An interview with Chris Overholt, President and CEO of the Toronto Defiant

Toronto Defiant president and CEO Chris Overholt talks about rivalries merchandise home games and the city of Toronto

Daily Esports had the pleasure and the privilege of sitting down with Chris Overholt, President and CEO of the Toronto Defiant Overwatch League franchise, as well as the OverActive Media ownership group that operates the team. It was an honor to speak with Chris, who, prior to his assignment with the Overwatch League, was working as the CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee. Chris has also worked as Vice President of the Miami Dolphins, Vice President of the Florida Panthers and Vice President of MLSE, the ownership group that controls the Toronto Raptors, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto FC.

We spoke to Chris about the importance of bringing a franchise to the City of Toronto, how he feels about the roster, and when fans can expect to acquire merchandise for the team. He also spoke about how it feels to be working with Jeff Kaplan and the Blizzard team on this project, the importance of Splyce’s involvement with the team, who he thinks the Defiant’s first rivals will be, and when we can expect to see home games take place in Toronto. We even asked him about those snazzy New Era Toronto Defiant snapback hats that showed up at the brand reveal party and the fake leak leading up to the reveal that had everyone asking, “Toronto Venom?!”


Hi Chris! My name is Taha Zaidi and I’m with Daily Esports, one of the sites under the Enthusiast Gaming banner.

Nice to meet you. Good morning.

Yeah, nice to finally meet you! Good morning. So, first of all, I just wanted to say congratulations on the new team. I’m sure it must have been a long process to secure the franchising rights and get it all together.

Well, thank you very much. We’re all really, really excited. And yeah, it’s been a process for sure. I wouldn’t say a terribly long one, but it’s been great. And we’re all very, very excited.

Awesome. So when did the process really begin? When did you guys start getting into where you thought that you might have a chance at a team and you started getting the ball rolling on that?

The whole effort started back… it would have been early Spring for formal discussions with the league. Adam and Sheldon had been looking at it for more than a year, I suppose, at that point. They had started to make some select investments in the industry and so they were exploring a way to build out a professional esports position. But more formally, with the league partners and everybody attached to awarding the franchise, that started in April/May.

And at that time in the process, was it always Toronto as the region or were you just simply looking at a franchise opportunity and determined the location afterward?

Oh no, we always wanted it to be Toronto. It was always Toronto. And from a league perspective, I think they would tell you that they had already identified Toronto as a potentially great market for an Overwatch franchise. So we were all committed to the idea of building a franchise position out in the Overwatch League for Toronto.

At what point in that process did Splyce get involved? And how did the partnership with OverActive and Splyce come to be?

Well actually, those conversations started to happen before I joined the group. But I don’t think it goes back too much earlier than that. So I think it was late, maybe early Spring. Adam and Sheldon were engaged talking to Marty about Splyce and I think really just starting to learn more about the industry. And I think Marty was very helpful to that. They just built a wonderful relationship. So again, that was all before my time, but yeah, Splyce has been core to this conversation from the beginning.

As for you personally, you have a very impressive and extensive history with traditional sports, whether it was your time with the Olympic Committee, the Dolphins, the Panthers, or even with MLSE, a staple of Toronto sports. What made you turn your attention to esports?

Thank you for those kind words. I had been exposed to the esports space a couple of years ago. It was something that a friend introduced me to and I actually had a chance as part of that to meet with some of the Activision Blizzard leadership team. This would have been late 2016, early 2017. And so I met with Nate Nanzer, the commissioner, I met with Pete Vlastelica, who is President of esports for Activision Blizzard, and a number of the team and executive leadership on both sides of that house. And really, I just was completely blown away by all of what they were doing and the culture that they had built around that organization. Really very impressed. So that kind of spurred my interest and I spent a lot of time, on my own time, kind of looking in on the industry and researching some of the trends. And the way the industry was developing globally really caught my attention.

But, you know, I had a full-time job with the Olympic Committee and so I just kinda turned my attention back to that and making sure that we were getting ready appropriately for Korea [for the 2018 Winter Olympics]. And then when Sheldon… Sheldon and I had known each other, our Chairman Sheldon Pollak, we had known each other for a number of years going back to the late 90s when we both worked in the computer hardware business. And Sheldon called me out of the blue in the Spring and said that they were looking at this and would I come over and talk to them about it? So that’s how it all happened. But I’ve been following the industry for a couple of years and just watching the way it was growing and I’m really very impressed by all of it.

