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Monday, August 12, 2013

Seeking to Be Both N.F.L. and ESPN of Video Gaming

Jabin Botsford/The New York Times
At Major League Gaming in Manhattan, John Boble, at left, and Chris Puckett announced a Call of Duty game.
FaZe, still smarting from falling short in a match last spring in Dallas, had rearranged its lineup and was hoping its brand-new captain, Replays, could keep in check Impact’s sharpest shooter, an accomplished slayer on the submachine gun who goes by the name Killa.
It was shortly after 7 on a Thursday night, and the four-person teams — their members scattered across eight cities from Las Vegas to Philadelphia — had already logged on to their Xbox consoles. They now stood ready to do battle in a digital competition broadcast live on the Internet, to thousands of fans, from the league’s main studio on the East Side of Manhattan.
“Hey, guys, and welcome to M.L.G. Pro Scrims!” Chris Puckett, the league’s celebrated host, exclaimed as the camera lights clicked on and a jib-boom angled toward him for a close-up.
Sitting at his broadcast desk, Mr. Puckett, using a microphone and headset, turned to face his color commentator, the retired gamer RevaN (John Boble).
“So, Rev,” Mr. Puckett went on, in a dramatic SportsCenter voice, “we’ve got a heck of a match tonight. FaZe versus Impact. Who goes home a winner?”
If you are not part of the target demographic — young men, 18 to 34 years old — you probably have never heard of Major League Gaming and are no doubt unaware that in the last 10 years, it has gradually emerged as the N.F.L. of the professional gaming world. M.L.G., as the league is often called, has played a central role in turning video games, once considered mere entertainments, into an organized, and highly lucrative, form of sport.
Through its live-streamed matches and arena shows, the league has put to rest that antiquated image from the days of the arcade — the slacker playing Pac-Man with quarters in his pocket — and has helped to replace it with the professional “cyber-athlete,” the full-time gamer who can earn six figures and supplement his income with public appearances and product endorsements from companies like Intel or Red Bull.
Since its start in 2002, M.L.G.’s Web site has hosted millions of viewers who log on in the evening to watch its competitions and then click on to YouTube in the morning to catch the latest highlight reels of matches they missed. Two months ago, a crowd of 20,000 packed into the Anaheim Convention Center in Southern California for the league’s Spring Championships, a three-day contest that unfolded — in the real world — in an atmosphere more commonly reserved for basketball or football. There were thunder sticks and screaming fans and vendors selling soft drinks. There were T-shirts, hoodies and other merchandise at the concession stands.
“It was just like any traditional sport — except they were playing video games,” said Sundance DiGiovanni, M.L.G.’s co-founder and chief executive officer.“We’ve always said there would come a time when parents would tell their kids, ‘Hey, get back inside and practice your video games. You’re going to have to pay for college someday.’ ”
That time could be coming sooner than you think. According to the market research firm DFC Intelligence, the global video-game industry is poised to have revenues this year of $66 billion, up from $63 billion in 2012. As the largest “e-sports” organization in North America, Major League Gaming has experienced a similar trend in growth. About 8 million people — mostly men and mostly in their 20s — are registered as users on its Web site, . In the last three years, the number of unique viewers visiting the site in a year has rocketed to 11.7 million from 1.8 million — an increase of more than 500 percent.
The Web site, a slickly packaged portal covered with videos and the league’s official logo (a white controller on a field of red, white and blue), is the entry point for professional gamers and amateurs alike. While teams like FaZe and Impact play on the site in cutthroat competitions broadcast live to 170 countries, hundreds of thousands of casual players also use it every month — for a basic fee of $10 — and compete against their peers.
“One thing that M.L.G. has done quite well is to foster a layer of amateur players, almost like a farm league,” said T. L. Taylor, an associate professor at M.I.T. and the author of “Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming.
“It’s another way that they’ve signaled their connection to athleticism,” Professor Taylor said. “They’ve tried, intentionally, to link themselves to the conventions of sport.
Among those who have finally come around to the idea that Call of Duty — or StarCraft II — is indeed a sport are United States immigration officials, who just last month classified the world’s top video-game players as professional athletes . Under lobbying from M.L.G. and its partners in the industry, the government decided it would issue athletes’ visas to certain gamers from abroad, allowing them to visit the United States more easily for tournaments.
The federal ruling was based on a gaming metric known as APMs, or actions per minute. In StarCraft, for example, a military strategy game, the average player can generally reach about 70 APMs. The world’s most accomplished gamers — like the celebrated BoxeR , who lives in South Korea — can execute as many as 400. That means BoxeR, a master of the game, is able to perform more than six separate keystrokes or movements of the mouse every second.
“The dexterity and visual acuity that takes is just incredible,” Mike Sepso, M.L.G.’s co-founder and president, said. “When people say it doesn’t take athletic prowess, I tell them they should try it. Ordinary people just can’t do what professional gamers do. They have an agility that even Michael Jordan didn’t have.
Major League Gaming was born by chance in the late 1990s at a party at the Chelsea Hotel. Mr. Sepso and Mr. DiGiovanni, both then in their 20s and unknown to each other, were invited by a mutual friend.
“I remember walking in,” Mr. Sepso, 41, recalled recently, “and seeing this guy with an irritating mustache and an earring, ignoring everyone and playing Gran Turismo.
Mr. DiGiovanni, 40, remembered the meeting this way: “Some guy in a bad blue motorcycle jacket challenged me to play. I thought, ‘Why not? I’ll play him. If he dresses like that, how good could he be?’ ”
Within an hour a friendship had been formed, and within another year or two, the men had started a business, Gotham Broadband, which helped develop business plans and market strategies for telecom concerns.
