we're heading into year three of SPS and our season ends in April with Mobile Masters in Brazil, where it'll be a massive Call of Duty and Garena Free Fire tournament.
Now historically, in my role, let's say I'm in charge of Heroes of the Storm and I am thinking about the HotS ecosystem. When does it start? When does the first competition begin? When does open qualifiers start? When are all of the live events? How does it lead to a world championship? Coordinating that just from a tournament perspective is massive and now you have to align that with the actual developer and the game team. Doing that by itself for one game is a very challenging process and we have to do it for nine simultaneously in India, China, Southeast Asia, Europe, MENA, Latin America and North America.
When we go to plan what the launch of our year looks like, it's not just aligning the calendars of one game, it's allowing them with nine games and making sure each have their space to breathe, and each having their tentpole events and being authentic to each of those communities is incredibly difficult. We're figuring it out as it goes but I would say that is the largest operational hurdle as we operate this. When it comes to specific game titles, rather than looking at a specific game, I think it's more of Battle Royale as a genre which is incredibly popular especially on mobile, but telling the story of a battle royale match is a very difficult thing to do.
You need a lot of angles, you need a lot of camera shots and you need a lot of perspectives, the map moves, the player moves with it and follows the action and keeps it exciting. And moments of, I would say, non-action that happens in the genre can be very difficult so for us, especially since we work with a wide variety of battle royales, that is probably the most difficult genre just because of the amount of teams, amount of players, length of matches, and just how the esport works is very challenging.
Comparing the SPS and established world championship events
BLIX: In hearing you talking about how the whole format works for SPS and Mobile Masters, it brings about the question of which event people see as the final main tournament for a given game's competitive year. How do you view the level of prestige of that when it comes to Mobile Masters and those already established major tournaments? How do you wrestle with trying to let the community know by which one's the bigger tournament, so to speak?
Braithwaite: That is an amazing question and the answer is very nuanced and what I mean by that is I actually gave a presentation yesterday to my internal team titled, "What is Mobile Masters?" Mobile Masters to us was an integrated global arena finals where we had the best players from around the world competing for a large amount of money and for us, we existed entirely outside of publisher ecosystems so we had to prop up our own world championship moments for games that already had one with a publisher.
That is kind of how we built it but as we evolved and matured as a brand, what we found is now we're welcoming world championships of other games into the SPS like what you're seeing right now with the World Championship for Call of Duty Mobile. And I know this doesn't necessarily answer your question but we are asking ourselves the same things. What separates Mobile Masters compared to a world championship? What we do know is we want Mobile Masters to be a celebration of mobile. If we look at what we're doing here right now, this is a focus on Call of Duty. We're partnered up with Activision to ensure that all eyes are on Call of Duty and that we are executing, to the best of our ability, the World Championship of this ecosystem.
As we head into Mobile Masters, we have multiple titles, right? We're also going to be doing the same for Garena Free Fire and we're going to have a couple of different activities there so I think Mobile Masters signifies a multi -game event that is a celebration of the mobile industry at large. While these world championship events are focused on one specific game and one specific IP, how this evolves over the next year? It’s TBD but we're actively looking at it to be able to provide that clarity to the fans.
BLIX: And what are the SPS’ plans for the future? You already have this set plan made for Mobile Masters and stuff and have the foundation down in its early years, but what kind of aspirations are you and the team looking to fulfill in the future?
Braithwaite: As we look towards some of our Southeast Asian competitions, which are some of our most popular as well as Brazil, it's having on-site "bring your own mobile device" tournaments. It’s something for you to engage in and compete in and find the right touch points. One of the things that I talked about just a bit earlier is--just take a battle royale game, for example, where you can fit a lot of people into that lobby. Imagine you're sitting there in the stands and there's a commercial break between the esports competition that you're watching and on the screen just pops up a custom lobby code to where for the game that you play, you can just pop in and play immediately and where the esports broadcast that you are watching existed is now turned into a leaderboard.
I think we look at sports games of "what is that halftime show" or "what is that thing that's going to keep everybody engaging with the people around them and having a good time." What I can say is that we're actively talking to our publisher partners as well as our sponsor partners to figure out how we can bring that to life and then how do we scale that to a 13,000-person arena. One of the things that I'm really proud of is, in this last year, we had a sold out arena, like what you would see with Counter Strike or Dota or League of Legends, for a mobile game. If you told somebody that 12,000 people went to a mobile esports tournament to watch people play on their phones, that would blow their mind, but it's happening regularly now around the world and that's part of what we're trying to do.
So knowing that we're about to hit that, I'd say, critical mass where we're able to do that regularly, the focus is not about how do we get people to come to our events but rather how do we maximize the opportunity at the events to create fun. And I think that's one of the things that's often lost nowadays. It's so much just about creating and churning out content that you don't really think about how this is fun, you know? Somebody's buying a ticket so how do you make them walk away at the end of this weekend and say, "That was f***ing awesome!" There's a lot of inspiration around what people do in the industry but what we're trying to carve out is that niche in mobile.
