EA Sports Challenge Series launching with $1 million purse

Q&A: CEO Rob Segal talks with GameSpot about the online poker-style tournament for Madden, FIFA, and NHL.


Want to be a professional gamer, but don't have the stomach to drive across the country, lodging in shoddy motels and consuming unhealthy amounts of beef jerky and Red Bull, only to be knocked out in the first round? Virgin Gaming may have an answer for that dilemma.

There are now 400,000 more reasons to be absurdly good at Madden NFL 12.
There are now 400,000 more reasons to be absurdly good at Madden NFL 12.

Today, the Virgin Group offshoot announced its plans for the EA Sports Challenge Series, a $1 million tournament series that spans Madden NFL 12, FIFA Soccer 12, and NHL 12. The tournament, which is exclusive to the PlayStation 3, has gamers working their way through qualifying rounds before the main event in April 2012. Those interested in entering the tournament can do so through Virgin Gaming's official website.

So how's it all work? GameSpot caught up with Virgin Gaming CEO Rob Segal to get the lowdown on asynchronous tournament models, the logistics behind running a tournament with more than 100,000 entrants, and future plans for the tournament series.

GameSpot: Do you guys have some news to talk about regarding the Madden Challenge Series?

Rob Segal: It's all EA Sports. The EA Sports Challenge Series, which is the next big thing in gaming tournaments. It launches in December, and it's three online tournaments running in parallel. So FIFA, Madden, and NHL. It's exclusive on the PlayStation 3 platform. There's $1 million in prizes that will be awarded. It's open to gamers around the world, wherever skill-based gaming is permitted, like the United States and Canada, the UK.

The program's going to run until the middle of March, and then there will be a live finals where 1,000 people will gather in New York City for a celebration of all things gaming, plus the live finals group for the three matches. That will probably be mid-April. But mid-April, around the NFL draft. Like I had mentioned, there's $1 million available across the three games: $400,000 for FIFA, $400,000 for Madden, and $200,000 for NHL.

What's really special about this is that this tournament will be the first tournament that uses our revolutionary series tournament models, which, if you've ever played online poker, is what's called the synchronous tournament model. But in layman's terms, what it does for us is it throws away the need for scheduling or leaderboard-style tournaments that obviously virtual gaming has.

The first step was to create a safe and secure platform that was fully automated. And now this next feature, which is what we call the series tournament model, allows us to build huge, huge participant-based tournaments, where you no longer have to wait for someone else to finish their match before you play them.

The asynchronous model is the play-now model. So you win level one, you click "play now," and the site matches you up with someone who is also playing at level two. This really allows gamers to play at their own time and from the comforts of their own home. Never before at Virgin has there been a tournament where you could do this. In the past, you had to get in your car and you had to drive to a convention center or a hotel somewhere. You could get knocked out in the first round.

Now, we're going to do all the qualifying for the tournament from the comforts of online. And it's certainly struck a chord with gamers.

GS: You were just talking about how this tournament is different from a lot of other tournaments where people show up and compete in a typical bracket. Are you guys expecting to have millions of people competing in these challenges? Is that accurate?

RS: I wouldn't say millions. I mean, we could be pleasantly surprised. We're expecting somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 participants.

GS: How are you managing that many people?

RS: Well, that's the beauty of the platform that we've built. We've been in development for many years to build a platform that allows gamers to come on and, in a safe, wholly automated fashion, to compete in tournaments.

So if you and I were to play on our site and I win, you and I don't have to report the outcome. That same data is being streamed off of EA's servers to our platform. So we validate the results. It also eliminates cheating and disputes, because if there is a dispute for any reason, we can simply look at the tape, and we can see, well, Matt was winning 24 nothing with 3 minutes left in the fourth quarter. And there's a disconnect, and we'll award the match that way.

So, this asynchronous tournament model, which we call series tournament, eliminates the real hassles of running a tournament like the way the challenger used to run before. This allows you to buy in at level one, you win your match, you get a ticket to level two. You press "play now" when you feel like it, and the site matches you up with someone who has a level two ticket, and so on and so forth.

GS: How are you ranked? If you win a match, then you get a point? Is that how it works?

RS: All you have to do is win six matches and you're at the live finals. So it's really, really simple, really straightforward.

GS: How many people are going to be in the live finals?

RS: 1,000.

GS: So, is it a case where if someone plays more, that person has a better chance of getting to the top, in the tournament itself?

