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Popularity of watching professional video gamers is on the rise

Fans of StarCraft II watched video of a battle between gamers.
Fans of StarCraft II watched video of a battle between gamers. (Enrique Espinoza)Enrique Espinoza

You might have missed it in all the run-up to March Madness, but at an arena in Dallas this month, 1,000 competitors and 15,000 fans gathered for a different kind of sports showdown: the Major League Gaming Winter Championship.

In this case, gaming means video gaming. Competitors attacked each other with joysticks, while millions watched live video of the digital carnage via the Internet.

Little by little, video gaming is becoming a professional sport, with players who ride the circuit of tournaments, serious prize money, and corporate sponsorships, and a global fan base of millions.

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Its backers believe competitive video gaming is about to go mainstream, alongside NASCAR and professional fishing.

“Pretty soon, we’re going to be on the radar in a very major way,” said Sundance DiGiovanni, cofounder of Major League Gaming Inc., the New York company that hosted the Dallas tournament. “This is is a lifestyle, and in a few years we’re going to take over everything.”

In Boston recently for a sports conference organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and sponsored by the TV network ESPN, DiGiovanni said his league’s major matchups attract viewers in 175 countries.

Last year, Major League Gaming held four championship events that drew a total of 11.7 million viewers, more than triple the audience in 2011. And fans don’t just watch from home. Last year’s spring championship, at the Anaheim Convention Center in California, drew a live audience of 20,000.

“It’s definitely gained a lot of momentum,” said a video game industry analyst, Jeremy Miller of DFC Intelligence in Los Angeles.

Miller compared it to the rise of poker as a spectator sport about a decade ago. But he noted that poker’s popularity has faded and warned that the same thing could happen to video game leagues unless the industry develops the kind of deep fan loyalty found in traditional sports..

One thing in its favor: Millions of average people play video games. This provides MLG with a potentially vast audience and an easy way to develop talent. The company runs an Internet site called GameBattles, where avid gamers can sign up for free, then tangle with opponents in other parts of the world.

“Anybody can organize a team, go online, and play every day,” said Mike Rufail, 29, of Greensboro, N.C., a former MLG professional gamer who does play-by-play announcing of online tournaments.

At GameBattles, players compete individually or in teams, playing popular games like the violent first-person combat game Call of Duty: Black Ops II, or the complex strategy game Starcraft II. Players hook up with each other via the Internet, while fans follow the action on their own screens.

“Essentially it’s our minor league feeder system,” said DiGiovanni; about 8 million gamers have signed up to participate.

One of them, Erick Benamu, 18, is a freshman at Bentley University in Waltham. A Venezuelan who has been involved with gaming since age 12, Benamu takes his video gaming seriously.

“It takes hours of studying,” he said. “I actually played soccer . . . I considered gaming much harder.”

Benamu said his schoolwork prevents him from turning pro, but he often competes against top players on GameBattles “to learn, to get better.” He then posts videos of the matches on YouTube, where others gamers can learn from his successes and his mistakes.

The best players may be invited to participate as pros; in addition, players can purchase the right to play in qualifying matches that could make them eligible for the championship.

And there is real money at stake. At the Dallas tournament, the top team in the Black Ops II competition, Fariko Impact, won $20,000 and a chance to compete in a world championship in April, with a top prize of $400,000.

DiGiovanni said top professional gamers can make a living at it, pulling down six-figure incomes.

Meanwhile, many fans attend pro tournaments in person. A weekend tournament pass to the Dallas event cost $50 at the door. But most fans simply tuned in for free online.

DiGiovanni said the MLG audience is the sort advertisers dream of: 85 percent are males 18 to 34 years old, with 40 percent having annual income of $100,000 or more. The number of women has edged upward and is approaching 10 percent.

“I think you see more sisters, more girlfriends, more mothers involved and watching,” said DiGiovanni.

MLG’s next move would seem to be onto broadcast or cable TV. But even though MLG inked an alliance with the online operations of CBS Corp., DiGiovanni said he thinks the Internet, with its global reach, is a superior platform.

“I don’t see TV as the ultimate destination,” he said. “We’re trying to reach a level where as a global brand we’re larger than what you can tune in on TV.”

Miller, of DFC Intelligence, said it will not be easy to keep viewers coming back, because “people tend to get sick of playing the same game over and over and over again.”

He said the league needs to develop star players with personal appeal, just as NASCAR fans become loyal to a favorite driver. Otherwise, video gaming as a spectator sport could peter out.

DiGiovanni is convinced his sport will soon reach a critical mass of fans — and deep-pocketed advertisers.

“We can do what it took the NFL decades to do,” he said. “We’re a new sport for a new generation.”

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