With TV, the games, they are a changin’
The Los Angeles Complexity couldn’t overcome an opening 5-0 loss in the men’s “Dead or Alive” competition Monday night in “Championship Gaming Series” play and ended up losing 24-17 to archrival New York 3D.
DirecTV’s inaugural broadcast of a made-for-television e-gaming league at times seemed to be as much game show as athletic event. Stagehands called for applause after commercial breaks, and “ring girls” came onstage carrying the appropriate sports symbol -- a soccer ball, boxing gloves or a starter’s flag -- to signal the upcoming video game to be played.
More than 200 fans -- most of them clutching thundersticks like those found at a baseball game -- sat in bleachers inside a Manhattan Beach soundstage. Most clearly got into it, loudly encouraging their favorite team, which not surprisingly was Complexity. That was particularly true during the “Counter-Strike: Source” segment that L.A. won in overtime.
The premise for “Championship Gaming Series” is simple -- six teams, 60 players, six general managers, team logos, four games a week through July, team standings and point tallies. In other words, a typical sports league, where head-to-head competition rules the day.
Last month, the 60 players were among the hundreds who made their way to Soundstage 22 on the 20th Century Fox lot in Century City to try out. This soundstage, which has been host to movie shoots and television series tapings, had seen nothing like these gamers and was tricked out with smoke machines, pulsing lights and a monster sound system.
Gamers were drawn to Los Angeles by the opportunity to earn a $30,000 base salary and the chance to win even more in bonuses. And DirecTV, whose coverage reaches 16 million households in the U.S., is hoping to cash in on e-gaming’s popularity.
There are 10 players on each of six teams -- L.A. Complexity, San Francisco Optx, Chicago Chimera, New York 3D, Carolina Core and Dallas Venom.
In addition to the kick-boxing version of the “Dead or Alive” series and “Counter-Strike: Source,” a popular video game in which heavily armed virtual squads seek to destroy each other, players are competing in “FIFA Soccer ‘07” and “Project Gotham Racing 3,” an auto racing challenge.
Who is expected to watch the league’s twice-weekly broadcasts that will show gamers furiously working their video game controllers, as well as scenes captured by virtual cameras embedded in the game software?
Gamers, including Nate Ernstoff, whose team got bounced during last month’s tryout. The 24-year-old Connecticut resident already is plotting strategy for the league’s 2008 tryout.
“We’ve been ranked as the top 13th team in the country,” Ernstoff said of his team. “I think our chances of making it get better and better. If they have another draft, we’d definitely come out [to Los Angeles] again.”
DirecTV and corporate sponsors such as Mountain Dew, Xbox 360 and Dell Computer are counting on that kind of unbridled gamer passion, which they hope extends to the tens of millions of Americans who play e-games for fun.
Each two-hour program will include a pair of matches, with the next slated for 7 p.m. on Wednesday. CGS coverage also will feature behind-the-scenes and background segments on the teams as well as the players, all of whom are temporarily living in an apartment building in Los Angeles.
“There’s definitely a reality show waiting to happen with the way we’re doing it,” said Eric Shanks, who oversaw sports programming production for Fox before becoming executive vice president of DirecTV Entertainment.
The idea is to do for e-gaming what television has done for extreme sports or poker -- turn a fringe sport or lifestyle into television programming that will attract viewers and advertisers. CBS, MTV and Spike TV also plan to broadcast e-gaming during coming months, and USA Network last year broadcast some gaming tournaments.
On game day, the teams take to the stage, er, field, in front of a live audience. With lights flashing and music booming, announcers and camera crews scramble to cover the action as gamers -- there is a female member on each team -- furiously work their video game controllers.
CGS is using virtual cameras embedded in the game software to show live action. Viewers see race cars as they spin out on turns and are able to lurk inside buildings as the “Counter-Strike: Source” gamers hunt each other down.
Gamers and the games that they play on PCs and such consoles as Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, are getting an increasing amount of attention from potential advertisers.
“I think gaming is on the cusp of becoming a mainstream sport,” said Lauren Hobart, director of marketing for Pepsico’s Mountain Dew, a brand that continues to benefit from its early role as a sponsor for extreme sports.
Fox Sports Channel Chairman and Chief Executive David Hill, who is credited with with such sports broadcasting innovations as the glowing hockey puck and sharp camera angles that mimic video games, agreed, saying that e-gaming is poised to hit the television jackpot.
