Professional video gaming is set to debut on cable television this year, potentially paving the way for the reigning game players to become as familiar to American households as the faces of Johnny Chan or Annie Duke in televised poker.
Major League Gaming, the world's largest organized video game league, on Monday announced a programming deal in which USA Network will air seven one-hour episodes in the fall featuring the pro circuit.
Although video gaming fans have been able to follow competitions on game websites for years, the league's television deal marks the first time regular TV viewers would be able to track the ups and downs of a pro tournament, watching video gaming as a new kind of extreme sport.
"This is the sign that pro gaming has finally arrived to the mass market," said Matthew Bromberg, the league's president and chief operating officer. "It's like poker was two years ago or NASCAR 15 years ago."
The televised series will aim to engage viewers with not only the game play itself -- featuring top players of Halo 2 on Xbox and Super Smash Bros. Melee on Nintendo -- but also sports-style commentary and player profiles.
Among them: Bonnie Burton, also known as Xena, a 15-year-old Pennsylvanian who is the only female in the pro league and one of the best Halo 2 players in the world; and Tom Taylor, who's known as Tsquared. The 18-year-old from Florida is a budding entrepreneur whose Gaming-Lessons business has helped hone the game skills of numerous celebrities and athletes.
"I'm excited to compete on TV in front of an audience. This will take video gaming to the next level," Taylor said.
Taylor, who gained more fame by being featured on MTV's documentary series "True Life," takes his sport seriously. He keeps a healthy diet and practices three to four hours a day.
"It is an extreme sport," he said. "It's about quick reflexes and also outsmarting people."
Some top players earn winnings in the range of a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year, and the league's tournaments usually draw thousands of spectators at its arena venues and thousands more online, said Michael Sepso, the league's chief executive and co-founder.
But going before a mainstream TV audience could raise video gaming's visibility, leading to more sponsorships and advertising.