How do you feel about the potential and the longevity of esports? And how does the Overwatch League kind of push that forward by doing something that’s never been done before, in city-centric franchising?

Well firstly, you do it with great people. And I can tell you I’m just completely blown away and impressed by the quality of the people that are involved in all of this. On one hand, you’ve got Activision Blizzard and the absolutely mind-blowing skills that go with that organization. I mean Activision Blizzard is acknowledged, I think globally, as the leader in this space. And certainly the fans, who understand the quality work that that company does and the true passion that they inject into everything that they do. We’ve got truly the best people working on and developing the game and that can’t be argued with.

The other thing that’s been happening as they build out this league is, they’ve been attracting a lot of really, really great people from the traditional sports space. Whether it’s people on the business side of the house, Brandon Snow and his team on the revenue side, some of the other folks that I met yesterday, I mean these are really, really wonderful executive leaders that come from the NBA and the NFL and other great pro sports leagues. And when you marry those two things together you’ve got a really really powerful group and a very intelligent group of people that are looking to advance this and push the league forward every day on a global basis.

You know the other side of this, of course, is this game was purpose-built for this reason. The team at Activision Blizzard set out to build a game that could be enduring. [A game] that could be a franchise that could live forever and it could be iterated over time so that it was always dynamic and always changing for the brand and always changing for the players. And they’ve built Overwatch with a purpose, in a very intentional way in that context. And so, the combination of all of those things, as it goes to Overwatch and as it goes through the Overwatch League, as Toronto and as franchise owners in the league, we have one hundred percent confidence that this will be a league that will be globally enduring for a long long time.

Right, and Blizzard also did something new with Overwatch. They weren’t just following somebody else’s blueprint in terms of making another MOBA game or making another just raw FPS. They did something new with a new style of game that hadn’t done before.

Yeah, that’s absolutely true and I think you’ll see them… look again, if you’re building out a strategy to build a league around one of your franchise games then of course you need to be mindful about how that experience for the player and for those that are watching is evolving all the time. And I think you’re going to continue to see great leadership out of the Activision Blizzard people in that context. They are the acknowledged experts and leaders in this space so we’re really proud to be attached to them.

In terms of just the Toronto organization itself, how did you decide on the name “Defiant”?

It was a process over about six or seven weeks and we were all so passionate about it, it took no time at all from all of us to get on the phone with Jeff Kaplan and his team at Activision Blizzard to start thinking about what it wanted to be. As fast as we hung up the phone with the Activision Blizzard team, we all got together and started really thinking about the brand and how we wanted to build out the brand and what the brand should stand for in the context of the city. Making sure what we were doing could be relevant and could make sense to the fans of course first, and then be relevant and contextually appropriate to the city and the brand of the city.

And we spent a lot of time. Like I said, seven weeks working every day on it, and we really love where we’ve landed. The city is so inclusive and so diverse in and of itself that it has a mosaic of cultures and people living in it. And all of them have a story to tell and it’s one of resilience and enduring and one of grit.

We just thought the Toronto Defiant brand really kind of captured that and would be appropriate. And so far it seems our fans agree. So we’re really excited about where we’ve landed and have had wonderful feedback from our fans and even from some of our co-owners here in California. We’ve been at the owners’ meetings out here the last couple days and they’ve all been really complimentary and it’s been really nicely done.

Did you hear about the fake leak where the name “Toronto Venom” had leaked the day of the brand reveal?

(laughter) Yeah, I got a note from Paulo on our team, who leads all of our corporate communications and content, and he sent me a note about 6:00 in the morning and he said, “Honestly I wish I could tell you this was my idea.”

(laughter)

But yeah, I don’t know where that came from. It was pretty good work! But it just wasn’t where we were. But we liked it because it got us across the finish line. We, of course, wanted to make sure that we had the chance to properly reveal our visual identity and that seemed to distract just enough over the course of the day to get to the event.

Fake Toronto Venom poster leaks ahead of Toronto Defiant Overwatch League reveal

Yeah, there seemed to be a lot of people involved with the whole thing, even just planning the event, so it’s almost a surprise that it didn’t get out. Because there were quite a few people that were there, whether they were dealing with the food or the people who had been working on the clothes. It’s surprising that the brand reveal didn’t come out sooner than when it was announced.

