Can Video Games Be America's Next Favorite Sport?

The heads of Major League Gaming want their league to be as big as the NFL—and it's not clear why.
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The heads of Major League Gaming want their league to be as big as the NFL—and it's not clear why.
Call of Duty at the MLG Spring Championship. (PHOTO: ENRIQUE ESPINOZA/MLG)

Call of Duty at the MLG Spring Championship. (PHOTO: ENRIQUE ESPINOZA/MLG)

On Monday, October 15, 1990, several newspapers across America ran a single-panel Far Side comic with the caption "Hopeful parents," in which a young boy sits on the living room floor playing video games while his encouraging yet delusional mother and father watch in the corner. In their conjoined thought-bubbled thoughts, the parents envision a future that's full of enticing job offerings, such as "Nintendo expert needed/ $50,000 salary + bonus," "If you have 50,000 hours or more of video game experience, we need you!" and "Super Mario Bros. Expert/ $95,000 yr./ Four-day work week + Ferrari."

The panel was funny because the idea was ridiculous. While it's true that competitive gaming has existed on some level ever since the first Pac-Man and Frogger cabinets began filling arcades across America—as documented in the wonderful film The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters—back then no one was thinking about handing out lucrative salaries or luxury cars to some kid with a knack for what amounted to manipulating a bunch of rudimentary pixels on a screen with a joystick. Most people considered video games a slightly amusing waste of time, but not much more than that—saving the princess without losing a life was a skill best kept off the resume.

What Far Side creator Gary Larson and others might not have seen coming, however, was the burgeoning of so-called electronic sports, where professionals from Brazil to South Korea travel around the world competing in tournaments of games like StarCraft II, League of Legends, and Call of Duty for large quantities of both cash and adoration. Today's top players post sponsored tweets, upload tutorials on YouTube, fend off the occasional groupie or two, and form partnerships with live-streaming sites such as Twitch, which claim to receive 35 million unique viewers per month. Indeed, in a time when video games hold a certain level of cultural clout and the global video game industry reportedly earned a revenue of $63 billion in 2012 with an anticipated income of $78 billion in 2017, the question is no longer whether a young boy practicing on his living room floor can one day play for serious money.

No, for those at the forefront of eSports, the question now is—not if—when will they catch up to leagues like the NBA? And when will their most prominent players be as famous, rich, and celebrated as Kobe, LeBron, or even Jordan?

"At first my parents didn't support me because they thought it was a waste of time. But when I started bringing in money, they believed me and have been supporting me ever since."

IF THERE’S A FUTURE superstar of gaming out there, Chris Duarte, also known as Parasite in the gaming community, seems to have as good a chance as anyone. The California-based, bespectacled 18-year-old has been playing competitively for about three years and is the current captain of a four-member team called Impact, which specializes in killing opponents on the first-person shooter Call of Duty.

Last April, Duarte's squad finished first out of 32 teams in the inaugural Call of Duty championship. Besides receiving a trophy, rings, and glory amongst the smoke machines and falling confetti, the four young men also received a giant check worth $400,000. That's $100,000 each for being excellent at a video game over a single weekend in Los Angeles.

"At first my parents didn't support me because they thought it was a waste of time," said Duarte, who doesn't attend college, work part-time at a restaurant, or fill his days with much else besides eating breakfast, taking a shower, checking email, running errands, and playing Call of Duty online. "But when I started bringing in money, they believed me and have been supporting me ever since."

As captain of Impact, Duarte's primary responsibility is to make sure his teammates, who live all over North America, are online and ready to play at the designated time (usually 6:00 p.m. Eastern). Duarte says his squad practices for about five to six hours per day—by which he means playing Call of Duty over and over and over again. He also deals more with the group's manager, who handles Impact's marketing and pursues sponsors for the team to promote on their jerseys and mention over social media.

"It feels awesome,” Duarte said of being eSports famous. “Like, in my eyes I just play video games. I'm nothing special. But all these people think you're some amazing and talented person."

OF THE ORGANIZATIONS THAT provide gamers such as Duarte with a platform to showcase their talent, the largest in North America is Major League Gaming, which was founded in 2002. According to MLG's Website, the company experienced 636-percent growth in live online viewers between 2010 and 2012 (1.8 million to 11.7 million). To capitalize on the league's mostly male and mostly young audience, the company recently hired advertising veteran Donald Reilley, formerly of Amazon, as MLG's new executive vice president for sales.

Things are going so well for MLG right now that the company's president and co-founder, Mike Sepso, has predicted that in five years his league will be on par with MLB and NASCAR, and that in a decade MLG will be on the same playing field as the NFL and NBA.

