For 12 years Johanna Faries climbed the ranks at the National Football League (NFL), rising to a series of Vice President roles before she was handpicked by gaming giant Activision Blizzard to build an international esports league around the phenomenally popular shooter game Call of Duty.
Sport → Esports
Johanna Faries is happy to acknowledge that she was “having the time of my life”. The Harvard University graduate had built a remarkable career working for the National Football League, the most popular sports league in the United States and the one with the highest average attendance in the world.
Having joined the NFL in an entry level role, she was steadily promoted through the organization, becoming Vice President for Marketing Strategy and Fan Development and then Vice President for Club Business Development.
“I was very fulfilled, incredibly stimulated by the work that I was doing for the NFL, and in many cases, you would think that’s the dream job for a sports industry executive to have,” she says. “I was…really not looking to leave.”
When she was persuaded to head to the world of esports in 2018 it was because she was being offered a rare opportunity: to establish the Call of Duty League, based on the first-person shooter game that is so popular: it makes more revenue than the cumulative box office of Star Wars.
As Commissioner, Call of Duty League, Faries is the first and only female commissioner of an esports league. She has been named in FORTUNE magazine’s list of 40 under 40 business leaders for 2019.
Faries says she was able to make the transition to Activision Blizzard by being willing to embrace change. “It’s really a testament to remaining open to new companies, new ways of working, new opportunities, even if they feel a little risky,” she tells SRI. “It’s been one of the best decisions I could’ve made for my career because there’s only been upsides in making the jump. The amount that I’ve now learnt having taken the new step, even though I hadn’t written that in my mind that I was going to leave traditional sports and enter esports has been just incredibly rewarding; in ways that the transition only could afford me.”
“Competitive content, the media trends and the consumer behaviour trends are changing too rapidly not to be able to try to mine for people who can speak multiple languages in that regard”
The Call of Duty League is establishing a network of 12 city-based franchises that includes Atlanta, New York City, Toronto, London, Los Angeles, and Paris. Faries hopes that over time these franchises will become as powerful and well-loved as the city-based teams of traditional sports.
Now she is taking the lessons she learned in gridiron and applying them to the Call of Duty League. She has introduced celebrity-laden Hype Battles into the programming, and hoodie and bomber jacket uniforms that reflect the streetwear culture of the players. She also wants to replicate the NFL’s success in establishing appointment to viewing times for fans, introducing a similar Sunday pattern for broadcasts of Call of Duty League contests this season.
Faries cites the “ability to listen” as a key quality in her career growth and leadership style. “Hyper-listening. Listening for blind spots, listening for what’s not being said, listening for body language, not just wants coming out of somebody’s mouth… it’s been a really powerful tool for me in my experiences.”
As a Convergence Trailblazer, she is convinced that employers will in future be looking outside their sector for talent: “I think that if you’re a sports entity…or part of the entertainment industry focused on competitive content, the media trends and the consumer behaviour trends are changing too rapidly not to be able to try to mine for people who can speak multiple languages in that regard.”