Mr. Sepso, who attended Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and Mr. DiGiovanni, who studied film at the Tisch School of the Arts at N.Y.U., were among that early class of techies who made a profit in the city’s first Internet boom. Near the turn of the millennium, however, they sensed that the bubble was about to burst and sold their company, escaping into exile to live off their earnings and play video games. Late one night, they found themselves at a bar and, wearied by the scene, decided to go home and play Xbox. A handful of acquaintances went with them — stockbrokers, barflies and their girlfriends.
“It was a bunch of late 20s, A-type, New York personalities sitting in a room, competing over video games,” Mr. Sepso said. “Sundance and I had the same thought. If we’re here doing this, then there have to be others who are out there doing it, too.
Within months, they had persuaded the owner of a Chinatown nightclub, Fun, to let them project video games on a wall above the dance floor for spectators to watch; eventually they developed an underground following in the local gaming world.
This was at a moment when Mr. DiGiovanni started hearing rumors about secret gaming tournaments held on college campuses around the country. He and Mr. Sepso hit the road, visiting these tournaments on a kind of learning tour. “They were totally unorganized,” Mr. DiGiovanni said. “And we had some money left from our first business, but it was quickly running out. So I told Mike, ‘If we’re really going to do this, let’s do it now.’ ”
Major League Gaming was established that same year, and for its first four seasons it was kept afloat exclusively through financing from its founders. Then, in 2006, Oak Investment Partners, a local venture capital firm, gave the pair money, and by 2012 it had invested nearly $60 million in the league. While Mr. Sepso refused recently to discuss the company’s revenues, he said that this year would be its best in terms of total earnings. “It’s the first full year that we’ll be profitable,” he said.
As with any digital concern, M.L.G.’s worry from the start was how to make money from its growing traffic on the Internet. Seventy percent of its revenue comes from advertising, Mr. Sepso said. As might be expected, from the beginning, game developers, both large and small, bought advertising on the site. But in a testament to the league’s core audience — boys with wealthy parents and their own disposable income — mainstream entities like carmakers, soft-drink companies and the United States Army started to arrive.
Advertisers have also been enticed by a certain buzz that surrounds the league.Mr. Sepso scored a coup in June, at the tournament in Anaheim, when he convinced a group of N.B.A. stars to appear at the event in a special “All-Star Showdown.” Among those who attended was Dwight Howard, then of the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamer sufficiently committed to the sport that he showed up in the middle of his free-agency negotiations — arguably the most important moment of his career.
“But the best part is that our hard-core fans ran right by him and tried to get toNadeshot ,” Mr. Sepso said, referring to a hugely popular gamer who plays for OpTic, a team based in Chicago, and who has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter and nearly a half-million subscribers to his YouTube channel.
Mr. Puckett, the 27-year-old on-air host, has also become a boldface name. He often signs so many autographs at tournaments that his Sharpie runs dry.
Mirroring the ambitions of the industry as a whole, M.L.G.’s next step is to try to break out of the video-gaming ghetto and attract a wider audience. Starting this month, the league will gradually unveil an eclectic, five-hour block of evening Internet broadcasts, adding lifestyle shows to its already popular live-streamed competitions.
Heading up this effort is Mr. Puckett, who has added the title of vice president for programming to his portfolio. The ideas he has kicked around include a John Madden-like show on trash-talking gamers, and reality-television-style documentaries on professional gaming houses — residential compounds where top teams live and practice together around the clock.
For the last five years, M.L.G., in a partnership with Dr Pepper, has produced the gaming world’s version of a home-makeover show, “The Dr Pepper Ultimate Gaming House,” in which lucky contestants have their shabby home-gaming systems overhauled with state-of-the-art consoles and 56-inch television sets.
“We want to approach things like a cable network and program prime time from at least 7 to 11 every weeknight,” Mr. Sepso said. In other words, M.L.G. is no longer content to simply be the N.F.L. of professional gaming, but wants to be its ESPN and HGTV, too.
“My goal,” Mr. Puckett said the other day, “is to take these guys who already have a following, enhance their production values and put them on the network.
In a few weeks, the league expects to announce a wide-ranging partnership with an undisclosed film and television studio to develop projects and to further integrate celebrity personalities into its broadcasts. “Basically, it’s a major strategic relationship to spearhead our plans to move M.L.G. aggressively into mainstream culture,” Mr. Sepso said.
As for Mr. Puckett, his main objective is to create professional gaming’s equivalent of ESPN’s SportsCenter, a daily digest of gaming news, competition highlights, and game and product reviews. He envisions a program broken into 8 or 10 three-minute segments that could, as he put it, “bridge the hard-core gaming community to the casual viewer and still keep everyone entertained.
In the meantime, though, he continues to announce matches for “M.L.G. Pro Scrims,” and by the third game of the Best of 11 series between FaZe and Impact, Impact was dominating the field, led by Killa, who had racked up 36 kills, 10 captures and 4 defends.
“There’s just no doubt about it, Killa is the best Hardpoint Call of Duty player out there today,” Mr. Puckett’s partner, RevaN, said. “He’s fantastic on the submachine gun. He makes the kills happen.
The match went on with a stream of commentary that sounded familiar in its rhythms, if not its details — “Nice snipe there by Slacked!” “Ooh, Killa with the knife kill on Spacely!” — and each game came to a conclusion with the Round-Ending Killcam, which replayed particularly skillful moves in slow motion.
At one point the broadcast paused for a commercial break. Mr. Puckett, grinning at the camera, made a comment that applied not just to the match at hand, but also to M.L.G.’s future.
“Don’t go too far, guys,” he insisted. “We’ll be back.”

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