In recent years, competitive online gaming, known as eSports, has grown in popularity and scope. Professional video game players face off in matches broadcast to global audiences, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of dollars, in arenas filled with tens of thousands of fans.
At the recent Call of Duty World Championship in Los Angeles, two four-man teams of gamers — their shirts covered in corporate logos — faced off for the top title. The gamers competed in front of a studio audience, which peered into a control room constructed on a gunmetal stage. On the side of that stage sat the play-by-play men, who called the action in suit and ties.
$1 million in prizes was on the line at the tournament, which was broadcast online for free by Major League Gaming. MLG is an eSports promoter that’s been around since 2002, when most of America was on dial-up.
“Internally, we refer to ourselves as the e-ESPN,” says MLG CEO and co-founder Sundance DiGiovanni. “I saw things like extreme sports taking off and realized that we were on the verge of this technological revolution that was going to allow us to have a global, connected, digital sport.”
MLG has built its success by promoting live events for shooter genre-games like “Call of Duty” and “Halo.” These are pumped-up versions of the gamer tradition of having friends over to play in front of the TV. The spread of broadband in the U.S. leveled the playing field, making it possible for even more gamers to compete as pros.
“Without broadband internet, you simply can’t practice games at a professional level,” says Jason Lake, who should know. He’s the founder and CEO of CompLexity Gaming. Its “Call of Duty” team took home the $400,000 grand prize at the World Championship.
“Complexity in its simplest form is, I guess you could say, the LA Lakers of video games,” says Lake. “Except we play multiple games instead of just basketball.”
It has the look of a lot of new media companies: one part talent agency, one part marketing firm. Complexity lets the players keep any competition prize money they earn. Instead, the company makes its revenue from marketing deals.
“We’re always keeping an eye on the next game because it’s our business to do so, as we need to find the stars and get them under contract before our competition does,” says Lake, who compares the current state of eSports to the Wild West.
Promoter MLG has locked up official “Call of Duty” matches and has even started its own streaming platform. Other promoters, like the Electronic Sports League, are using the game streaming juggernaut Twitch.tv as their platform of choice. A recent event in Katowice, Poland drew more than 643,000 simultaneous viewers at its peak — double the previous record.
A new generation of gamers is discovering eSports, and what was once a subculture inside a subculture is on the verge of going mainstream.