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June 20, 2017

Atlanta’s Player One: An Interview With Hi-Rez Studio’s Todd Harris

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By Patrick Adcock

Atlanta’s digital transformation continues at a rapid pace, and with that comes a renewed interest in video games and esports. Competitive gaming grows by leaps and bounds each year and brings with it a rabid fan base of players and spectators. Atlanta is a hub in the southeast for this scene with multiple tournaments per year, including Turner Broadcasting’s ELEAGUE and others.

We spoke with Todd Harris, co-founder and COO of Hi-Rez Studios – creators of the hit online competitive game Smite. Hi-Rez is based in the metro Atlanta region and is a leader among the burgeoning development community here.

How has the online, competitive gaming scene changed in the last few years? Do you find that mobile gaming has impacted your business model?

In the last few years, competitive gaming has leapt out of the basement and into the living room and onto the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Gamers have, of course, been competing against one another since the days of gathering at the neighborhood arcade. Now,s gaming is primarily online and has found a global audience with viewership and prizing that rival traditional sports. From a business standpoint, one major inflection point was the acquisition of the game livestreaming site Twitch by Amazon in 2014. The monthly audience for watching games on Twitch is now higher than the monthly viewers of ESPN and most other cable networks. In general, livestreaming technology allows competitive games like ours to find a global audience without requiring a more traditional media deal like TV. As a company, Hi-Rez has been developing and publishing competitive games since 2010, but the recent rise in competitive gaming is lifting all boats, including ours.

Mobile is the fastest-growing segment of the gaming industry, but that hasn’t negatively affected the PC and console business – mobile is just increasing the overall audience for gaming.

How did Hi-Rez settle on Atlanta as a headquarters?

Our management team has been in the metro Atlanta area since the early ‘90s and found success here starting FinTech companies Radiant Systems and BlueCube Software. The Atlanta area has really amazing entry-level talent – both technical and creative. We also benefit from the low cost of living, weather, convenient air travel, and a state that is taking an active role in growing digital media here.

Smite is a global phenomenon, what’s coming up for the game?

There is always something new just around the corner. Our games are updated on a frequency more like a TV show than a movie, so players around the world get a new digital update every two weeks. Smite is mythology-themed and mainly a competitive game. Just this week, we put out a new mode that will be available for a limited time.  Within this mini “Smite Adventure,” players cooperate in a group of three to progress through a dungeon, completing quests and killing evil monsters. The team really delivered an amazing experience, and it has been one of our most popular updates to date.

Beyond that, we have two new games we are excited about. One is set within the Smite universe but in a turn-based strategy game format called Hand of the Gods – it is like Smite meets chess.  

We also have a new franchise called Paladins. Paladins is a team-based first person shooter with a cartoony art style and a cast of original playable champions.  Paladins was the most popular new PC game released in 2016 and is now available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

Do you find that the east coast is a different scene from the traditional west coast game developer community? Is there a similar community of developers in Atlanta?

We are more chill and a lot smaller, but growing. With this smaller community, the companies are friendly to one another, there is a sharing of best practices, and everyone is working together to grow the industry here. Coming up this October, there is a conference called SIEGE which pulls together all the game developers in Georgia and many others across the east coast.

How prevalent is esports in Atlanta and the broader southeast? What is Hi-Rez/Smite’s role in esports?

Atlanta is well positioned to be a leader in esports because we cover every part of the ecosystem. In terms of games, Smite is already one of the top 10 global esports, and I believe Paladins will be even bigger because the genre is more accessible. There are already Atlanta-based third-party leagues and broadcasters, such as Turner’s ELEAGUE. We have brand sponsors such as Coca-Cola who have been active in esports in a very authentic way. We have more and more events coming here in 2017 –  a Major League Gaming event, a Dreamhack event in July, and our own Hi-Rez Expo which really started the trend. Hi-Rez Expo sells out the Cobb Energy Center with live fans and reaches an online audience over 7 million people watching four days of esports content.

How is the metro region’s talent base? Do our universities and colleges produce skilled coders and engineers? Are you currently looking for talent?

Game development is a three-legged stool requiring skilled programmers, but also creative artists and visionary designers. Fortunately, our region has universities producing top talent in all of these disciplines. We’ve added 75 new jobs in each of the last three years, and this year we are on pace to exceed that. Our open postings can be found at www.hirezstudios.com/careers.

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