Is MLG attempting to shed the outsider status and final layers of social stigma that still may haunt the world of video games?

So, how do they plan on matching the NFL, which made close to $10 billion in revenue last year? The Web.

"We live in the Internet age, not the television age," Sepso told Digital Trends during MLG's 2013 Spring Championship in Anaheim, where attendance records were broken, the Los Angeles Lakers' Dwight Howard made an appearance, and Impact finished second place for Call of Duty: Black Ops II, taking home a total of $12,000. "If the NFL was starting today, they would not do rights deals with television networks; they would broadcast it all themselves. And we got to do that from the very beginning. Although we did TV for a few years, our audience has always been bigger online. So we get to be both the NFL and ESPN."

For a number of years, MLG partnered with ESPN, and during this time MLG's vice president of programming, Chris Puckett, was able to learn the craft of commentary, analysis, and presentation from the best in the business.

"The biggest lesson I learned was pacing," Puckett wrote in an email about his time working alongside ESPN producers. "Each event has its own story lines and you must build on those story lines as the tournament progresses. My first instinct as a producer was to start all of our shows with super high energy, our flashiest graphics, and our most energizing music. But after working on our 2006 TV show, I learned the importance of pacing."

Puckett also grew to appreciate the virtue of balancing an established, consistent show format with an openness to cover spontaneous events as they unfold—not at all unlike how ABC approaches its coverage of an NBA playoff game. "You never know when the tournament-defining moment is going to happen,” he wrote, “but you must always be ready to build on the story line and create discussion around it."

If that’s the “how” in all of this, then what about the “why”? Why does MLG—just look at the three-initial name—want to be like, and compete with, traditional sports leagues? Why not just package it as a competition between people who are really good at video games? Why, exactly, do those who sit and strategically click have to be considered athletes?

While presenting footage of digital sorceresses casting spells on human-dragon half-breeds through the lens of a sports broadcaster might seem a bit odd to some, Puckett asserts that it's not: "Our competitors practice just as hard as traditional athletes, our fans are just as passionate, and our broadcasts often feel like you are watching a SportsCenter recap."

The top comment on a CNN story about whether pro gamers should be considered athletes or not also provides a pretty good rebuttal to the critics:

Have you ever tried keeping constant up to 350-400 APM (actions per minute) with your hands alone for up to 78 minutes straight (the longest tournament game so far), while thinking about strategy, trying to trick your opponent, get a better position, make a split-second decision that might be the difference between winning and losing? It's like playing Beethoven and chess simultaneously, but a single mistake means game over.

Still, it’s not totally clear why the distinction even needs to exist. By branding itself with a red and blue logo that contains the white silhouette of a game controller, is MLG attempting to shed the outsider status and final layers of social stigma that, depending on who you ask, still may haunt the world of video games? Do organizers feel that the only chance eSports has of breaking into the mainstream hinges on whether the public thinks of video games as a sport?

"I grew up playing sports and going to professional sporting events with my family and friends, and all of those activities left me with incredible memories," Sundance DiGiovanni, MLG’s CEO and co-founder, wrote in an email. "When we created MLG over 10 years ago, my goal was to present video gaming as sport and help create those 'I remember when' experiences. The only difference is this time it’s around a competitive video-game match, rather than a baseball game. ... Everything we do is designed to make competitive gaming an entertaining, spectator experience, and by borrowing on the foundation of traditional sports leagues, it enables us to create a new generation of sport."

AS ORGANIZATIONS LIKEMLG continue to grow, perhaps the distinction between what is and what is not a sport will cease to matter. Although Duarte believes professional gaming exists in the same realm as, say, professional basketball, he doesn't care too much for the increasingly unimportant debate: "I think anything that you can compete in and people have a passion for and enjoy watching could be considered a sport. But it doesn't matter what the thing is titled."

If anything, it seems the main hurdle that eSports must overcome to achieve mainstream acceptance is the lingering sexism that tarnishes video game culture. Indeed, MLG's own statistics indicate that 85 percent of its viewers are male—a number that likely appeals to some advertisers, but not all.

"We have always strived to offer something for everyone, and have encouraged women to attend and compete at our events," DiGiovanni said. "We are seeing more and more competitive female gamers, and I hope that trend continues."

As with most things, the future of eSports in America is not certain. Will MLG be as big as the NFL and NBA come 2023, or will it go the way of Vince McMahon's XFL, or wither in obscurity like SlamBall? While the public hasn't outright rejected the concept of a competitive gaming league, it certainly hasn't fully embraced it yet, either.

Still, Duarte remains hopeful.

"It's growing, so you never really know," he said. "At this point, it can only get bigger."

Update: The U.S. government is now issuing "athlete visas" to international pro gamers.