It was Hill who pushed DirecTV to create an e-gaming league last year. At the time, he was president of that company’s entertainment group.
“I’m a believer that any competitive thing is a sport because that’s the way sports originated,” he said. “We too often think in our wisdom that Noah marched out of the ark with [just] football, baseball, basketball and hockey.”
The league hopes to create buzz by setting aside $5 million to cover the base salaries and bonuses -- and by marketing itself as the country’s first league with a regular schedule, home teams and live television coverage.
Not surprisingly, some competitors question whether gamers will put down their controllers long enough to watch.
“David Hill is an incredibly successful person,” said Mike Sepso, co-founder and chairman of Major League Gaming, which stages competitions, produces television programming and runs some of e-gaming’s most popular websites such as GotFrag.com, which many gamers consider their sport’s version of ESPN “SportsCenter.”
“But I’m not really concerned about people starting leagues in order to create television shows to attract young subscribers.”
Sepso, whose firm last year broadcast some of its tournament action on the USA Network, questions whether hard-core gamers will be drawn into DirecTV’s made-for-television fare. As with extreme games and surfing, he said, e-gamers demand “authenticity.”
What’s not open for debate is the growing allure of e-gaming among mainstream marketers that are scrambling to reach the sport’s largely male, largely young demographic.
One measure of gaming’s increased popularity came last week when Nielsen Co. and Sony Corp. announced plans to measure gaming in much the same way that television viewing is monitored.
“Gaming is with us,” said Neal Pilson, a New York-based media consultant who is advising MLG on its business strategy. “Set aside the value judgments about whether it’s time better spent eating, studying, playing football or whatever.”
One reason is easy access to the field of play.
In March, Nielsen reported that 45.7 million U.S. households now have video game consoles hooked into their television sets -- up from 38.6 million in 2004. The e-gaming demographic is even larger since the report didn’t include such PC-based games as “World of Warcraft” or increasingly popular hand-held devices.
Males account for more than 75% of console games and the vast majority of the guys are between the ages of 18 and 34. “That’s our core demographic,” said Mountain Dew’s Hobart, who sees strong parallels between e-gaming and the early days of extreme sports.
Nielsen’s data also suggests that the 20% of console gamers who qualify as hard-core users drive nearly 75% of total playing time.
That ratio leads some in the sports broadcasting industry to question whether there will be broad-based support for programming spun off by e-gaming contests -- and whether hard-core gamers will be turned off as leagues and tournaments are retooled in a bid to attract a broader television audience.
Pilson, however, suspects that there is plenty of pent-up demand because there’s a bit of the gamer in most of us. He points to televised poker, which uses tiny cameras to let viewers see cards hidden from the players, as a model for how to turn electronic gaming into television fare.
“You go around the corners with the players,” Pilson said. “You can follow the strategies and tactics as they’re being developed. You’re really inside the game.”
Dave Geffon, meanwhile, expects great things to come of this DirecTV series.
The 24-year-old gamer from Westlake Village is general manager for New York 3D. One day, he said, gamers in the U.S. will experience “rock star” treatment, the kind already generated in places such as South Korea, where gaming fans jam soccer stadiums to watch contests and there are three television channels dedicated to the sport.
And during a 2006 tour of China, Geffon said, fans congregated wherever the U.S. gamers stopped to play against the best local competition.
“It was very flattering because they for sure knew who we were, and when we were walking into the buildings they were screaming some of our names,” Geffon said. “I was tickled by the thought that these people were actually fans of us. It’s something that I’d never felt before.”
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A demographics drive
DirecTV, which unveiled its “Championship Gaming Series” during live coverage Monday, isn’t the only company seeking to turn e-gaming into TV programming. Some of the other tournaments with television deals include:
World Cyber Games
* Will hold its seventh annual championship in Seattle during October having built a reputation as an Olympic-style festival that celebrates all things gaming. The global tournament that now draws 1.3 million participants from 70 countries recently struck a television deal with Spike TV and the MTV Networks.
Cyberathlete Professional League
* Decade-old league has been host of 60 major international contests that have drawn a cumulative 300,000 gamers and awarded more than $3 million in prize money. It has broadcast some of its tournament action on MTV.
Major League Gaming
* Operates an online gaming news website and ranks the world’s best players. Broadcast parts of last year’s tournament on the USA Network.
World Series of Gaming
* Recently announced that CBS would air four hour-long specials tied to several of its tournaments.
-- GREG JOHNSON
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