Coin-OpEd: Who cares about pro gaming?

Major League Gaming's Sundance DiGiovanni clues me in on why it's worth tuning into e-sports or competitive gaming, or whatever you want to call it.

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I'm watching this fight between Daigo "The Beast" Umehara and Justin Wong again. Two small men sit at the front of a cavernous ballroom at EVO 2004. In front of them sits a wall-sized projection-screen television. Behind them are hundreds of like-minded individuals slavering at the bit to see a good match of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike.

Ken and Chun-li flit across the screen in round one, the two contestants feigning, pushing, pulling, looking for an opening. The advantage goes to Umehara, as his Ken transitions seamlessly from seemingly unblockable jabbing kicks to shoryuken uppercuts. Round two goes to Wong, who works Chun's lightning legs and head-stomps to devastating effect.

And then, round three. Glorious, glorious round three. Words can do it no justice. YouTube has documented this precious moment forever. Dear reader, I implore you, click this link (and/or this link) before we move on.

After watching those clips a few years ago, I felt like a hillbilly taken to his first cock fight. The draw of lethal combat, a raucous crowd caught in the bloodlust of a moment, two men enter, one emerges victorious. Dead chickens! Wait, no dead chickens. Living chickens. Ignore the chickens. Let's move past the chickens.

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Professional gaming is a subject that's piqued my curiosity on any number of occasions over the years. I'll come across a clip like the one above--and to be sure, it's a common occurrence--and I'm wowed, stupefied. I think to myself, "Why isn't this being dissected by talking heads in suits on some cable news channel?"

But then the clip ends, and I get distracted by some .gif of a cat assaulting a hapless dog from the relative safety of a glass vase. I know I'm not the only one. Still, it appears as if an increasing number of you have attention spans that don't rival that of a squirrel when it comes to e-sports.

A few weeks ago, the Major League Gaming circuit held its third weekend-long tournament of the year, setting up shop in Anaheim, California. When the dust settled, the MLG sent out a press release titled "Major League Gaming Delivers Record-Breaking 35 Million Online Video Streams of Anaheim Pro Circuit Video Game Competition." A bit wordy, sure, but 35 million online streams, huh?

Now, as a veteran Internet writer, I know a thing or two about stream counts and page views, and the playing fast and loose thereof. So rather than once again spouting off rambling, often factually inaccurate, opinions on what can be derived from this figure, I decided to put some effort into this Coin-OpEd. No, really! I spoke with Sundance DiGiovanni, CEO of Major League Gaming and possessor of a name quite possibly more epic than GameSpot's own Giancarlo Varanini. As an Italian half-breed, I feel shame in their company. I really do.

"That stat is the easiest stat to generate quickly, so that's why we've led with that with the last two events," DiGiovanni said. "But then when you dig into it, you start to see the depth of it, the fact that we had over 20 million hours of video and [an average of three hours of streaming per user]."

"And then you do a little bit more digging, and you find out that we were right at 1 million unique [users] across our player. Factoring in our partnerships with Justin.tv and some of our international distribution folks that we had partnerships with, you find out the fact that we hit 171 countries."

To save you all some googling, there are 196 countries in the world. Or 195, if you're like the US government and don't count Taiwan. And while that seems pretty impressive, what I need here is some perspective. DiGiovanni, if I ran a major television network, how would I feel about these figures?

"To quote a television executive that I just had a call with. He said that's insanity. There's no way that I can explain that to somebody within the traditional broadcast world, and they'll understand that a live-to-broadband gaming event can generate that level of engagement."

Right, but these are basically low-value international viewers, I'm sure. Basically a bunch of Uzbekis, right?

"Number one is the USA, and then Canada. Germany is the third largest, followed by Sweden. And Sweden jumped up quite a bit. It used to be the UK was number three, number two or number three for us."

And it's not just Swedes that are coming around to competitive gaming. Males of mating age may be interested to know that about 17-18 percent of viewers, be it on-site or online, are female. ("You know, it used to be 97 percent and 3 percent.") DiGiovanni also said that an increasing number of older folks--that is, men and women that fall outside the 18- 34-year-old demographic--are tuning in online.

However, if I can say this in the least creepy way possible, it isn't the old folks that DiGiovanni is particularly concerned about.

"The acceptance of competitive gaming or e-sports or whatever you want to call it, it's not about the current group of 24-year-olds or 30-year-olds, or everyone in that group adopting it. It's about the kids who are 8-years-old right now. As they grow up, what do they think of it, because they're growing up in a universe where in their minds, it's always existed."

(DiGiovanni cofounded the MLG with Mike Sepso in 2002, for those wondering what's so special about 8-year-olds.)

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"There's no preconceived notion of whether it's cool or stupid, it's just about whether or not it's fun and entertaining. I don't really worry about the average Joe on the street today. I worry about building something that's going to be compelling to audiences as they mature into it."

The MLG will make its fourth stop in the 2011 season next week, when it sets up shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, from August 26-28. It should come as no surprise that the pro-gaming executive expects Raleigh to be bigger than Anaheim. In fact, DiGiovanni believes it's only a matter of time before pro gaming is grappling with player lockouts, salary caps, and all the other consequences of being as big as more traditional professional sports. But hurdles remain.

"Like with any business, [its maturity] has to involve scale and stability. We've run our business as a primarily sponsorship-driven [one] for the last seven years or so, and there's a finite amount of brands who will sponsor things and there's a finite amount of advertisers.

"And I think for us, the real thing has been locking into a structure that's stable. The very nature of a traveling circuit is it's a rough life out there on the road, so we're doing what we can to move away from that a little bit. Still have it as part of our business, but execute in a manner more similar to what you see from a more traditional sport. I think over the next 18 months, people are going to see a really big shift in what we do and how we do it, and I think the numbers will reflect that."

"My number one request to anyone and everyone who has a question or hears the phrase competitive gaming or the phrase e-sports is, just take a look. See what it actually is. And I'm not saying just MLG. Just explore the community, explore why there are millions of people that are so engaged, why these events are so popular, and you might find something that you appreciate."

What I appreciate about e-sports is the enthusiasm of those who follow it. As I look back at that EVO 2004 clip, for sure, The Beast's absurd skill in being able to time each and every parry is a sight to behold. But it's the building roar of the crowd that sets my skin tingling. It's the reaction of, "Wow, you should have been there."

That question in the headline, I don't ask it from a place of flippancy. I'm actually curious. Who out there cares about pro gaming?

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