Yeah, honestly, I think you’re right about that. You know we talked to everybody that we were involved with, everybody that was supporting us. And you’re right, it was a pretty big group. But look, you get the right people around you and you make a clear expectation to everybody engaged in the project and then you work with them on that basis. And we have a great group of folks attached to Diamond and all of the partners that supported our launch event. These are relationships that, in one way or another, all of us have had for years. So it was a bit of a family effort to pull that event together as quickly as we did with a bunch of people that we trust. So I’m not surprised at all that it didn’t leak.

I noticed that the hats that were given out at the reveal party, they had those famous New Era stickers on them. Was New Era commissioned to do the hats as a one-off? Or is that a merchandising partnership we can expect going forward?

Great question! Look, New Era I think we would all acknowledge is a quality brand. And so we wanted to make sure that our execution, I hope you felt that this was true, but we wanted to make sure that our event and the execution of our event was a quality execution and very professional in the approach that we took. We really think of our brand and our league, the Overwatch League and the Toronto Defiant brand, as a premium brand. And so we want to be attached to premium brands in the work that we do every day. As with our marketing partnerships and the media relationships that we enjoy, and everybody that’s working with us and with the Overwatch League, we should want to all work together to make sure we’re positioning ourselves and our brands together as a premium position. And New Era I think is a premium brand in that space, so that’s why that made sense to us. It was a one-off. They were good enough to come really fast and were really helpful in getting that done quickly. We were proud to have them with us.

Limited Edition Toronto Defiant Overwatch League New Era 9Fifty Snapback Cap

Speaking of merchandise, I’ve received a lot of questions over the last week or so about when that awesome gear will be available for the public to purchase. Do you have a timeline on that?

Well, we’re working on that! And I really shouldn’t say too much more. The league is also working on some help for all of us in that regard as well. So that’s probably as far as I should go, except to say that please know that it is our absolute focus to make sure that we get our merchandise in the hands of anybody who wants to own it. And we’re working hard every day to see if we can’t figure that out sooner rather than later.

How do you feel about the roster and how early did you guys start trialing these players in an attempt to build the roster up?

Yeah, I’m really pleased with where we are there. You know we’ve hired two great leaders I think in Jae and Bishop. They’ve done a good job. They’ve been working hard over a number of weeks to put the players through the paces and to identify those that can fit nicely together. And again, we’re really pleased with where we’ve landed with all of that. It’s great always, you know I wouldn’t profess to be an expert in this space but, it’s great to have experts on your team. And again, our confidence in Jae and in Bishop is high. Right now [the players] are over in South Korea. They’ve been basically in camp there together for a few weeks and soon they will make the transition to California and we get ready to play out here and start prepping for the season when it starts in the New Year.

That’s about as much as I can share with you at this point. But I can tell you that we’re really pleased with where we’ve landed and Jae and Bishop tell me that they expect to be competitive and that’s certainly the way we’ve set this up.

Speaking of Bishop, he actually got some pretty high praise from even the London Spitfire organization that ended up winning the championship, talking about how instrumental he was in getting the roster the way it was. How early in the process was Bishop the target for you guys?

Well, it was early enough that it was before me. By the time that I arrived, that conversation was already well underway. And again, we’re so fortunate to have partners like Marty and his team over at Splyce to help us get rolling here. But Marty had already started that conversation with Jae and other members of his team to identify Bishop and by the time I was installed as President and CEO and I got in a room with Marty, he already had a solution for not only our coach and general manager but recommendations as to who our assistant coaches would be and the infrastructure on our team operations side. So I got to give full credit to Marty and his team there, they were well ahead of me in all of that.

So what are the realistic expectations then for the Toronto Defiant, just from an organizational perspective going into your inaugural season?

You know, it’s way too early to make any bold predictions. That’s for sure. But look, I think in simple terms we want to be Canada’s leading and most professional esports company. And that’s our immediate goal is to be as good as we can be and the most professionally run organization in the country. And I think we’re off to a great start. We’ve attracted some great people. We have wonderful partnerships and relationships with Marty and his team. And you know there isn’t anybody that I’ve met inside our organization or affiliated with our organization that isn’t deeply, deeply passionate about what we’re doing here. So we’re we’re feeling very good about the quality of the people that we’re attracting to the business, the quality of people that we’ve got attached to our team operation, and very much professional, very much focused on delivering a quality roster and a quality experience for all of our fans.