Comparing different regions’ likening to mobile esports
BLIX: When it comes to looking at each region's fandom or attachment to mobile esports, of course there's levels to this. SEA, as we've talked about quite a few times, is number one in that regard and also Brazil, but where do you view other regions like Europe and North America and their gradual likening of mobile esports from when you joined the team up until now?
Braithwaite: As of right now, like you said, the powerhouse regions are Southeast Asia and Brazil to where it's already happening. Stadiums are filled, people are watching and hundreds of thousands of concurrent online viewers to watch these things. The biggest emerging region outside of those two is India. WIth BGMI [Battlegrounds Mobile India] and PUBG Mobile, India is incredibly successful over there and is putting up numbers that rivals PC and console counterparts. For us in the Snapdragon Pro Series, we're actually going to be doing another stadium event where we're expecting 12 to 13,000 fans to come out for a BGMI tournament that we're hosting in February so we view that as a massive opportunity.
When it comes to North America and Europe, they're definitely the markets that we're working on the most to help grow and develop. If you look at where we were a year ago compared to where we are now, we've been at DreamHacks in North America and we've had mobile events that have taken place. There are significantly more fans watching in person and watching online than in any other event that we've done in North America. Our trajectory is on the up and up. I think we still have a few years, not months, but years before we really mature this audience and actually build something meaningful, but with our partners, we have long-term investments that we can capitalize on the success that we already have in the rest of the world in order to invest and grow this into new markets, which is funny to say, like North America and Europe.
If I look at specifically what we're trying to do for us in the SPS, a year ago at our DreamHack event, we were hosting a non-publisher affiliated $60,000, regional Brawl Stars tournament and now we're hosting $1,000,000 16-team fully publisher-developer-supported world championship-level event. As we go to Europe, we look at games like PUBG Mobile, which we as EFG run, and we have Brawl Stars, [whose] entire ecosystem generates three to 4 million hours watched and has significant concurrency full in-game support. I look at Supercell, who are close partners of ours, as actively growing and developing a very opportunistic scene in the Europe space.
We go to Gamescom every year and we do massive events there and we do DreamHack events as well. I don't know if that answers your question but I would say, in the last year, we have seen significant growth in these two markets but I'm not gonna sit here and tell you that it's sustainable. It needs a few more years before it's gonna reach the expectations that we want it to and we're okay with that and that's what we're here to do. We want to invest and we're able to because we are multi-game multi-genre so what we're doing for one game is just setting the stage for whatever future games are going to come out in the next 10 years.
Esports winter and the future
BLIX: And we’re seeing this growth for SBS amidst this period known as the "esports winter." How did you view the difficulties of SPS amidst this period of financial contraction and financial readjustment within the esports space for SPS?
Braithwaite: This is a sensitive conversation in general but this is also one of the main reasons why I took this role at EFG. We're uniquely positioned to find success from an esports winter because what we're seeing is a trend. Like you said, budgets are going down both in esports budgets and marketing budgets. There's a right sizing that is happening. Game developers and publishers love esports and they want to support esports. They want to be able to have big programs but it's costly and the return is often difficult to measure and when we go through periods like this economically, it's easy to look at esports as a lever to pull to scale back on.
What we offer in the Snapdragon Pro Series is the opportunities for these developers and publishers to maintain their level of investment into the ecosystem with a lesser financial investment. We're looking for partners that are wanting to co-invest with us so what you see right here is something that Activision was fully funding and putting on themselves last year. Now they have EFG, Samsung, Qualcomm and Snapdragon all investing our dollars and our resources in order to make something like this amazing happen. And what we're seeing, and I think the message goes to the fans too is, this is just as good as it was last year if not better.
From the Activision perspective, you can almost hopefully, and I can't speak for them, but look at this as like, "Okay, so we're getting a better product at a lesser financial commitment with better stability and support and they're able to target regions globally that we didn't have the capabilities of doing." Now take that to scale. Imagine if there's 10 publisher-developer partners that are going through the same thing that are reaching out to us wanting to know how they can be involved with the Snapdragon Pro Series. So for us, I look at the current climate as an opportunity for SPS to thrive just by the way that it's built as a multi-game multi-genre esports competition.
BLIX: One final question before we wrap it up: with all of the things that you discussed for this year and for next year, what do you feel are the goals for SPS for next year?
Braithwaite: Our goal going into next year, we are looking to triple the viewership that we got in year two. We are looking to significantly increase the amount of hours watched that our program generates. We're looking to do what we're doing right here in every major region. We want a world championship-level event in Europe, in Brazil and Southeast Asia. But not only that, I'm very proud to say that we had one ticketed arena event just for Snapdragon Pro Series in year two, and that we're growing that to four or five going into year three.
What we're trying to do is more stadium events and more eight to 10,000 fans cheering the best mobile game or competitions on the planet. We're looking to elevate prize pools for the games that have very active ecosystems, but we're also looking at identifying what are the new games that are going to be entering the market. We don't necessarily have partnerships with any of these but you've got Rainbow Six that's coming out, there's Honor of Kings launching globally and Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile is coming out. Publishers and developers are continuing to release PC-worthy games on mobile devices and the technology is there to play them at the highest level and so, for us, it's looking at and identifying the right opportunities and finding the right regions to slot these games into.