Parents who chastised their kids for playing too many video games and saying it'll never amount to anything got a wake-up call today. Major League Gaming, which claims to be the first pro-gaming league of its kind, announced the largest pro-gaming contracts in the sport's young history--$1.25 million for five young cyberathletes.
Five gamers will make $250,000 over three years for their commitment to the league, which tours across the country each year with open competitions in several games, including Halo 2 and Super Smash Bros. Melee.
MLG today also announced that energy-drink maker Red Bull has signed on as a supporter, joining Boost Mobile, Scion, and GameStop in MLG's stable of partners looking to crack the prized 18- to 34-year-old demographic.
GameSpot News spoke with Major League Gaming's president and COO, Matthew Bromberg, who knows a thing or two about the gaming industry as former vice president and general manager of AOL Games. We picked his brain about the future of pro gaming, how it can eventually become as big as other professional sports, and the next "Terrell Owens of gaming."
GameSpot News: Interesting that you are now offering significant money to attract competitors, when in the past you had contracts with gamers but no fees. What do you get from the additional cost to retain talent, and how will you leverage the high-priced talent?
Matthew Bromberg: Any top, competitive sports league must have the best players signed exclusively, or else what you've got is just some tournament. We have over 100 pros in our players association, and we directly manage 35 of them. As major brand sponsors, television, and mass-market Web audiences continue to migrate to MLG, we've gained the flexibility to evolve these arrangements, making them more lucrative for players. Our goal is for all of the top players in the league to make a great living competing with Major League Gaming.
GS: How did you come up with the figures for these new contracts?
MB: Why, not big enough for you? (laughs)
GS: What were the reactions of the gamers?
MB: Final Boss and Tsquared were ecstatic, of course. But even more importantly, all of the pros we talked to were excited. They know that these first two deals are just the beginning. We work hard every day to grow this league so that all of the pros can share in the bounty. The top 16 points leaders across our pro circuit already earn travel stipends to get them to each competition. Now we are signing some bigger deals with some of our stars. This is all about the players.
GS: Why these gamers in particular?
MB: Team Final Boss has been a force in the League from the beginning. They've won the championship for the last two years and are the favorites for this year, as well. T-2, in addition to being a great player, is also a budding media star. He's been the focus of a documentary on MTV True Life, been in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, etc. As we air our TV show on USA Networks this winter, and we continue to release video from the 2006 competitions on our Web site and on Boost Mobile phones, the mass-market audience will come to know even more of these guys, and that will lead to more of these contracts.
GS: Are there any additional cash incentives for your signed players?
MB: We have $800,000 in total cash and prizes for the winners of each stop on the 2006 Pro Circuit.
GS: Will the competitions still be open to all, and how much can a nonsigned gamer (an amateur) make on your tour?
MB: The first day of our competitions always has an open bracket and always will. Along with a series of online qualifying tournaments, that's a key part of how we find new stars. It isn't easy to make it out from the open bracket, though. We'll take 800 entrants down to 16 winners, and then most of those folks will lose their very first match in the main draw. But every now and then, a new star emerges. Strongside, one of the top players in the League, came to our attention that way.
GS: How has attendance at events tracked over the short beginning of the '06 season? How about relative to earlier seasons?
MB: Our very first competition of 2006 in the Meadowlands was the largest console-gaming competition ever: We had 144 four-man teams competing, and that was just the team entries. There were more than 1,000 total competitors and 5,000 total attendees, including fans and family. Dallas was the same. Anaheim is happening this week, and we'll max that competition out as well. Three years ago when this started, a regular event might have 50 people. It has become a phenomena.
GS: Are there any "hotbeds" of pro gaming? Are there certain regions in the country where the response is greater?
MB: Different games are strong in different areas of the country. Fighting games are big on the West Coast. FPSs are bigger on the East. There are an awful lot of the best Halo players in the world who hail from Ohio. Don't ask me why.
GS: How do you see e-sports growing over the next couple of years?
MB: We don't really like the terminology. We want to grow the next major competitive sports league in America. Everyone always wants to put and "E" or an "I" before anything that has to do with the Internet. That has never made any sense to me.
GS: Currently, you have Boost and Red Bull signed up as sponsors. Are you aiming to break new business or is your sponsorship profile where you want it?
MB: The supporters of the 2006 Boost Mobile Major League Gaming Pro Circuit are Boost (obviously), Scion, Red Bull, GameStop, and Turtlebeach. They aren't just any brands; they are exactly the right brands with whom to build a youth-oriented League. We are out there now talking about 2007, which should be even bigger, and we hope that many more of the right folks will be on board with us as we grow.
GS: Is there any "Gamer stereotype" that pro gaming has to overcome? Will getting these pros on TV help out?
MB: No one takes that seriously anymore, particularly as it relates to console gaming. Anyone who knows someone 14 to 34 will tell you that the gamer community is a cross-section of America--their own friends, sons, daughters...or themselves! When more than 100,000,000 people do something, sterotypes kind of fall away.
GS: What genres of games do you think foster the best competition for viewing audiences, and what upcoming titles do you see adding to your events?
MB: Certainly, FPSs are historically the most easily suited to competition. But fighting games and sports games and racing games can be great, too. You have to look at the community the game supports. We seek out games that are sufficiently skill based, for sure, but that also have a competitive community that we can embrace, work with, and grow. We are definitely going to add some games to the Tour for 2007. We are evaluating that now.
GS: Is there any thought to mirroring the techniques of professional sports leagues to draw in audiences? For example, would a "Terrell Owens of the MLG" be good for the league? How about rivalries between players, teams, or cities?
MB: Every great league has its stars, and so do we. But we don't need to manufacture anything. Yes, you package it and market it, but these pros have been competing on our circuit for years. The rivalries, the personalities, the knuckleheads...it is all there already.
GS: As more and more gamers sign on and professional gaming grows, what is the future competitive model for MLG? Would a regional team-based model (like the MLB, NBA, NFL) work better, or would it be an individual basis, like the Pro Tennis Association or extreme-sports circuits?
MB: Our league shares attributes of all of those models, and there are no better teachers. Don't forget about NASCAR as a model, by the way. Our challenge will be to chart our own course and learn as we go.
GS: If pro gaming is going to make it into the mainstream, you're going to need superstars--someone crowds want to root for. Are there any prodigies out there that are of particular interest?
MB: That is what today's announcement is about. [Final Boss members] Walshy, the Ogre twins, Saiyen, and Tsquared are our first crop of stars, and as we roll out the media across the Web, mobile, TV, game console, etc., millions more will come to know them. But there are also a whole group of other competitors we will be introducing to the world. I mentioned Strongside, a real up-and-coming guy on the circuit. Karma is amazing. Ken and Isai haven't lost a Smash Brothers match in years, it sometimes seems. We are pretty broad and deep when it comes to talent.
GS: Thank you very much, Matthew.