Major League Gaming continues to grow

Major League Gaming has seen its followers steadily rise throughout the last decade. Major League Gaming

As Major Leagues Gaming’s spring championship played out, the event was watched by more than 4.7 million people online.

To put those numbers in perspective, the MLG championship Sunday outdrew the Sugar Bowl, the Rose Bowl and even the 2012 NBA All-Star Game in the coveted 18- to 24-year-old male audience.

And by the time the tournament was over and the last of the $160,000 in prize money was awarded, MLG calculated that an astonishing 5.4 million hours of video had been consumed by “StarCraft II” gamers from around the world hoping to get a glimpse of the techniques of some of the world’s most elite players.

So how will MLG top it this weekend when its summer championship takes place in Raleigh, N.C.?

I called up MLG CEO and co-founder Sundance DiGiovanni to find out.

ESPN Playbook: What do you attribute to explosive growth of eSports and Major League Gaming, in particular?

Sundance DiGiovanni: We’re taking something which is very similar in its execution to traditional sports: You have two people competing, you’re building stars and you have a fan base that’s plugged into it. So what we’ve always focused on is delivering the best experience possible to that audience, while at the same time taking those players and making them stars. In the beginning, our events were pretty much for the people in the room, and then you’d get video of that on the Internet. But now, the ability to live stream to millions of people over the course of a weekend has essentially expanded that net for us to capture a new audience and bring more people into it. Add to that the fact that we’ve been doing this for 10 years, and now a generation of kids who are 16 today were 6 when we started. They’ve grown up with this and are fans of what we’ve done with the “Halo” franchise and the “Call of Duty” franchise, and now globally what we’ve done with “StarCraft II” and “League of Legends,” so it’s a natural progression. The great thing about it is we’re really just modeling ourselves after other sports that are out there. Whether it’s the NFL or NASCAR or the NBA, this isn’t new; there’s a roadmap to this and we’re trying to stick to it. Technology has finally caught up and now we’re able to provide the MLG experience to a global footprint. It’s the combination of ease of delivery, plus games being built with us in mind, with competition in mind, and the experience just keeps getting better and better for the players and viewing public.

You mentioned “StarCraft II.” They seem to be the most dedicated group of gamers I’ve ever seen. What do you think separates the “StarCraft II” players from the rest?

There’s a long history with “StarCraft” being a competitive title. It goes back 10 years-plus at this point, so when you look at that you look at the history behind it, you look at the players who have played, and the fans of this game are global and they’re very, very passionate, which is what you want when you’re doing something like this. It’s just one of those games where people watch even more than the play. It’s a competitive game by nature, and people are constantly watching it in an attempt to either get better or to simply be entertained watching people play the game that they love. I think all of the games have very strong communities, just some of them are more vocal than others, and “StarCraft” has a very long history to it. We see the same things from the “Halo” community and the “Call of Duty” community. These folks who love their games are extremely passionate.

How do you go about picking games for the next MLG season? Is it by a game’s popularity and competitiveness or does sponsorship also come into play?

For us, it’s a pretty involved process. We’ve got to make sure the game is going to work from a competitive standpoint. There has to be a significant skill gap with a steep learning curve to it, and it also has to work well with our broadcast. We’ve got the usual suspects we run and will continue to run, such as “StarCraft II,” and then we have games that come in and out depending upon availability. It really comes down to whether or not the title will give us scale, and that’s audience scale with people wanting to tune in to our broadcast and also be willing to travel to see the best compete. Then there’s also, and this is more and more important, but we need to be able to work with these developers and publishers so this will be a good experience. Add all of these things together and it can take quite a while to get a game onto the circuit. But the end result is you end up with titles that will help out with the record-breaking audience numbers we’re pulling in.

What would you say to the average ESPN reader who plays video games and thinks they could probably walk up and have a shot to beat one of these MLG pros?

You see poker, you watch people drive a car in NASCAR or you see people dribble a ball in basketball, and just because you participate in the activity doesn’t mean you can beat the professionals. There is a tremendous skill gap. You better practice if you want to jump into the arena with these guys, because most of our players practice eight to 10 hours a day in preparation for these events. That’s one of the great things about what we do: It’s just like any participant or spectator sport. You can play the game at your level and be the best among your friends, but then there is going to be a skill gap between you and the professionals. That’s the same as any sport. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from watching them. Again, the best thing about what we do is, right after you watch the pros play, you can hop online and try some of the stuff you just saw them do. We hear that a lot: “How good can these guys be?” But until you’ve actually seen it and experienced it, it’s hard to find the words. It’s like someone playing in a casual softball league all of a sudden stepping up and trying to hit a 95 mph fastball.

The big summer championship is taking place this weekend. For gamers looking to watch the live stream, what should they expect?

We’re going to have a “StarCraft II” tournament, plus we have “League of Legends” going on with 12 teams coming in, and then we have the fighting games with “Mortal Kombat” and “Soul Calibur V.” So basically, it’s a big matching of all these different game styles all in one room. At home, you’ll be able to switch between the different streams so they can watch what they care about. There’s a lot of money at stake, with over $200,000 on the line, and we have players coming in from all over the globe. It’s the center of the gaming universe for anyone interested in watching these guys play. It’s one thing to hear about this, but it’s really about watching it happen live, either in-person or streaming, because what we’ve done, really, is take our cues from ESPN. We have color commentators, we have pros that go up and give strategy, we use telestration. The idea behind it is it’s a really familiar format. What ESPN has done is shown us all how traditional sports broadcasting works, and we’ve taken that and applied it toward video games.

Next week “Madden NFL 13” hits stores. A few years ago, “Madden” tournaments were part of MLG. Do you see it, or any sports games, coming back to the competition in the near future?

I never say never. I think “Madden” is a great franchise and we have a lot of history with it and EA has done great things with it, but for us it’s a matter of plugging it into our season structure. We talk to the folks at EA quite frequently, and depending on what their plans for the title are, you might see us running more stuff with them in the future, but we’ll have to wait and see.

There’s been such tremendous growth of eSports the last few years. Where do you see eSports and MLG going in the next five years?

I think you’ll see us leveraging new distribution platforms, and I think television is something that could be in the mix pretty significantly by that point. We might even be on your network. But more importantly, those 16-year-old kids I was talking about, they’ll be 21, and the current 10-year-olds will be 15, so you’ll have a whole new generation of kids who have grown up with the MLG brand, and in their minds MLG is no different than the NFL or Major League Baseball. It’s an established global sports league that establishes stars and provides first-class entertainment. We try to blur the lines between what a traditional sport is and what we are, and at the end of the day it’s about entertaining the audience, finding out who the best players in the world are and getting them to play on our stage.