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The Not-So-Overnight Success of eSports

on Wednesday, Apr. 16th

This story airs on American Public Media’s Marketplace.

Over the past two years, there has been an explosion of interest in competitive online gaming, known as eSports. Professional video game players face off in matches broadcast around the globe, 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 were observed by 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 suits and ties.

A million dollars in prizes was on the line at the tournament, which was broadcast free online by Major League Gaming, 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,” said 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 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 United States 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,” said 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,” said 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 the competition prize money, instead making 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,” said Lake, who compares the current state of eSports to the Wild West.

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 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.

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