RS: Well, one could make the argument that the more you play, the better that your chances become. You're allowed to reenter the tournament as many times as you'd like. So yeah, so you can play as many times, as opposed to other tournaments where you can get knocked out, where 80, 90 percent of the people get knocked out of the first round and that's it for them. You've driven, you've spent money on gas and a car, hotel. If you're out after your first match, that's not a great user experience.

And that was part of the impetus, but why we created Virgin Gaming was because that had been the experience we had playing at live gaming tournaments. We said, "Why can't we do for the gaming world what online poker did in a Texas hold 'em space?" And make it feasible to enter in that type of way. And that's what we've ended up with.

GS: So it's basically you have to win six matches in a row.

RS: Yes, to make it to the finals. However, like other tournaments, in the poker space, you can buy in if you wanted to. You could buy in for $400 and be at the live final event.

GS: Oh, so you can just buy your way in.

RS: Skip all the qualifying matches, you can just buy your way into the live final if you want.

GS: So how much is an entry-level, first-level ticket?

RS: $10.

GS: You mentioned that this is PlayStation 3 exclusive.

RS: Yes. Yes, how and why?

GS: Yeah, how and why? Or mostly why?

RS: Firstly, we worked with EA and we went with both platforms, and we intend to support [the PS3 and Xbox 360]. But through experience and in particular things like the Challenge Series and other tournaments that have come before this, the most successful ones are the ones that get support from the platform and really get marketed and pushed. And what we thought, after our discussions, was that by choosing one platform, we would get the full efforts and support of that platform. And Sony was the first to really embrace this.

They wanted to work with us on this. They see how important competitive gaming is and how quickly it's growing. And they approached us and made a compelling offer, along with a sponsorship package, to put it onto the PlayStation platform and then support it fully across the PlayStation Network, Playstation.com, and other marketing initiatives that they're doing.

As opposed to if we didn't have a partner and we operated on both, we'd probably get no support from either. So that was kind of the rationale for doing this. And then what we'll do for Xbox customers, obviously we're always running tournaments for Xbox customers, but we're also in discussions with Microsoft to create a program for them a little bit later, in 2012, for the Xbox customers. So we won't abandon that customer by any means. We just felt for this one the concentration would work best on one platform. And also, if we look at the FIFA numbers, they're very, very strong for PlayStation, especially in Europe.

GS: How big is the tournament audience do you think?

RS: All I can tell you is Virgin Gaming started in June 2010 when we came out of beta. But our big deal was struck with EA Sports last February, and the result of our efforts was getting integrated into FIFA 12, Madden 12, and NHL 12, which started shipping in September.

In the past 45 days, we've added 500,000 new members to the Virgin Gaming platforms. It really made us all quite happy to see it. If you look at a market that has somewhere in the neighborhood of 110 to 120 million consoles, an install base online of, what, 40, 50 million, we certainly believe that 2, 3 percent of these guys will want to game competitively.

But the point I want to make, we've got a television show in development and we plan to do more of these Challenge Series types of programs and do really great live events and really celebrate the gamers and the competitive gamer. But the DNA of our gaming is not just for the ultra competitive gamer, like that top 1 percent. Very shortly, we're going to be launching products for the masses on our platforms that allow you and your friends to play in your own private league, user generated, your own tournaments. Head-to-head matches with your friends. I'm not a great gamer; I'm a decent gamer. But I would never win one of our tournaments. I might win one or two games, but I would be happy to enter for fun because I'm going to spend a few hours a night gaming, and this adds to the intensity.

And that's really where we saw the big opportunity in the competitive gaming space, which is to give gamers the ability to just add some real entertainment and intensity value to that gaming experience. Because these customers, these gamers, they're spending a lot of time online playing. And I liken it to going golfing with my buddies. We're terrible golfers, but in order to keep our attention and interest for 18 holes, we play for a buck a hole, right. No one's going to get rich. No one's going to lose a lot of money doing it, but it really enhances the entertainment value. That's kind of the foundation of what we're doing here at Virgin Gaming.

Now, obviously we need the big marquee events like Challenge Series to attract the attention of the industry and to bring more and more players into our franchise, who can then find products and events and programming that is more suited to them. But this is kind of a flagpole program for us, and we hope that once the gamers come in, they have fun with it, they try, they get better, maybe they win a couple of levels. At the very least they get their money back. Maybe they win a little bit. But they get turned on. They get their friends into it, and they start to do what people have been doing since Pong.

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