Is pro gaming the next poker?

Before poker took the TV world by storm a few years back, no one thought that anyone would watch people playing the card game. And yet, there are still multiple TV shows on TV channels covering the "sport," including on ESPN. DirecTV believes the same type of transformation can happen with videogames and it's launching its first professional videogame league, Championship Gaming Series, with a full season of international competitions beginning this June.

"Poker tournaments had been on TV for decades but only became a huge television property a few years ago when they added the lipstick camera and commentators to talk viewers through the likely scenarios and tendencies of the players," said Andy Reif, Commissioner for Championship Gaming Series and former COO of the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour. "We have made the same type of innovations here. What is exciting for us is that DirecTV has figured out how to make pro gaming entertaining for viewers - gamers and non-gamers - and we expect that pro gaming will experience at least the level of success attained by poker after its TV production innovations were discovered."

DirecTV is betting big money on this league. Salaries and bonuses for the 2007 season will total $5 million, a new benchmark for professional gaming. Rather than offering cash and prizes for individual contests, CGS will operate like a pro sports league. Every drafted player and each general manager will receive a salary with additional bonuses for performances. Reif said the base salaries will be higher than minor-league pro baseball players and winning players can clear six figures in 2007.

The season will be broadcast to over 100 million homes on DirecTV in North America and Latin America, BskyB in the United Kingdom and STAR in Asia and Australia. The satellite company has aligned with partners like Microsoft Xbox, IGN Entertainment, Mountain Dew, and Best Buy to bring pro gaming to the masses. IGN Entertainment will cover the league online.

Set up like a real sport, the online qualifiers start on April 28 and a live qualifier will be held at The Bridge Cinema de Lux in Los Angeles May 11-12. There will be a regional combine staged at Fox Studios in Los Angeles from June 8-10, 2007. The best players in the country will then be drafted by one of six city-based teams on June 12, 2007 at the Playboy Mansion, to be followed by the official 2007 CGS Kickoff celebration. There will be team names, uniforms, team websites and all of the other attributes of a professional sports team for the six cities represented.

"The CGS concept is unique to the industry because it involves league and team play with an on-going series of competitions as opposed to the scattered gaming events that are currently available today," said Reif.

Gamers will compete on PC and Xbox 360 games like Tecmo's Dead or Alive 4, Microsoft's Project Gotham Racing 3, Electronic Arts' FIFA 07 and Valve's Counter-Strike: Source.

Each CGS team will feature 10 players who are specialists in the official league games. Five of the players will be an integrated Counter-Strike unit and play against other teams' Counter-Strike squads five-on-five. The soccer title FIFA 07 will be played one-on-one. Each team will have a mixed-double team of two DOA4 players, one man and one woman, playing against other teams in one-on-one matches on Xbox 360. The racing game PGR3 will be represented by one player on each team.

CGS events in the UK, Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Australia are being planned and these tournaments will yield regional representatives for the CGS Grand Slam and World Championships, to be held in Los Angeles from October 15-26, 2007.

To turn videogames into a spectator sport, DirecTV has enlisted producers from the TV sports world like executive producer Mike Burks, who has 11 Emmys to his name and most recently produced NCAA football's Bowl Championship Series for Fox.

"Mike and his team are going to place the viewer inside the action with sports-style coverage, unmatched production values, and 16 different HD cameras," said Reif. "By providing the right production values and storytelling, we will raise the sport to a new level."

CGS is going to make extensive use of in-game virtual cameras to allow viewers to experience the matches in the same manner as other professional sports. To help get inside the game, broadcasts will feature multiple angles of gameplay to show the player view as well as spectator modes. There are also multiple on-screen windows to simultaneously show game play and the players themselves. Reif said this television programming is truly the merger of sports and entertainment and CGS will combine exciting high level competition with the non-stop action of video games.

Pro gaming legend Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel will provide color commentary for the televised events. He'll be joined by a full complement of play-by-play commentators and analysts. In-between matches will be features on the games, on the players, and luminaries from the sport. Pre-match coverage will set up the competitions; instant replays and highlight reels will help to reinforce the big plays.

"Right now, there will be a few weeks between the regular season live events and the TV airings," said Bruks. "We're still going through a learning curve on the broadcast editing side, but we have the best sports producers in the business at CGS. It may not be this season, but our goal is to migrate to live sports coverage as soon as humanly possible."
Reif said there is a whole generation now that has grown up playing videogames and they instantly understand the value of CGS as sports entertainment. He added it's natural for them to watch the best players compete.

"The CGS will take gaming competitions out of the basement and hotel ballrooms and create showcase events just the way the X-Games and ESPN created a showcase event for action sports," said Reif. "Mountain Dew was instrumental in identifying and promoting the launch of action sports in the mid-90s and as founding partner, they have placed the same confidence in CGS. Skateboarding events were around for a long time, and then came the X-games and TV coverage and pop culture success followed. With TV partners already on board, we're ahead of the game."