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Electronic Arts gets into e-sports, with $1-million 'Madden' championship

Electronic Arts gets into e-sports, with $1-million 'Madden' championship
Players compete in the "Madden NFL" video game as part of a Super Bowl event in February. (Electronic Arts)

Video game publisher Electronic Arts Inc. plans to award $1 million over the next year to top players of its latest "Madden NFL" title.

The prize money is a selling point for a new, four-tournament series beginning this fall, marking the first e-sports initiative from the nation's second-most-profitable gamemaker since it launched a competitive gaming division in December.

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The "Madden NFL 17" Championship Series, announced Sunday, comes two days before the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, brings the gaming industry to downtown Los Angeles. Turning video games into a sport, with all the traditional complexities of stadiums, free agency and drug testing, is among the hottest topics at this year's convention.

Electronic Arts is committing to a three-year plan, hoping to slowly build up amateur, mid-level and professional tournaments.

It's a more cautious approach than the ambitious media strategy of slightly larger rival Activision Blizzard Inc., which boasted a pair of $1-million prize pools last fall and has among its goals becoming the ESPN of e-sports.

At an investor presentation last month, Electronic Arts "did its best to pour cold water on the notion that e-sports will generate significant direct revenue in the near term," Macquarie Capital analyst Ben Schachter wrote to clients.

At the base of EA's setup are plans to provide resources such as scheduling software to college students and other gaming enthusiasts that would make it easier for them to organize tournaments. These days, it's a chore involving clipboards and hauling around gaming consoles.

At the mid-level, EA says it will work with events promoters like ESL and Gfinity to run what the company calls premiere tournaments.

But what EA truly considers e-sports are global, top-tier tournaments known as Majors. "Madden" is getting the Majors treatment, and so will the popular "Battlefield" shooter and "FIFA" soccer franchises.

"Whether you're an elite player competing for cash and prizes in global e-sports events, or you're taking your first steps to play online, we want everyone to feel the thrill of competition," EA's Chief Competition Officer Peter Moore said.

EA has done tournaments before, but they were more about selling games than thinking through how to get people spending more time playing them, Moore said.

Now executives such as Moore are emphasizing the development of features that support dueling and entertainment among players. That includes offering more camera angles, the ability to stream games online for others to watch and generally creating a "spectacle" around who wins and loses, Moore said.

If players get into it, they'll spend more money on packs of virtual items that can boost their characters and street-credibility. So-called downloadable content is a fast-growing profit generator for large gaming companies.

"Every one of our development teams understands what competitive gaming is going to bring in the next many years," Moore said. "It just takes time to do."

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Twitter: @peard33

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