The Gaming Empire of the Comcast Heir Suffers Another Blow
The company has already closed G4, the gaming and entertainment network it relaunched last November. For many, it came as no surprise.
On Sunday, Comcast closed G4, the gaming and entertainment network it relaunched last November.
For many, it came as no surprise. The network struggled to catch on in a changing media landscape and an evolving demographic since Comcast first launched it in 2002 and first closed it in 2014.
Its content found little reoccurring audience, the channel struggled to find voice and in a new report from The Washington Post, much of that lack of direction stemmed from the top—all the way to Spectacor Gaming president Tucker Roberts, the son of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.
When the company relaunched G4 in 2020, the younger Roberts saw it as the latest territory in the fiefdom he’s been building inside his father’s company. It’s only fitting that with that empire, his office in G4’s Los Angeles-area studio was modeled after Emperor Palpatine’s throne room from “Return of the Jedi,” according to the Post.
But as ecstatic as Roberts once was about the network, the Post reports he was mostly absent, or at least until something went wrong in his view. G4 showed inconsistent direction, spent tens of millions of dollars on its studio, its talent and marketing, and cycled through Roberts and two lieutenants at the helm. It’s now the second failure in Roberts’ master gaming plan.
But over the past five years, Comcast continually wrote the younger Roberts a blank check for his gaming aspirations.
It agreed to pay $20 million to enter the Overwatch League in 2017, founding the Philadelphia Fusion, and nominated Roberts, with very little business experience, as its top executive. Roberts then led Comcast’s esports expansion globally, purchasing a 34-percent interest in T1 Entertainment and Sports, a joint venture with SK Telecom of South Korea.
Roberts also broke ground in 2019 on a new multi-purpose venue in Philadelphia, originally named Fusion Arena. Construction on that facility was paused a year ago due to COVID, and it will likely not feature esports much at all. Then, he relaunched G4.
Roberts is 32, one year older than his father was when he took over Comcast from his grandfather in 1990. The older Roberts took Comcast to new heights—growing it from $657 million in annual revenue when he became its top executive to $117 billion in 2021.
If the family lineage continues, the younger Roberts is the clear heir, the only son of Comcast’s current CEO and his wife Aileen, and already part of the family business. But does the stumble of pushing a new company into the new and growing world of gaming complicate that?
There’s disagreement among the younger Roberts’ peers and colleagues, many of whom I’ve spoken with, on whether he would even want the role should an offer be extended. And it may be a non-starter, as shareholder scrutiny for a third-generation CEO has increased in a much-more-demanding business environment. This isn’t 1990 anymore.
Roberts, like many of the children of billionaires and multi-millionaires who have entered the esports and gaming spaces in the past five years, is determined to be his own person—even though his family is footing the bill. A long-term major role in Comcast comes with many benefits, but some drawbacks, too, accusations of nepotism chief among them.
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It’s also unclear where Comcast will go as a business moving forward.
The cable industry is dying, and Comcast suffers not just once, but twice from that reality—both as the owner of Xfinity and NBCUniversal, which distributes about two dozen cable channels in the U.S. and a similar number in the U.K. via Sky Group.
The company’s attempt at over-the-top media, namely Peacock, has been largely unsuccessful. And while many have speculated it might buy out Disney from Hulu to recover in streaming, it seems Comcast will not contest Disney’s option to instead buy Comcast out in early 2024.
While Spectacor Gaming, which the younger Roberts helms, is a minor part of the Comcast portfolio, it seems gaming may still play a bigger role.
In May, Puck reported that the older Roberts nearly struck a deal to spin off Comcast’s media assets in NBCUniversal and merge those with Electronic Arts, giving his family the controlling stake in the combined entity and appointing EA CEO Andrew Wilson to run the ship. That news was later confirmed by CNBC reporter David Faber amid incorrect rumors that Amazon would acquire EA.
The NBC-EA deal fell through, but it’s clear that gaming will play a bigger role in the Roberts’ family empire, especially as the industry continues to grow and surpass the one in which most of its money lies—TV and film. But where does the younger Roberts fit into that puzzle now?
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Four years ago, I interviewed him at BlizzCon 2018, mere months after the Fusion competed in the Overwatch League Grand Finals at Barclays Center in New York City late that summer.
His father, Brian, notably attended that event and by pure mistake, I walked into their suite during a special moment as father, mother and son watched the team compete.
“We fought a lot on gaming, because I’d put gaming ahead of schoolwork from time to time, up until I got a little more mature,” the younger Roberts later told me. “So if anything, it was kind of, ‘You like games, so we’ll support the things you like.’ But it was never something we shared and cheered for in that same way.
“He’s the most supportive guy in my life. There we are at Barclays Center and there were tens of thousands of people cheering. I was crying, it was really special.”
In that same interview, I asked about how much Comcast valued gaming and esports.
“Esports is still very young,” the younger Roberts said. “It’s got a big way to grow to be meaningful to a company of that size. But it’s a bet on the future.”
As big of a bet as it’s been, though, most of it has not worked out for Comcast. It’s clear—be it due to a souring on the company’s investments, a global economic downturn or some mix of both—that Comcast is not in it for the long haul, at least for now.
“People think it’s easy to ask for money from SKT and Comcast, and it’s not,” Joe Marsh, the T1 CEO and Roberts’ top lieutenant, told me earlier this month.
“I would say it’s harder because they have to justify where the dollars are going, because they have shareholders. Yeah, I have it easier—god forbid, I ran out of money tomorrow, I’d be funded. It’s a gift and a curse.”
T1 is the one vertical of Comcast’s broader gaming and esports strategy that works, and that is still arguable, depending on what perspective you view it from.
Competitively, T1 is a success. On Friday, it qualified for a semifinals appearance at the League of Legends World Championship in Atlanta next weekend.
But like many esports teams, it’s faced with unreliable revenue streams and extremely expensive operating costs. It’s partly lucky that it’s the most successful esports team in South Korea, where esports is much more culturally relevant than in the U.S.
Roberts tapped Marsh—who worked for Comcast for more than two decades before the company’s foray into esports—to try to clean up G4 earlier this year. Marsh made a reduction in workforce, laying off 20-30 G4 employees in September. But it seems it was too late: Comcast killed the network less than a month later.
So Roberts suffers another stain on his young business career. What impact will it have on his future with the company? And where does Comcast, with two losses in gaming already, go in the industry from here?