As it goes to our larger goals as a business, we want to continue to grow and develop. Our goals for OverActive Media certainly stretch well beyond the Toronto Defiant and our presence in the Overwatch League. We have big plans to build out a multifaceted organization here that acquires and manages to operate city-based franchises. That’s certainly our core strategy. But we expect to develop other brands inside of OverActive Media. We certainly expect over time to have a big content production position in all of this as a strategy. So there’ll be more to come from us in the coming months and years ahead. But this is our good first step forward.

And then the last thing I’ll just say is, we want to be competitive from the beginning. Marty and Jae and Bishop, we feel like we’ve given them appropriate resources to make sure that we field a strong team. And these things don’t happen overnight. It’s a very competitive league and I think we’ve seen over the course of the stages, even last year, it’s a difficult league to win in. It’s a hard thing to be a sustained winner in this league and in sports generally. But our posture around our approach is always going to be the same. We want to be perennial contenders. We want to be the team that is always right there, and maybe one day is on the top. So we’re going to have a posture and an attitude toward making sure we’re building a winning organization that wins on and off the field of play, in the boardroom, and on the match.

For a last few points to touch on, you spoke about how it’s a new organization and this is a big step. What does it mean for that first step to bring a team to a market like Toronto, having such a gargantuan audience and knowing how much fan support teams like the Blue Jays, the Leafs and the Raptors have received over the years?

Oh, incredible. Toronto is one of the best sports markets in the world. Evidenced in the way we support our Leafs and our Raptors and our TFC. And yeah, I mean if you were going to sit down and pencil out one of the top four or five sports markets in North America or globally I would certainly have Toronto in that conversation. So I feel really proud and really fortunate to be setting up in Toronto.

It’s also a wonderfully diverse and inclusive city, and country, obviously, in Canada. So that suits the game. The game is by its very nature inclusive and diverse. Its heroes are modeled that way as well. And so it has broad appeal to the cultures that live in the city and we love that about it. A big part of how we define ourselves as an organization will be thinking about those things and making sure that we’re conscious of what’s important to our city and our country in that context.

The last thing we know that it’s true is our friends at the Overwatch League and Activision Blizzard have already identified just how many many fans there are of this game. Like literally hundreds of thousands of declared enthusiasts for Overwatch in the Greater Toronto Area. And of course, our designated marketing areas stretch well beyond Toronto. We have as broad and as far east as Kingston and we go all the way down to London, Ontario, and then to Upstate Western New York. So as we kind of look at all the opportunity that comes with having a fan base that’s that broad and that deep, we couldn’t be more excited.

Right. And one other thing that happens a lot in sports and has almost always been beneficial from a marketing standpoint and from a fan interest standpoint is regional rivalries. Is that something you guys expect will become a thing in Overwatch especially when teams get more localized? And is that something that you see as a potential in Overwatch as something that can raise fan experience and something you might almost be counting on?

Oh, I think that’ll happen for sure. And you know it’s funny, I’ve been asked that question a lot in the last little while. I think those rivalries will be born out of what the fans see and how they relate to us about it how they think about it. I mean most everybody wants to point us to Vancouver, of course, as a geographic rival. And that makes sense.

Right.

But then you can look at Bishop’s attachment to the London Spitfire and you can imagine that maybe there might be a rivalry that builds out around Toronto and London. And that would be fun. Those are two great truly international cities. 

I think of Toronto as a global city in the same way. In the same conversation with London and L.A. and Paris and so on. In that context, I would expect that we’ll have international rivals as well. But again, more often than not those things are built out of the fierceness of competition and how your fans think about it. Whatever emerges for us, we’ll probably want to encourage that and embrace it and see where it takes us. It’ll be fun.

And finally, I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a lot but, is there a timeline for when the games will become localized and fans will actually get the home team experience in a Toronto-based venue?

Nothing’s been finalized but we’re already working on venue opportunities for us, both on a temporary and permanent basis. This is a conversation we’ve had a little bit out here over the last little while. The league hasn’t declared the timing of this but we’re preparing for as soon as 2020 and that’ll be something I turn my attention to soon after I get back next week. So we’re certainly hoping, from my perspective, the sooner the better. I want to be able to celebrate every week with our fans in our own venue and have a chance to come together and support our team in that way. If we can make that happen sooner rather than later that would be just great with us.

Awesome, thank you so much for doing this, Chris. Congratulations and welcome to the Overwatch League.

Thank you!

Pizza. Music. Baseball. Wrestling. Netflix. If society thinks it’s a waste of time, I’m probably addicted to it. Also, I write about stuff sometimes.