VIENNA, Va., (USA Today) Watch out Monday Night Football. There's a new sport looking to sack your audience. Professional competitive video game competitions are gaining players and fans.
Washington Nationals flamethrower Stephen Strasburg stares down his opponent and lets it fly. "Pop!" Another one bites the dust.
But Strasburg isn't on a baseball mound pitching fastballs. Instead, the 24-year-old Major League righthander, whose pitching season ended a month ago, is sitting on a couch, game controller in hand, deftly dispatching enemies in the video game Call of Duty.
A diehard online competitor who takes his PlayStation 3 with him on Nationals' road trips, Strasburg is stoked not only for his team's continued playoff run -- baseball's Nationals are back on home turf Wednesday -- but also for the Nov. 13 release of Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
In late April when the Nationals traveled to Los Angeles to play the Dodgers, Strasburg visited Black Ops II development studio Treyarch in Santa Monica, Calif., to see the work in progress. Last week, when the developers were here showing off the near-finished project, he couldn't resist dropping in.
Some of those new features coming to the multibillion-dollar game franchise could help make organized video game competitions as commonplace as bowling leagues. While the NFL and other pro sports probably aren't worried yet, they'd better step up their defense. Call of Duty's coming offensive could snare enough eyeballs to transform the game into a full-fledged spectator sport.
Strasburg is a believer, noting that millions already watch amateur Call of Duty video clips on YouTube. "It definitely seems like there's a demand for it," says the Nationals star, who isn't playing in the post-season because the team didn't want to overwork his right arm, which required Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery two years ago.
Professional video game competitions are not new. Thousands of gamers have turned pro -- the best can earn upwards of $100,000 annually, along with sponsorship perks -- and millions of aspirants play regularly online. But next month's Black Ops II launch might one day be looked upon as a turning point in eSports, or electronic sports, as professionally sanctioned video game competitions are currently labeled.
In addition to Black Ops II's single-player story campaign -- it begins in the post-Vietnam era and transports players to the year 2025 -- the newest installment will also let players join and compete in regular match-ups in ranked Call of Duty leagues. They'll be able to broadcast their firefights over the Internet, as well as add commentary.
The goal of adding these features to a game that is already expected to sell 20 million-plus copies worldwide is to drive interest in online competition and spectating. "You put this stuff in the game, and you can blow it up big time and make it available and accessible to everyone," says David Vonderhaar, game design director for Treyarch.
While millions were watching baseball playoffs and college and pro football over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of viewers were on their computers watching the qualifying rounds of the world championship for a computer game called League of Legends. Teams from the U.S., China, Korea, Taiwan, Europe and Russia competed for an industry record $3 million in prizes at a packed house at the 10,000-seat Galen Center Arena on the University of Southern California campus in Los Angeles.
Overall, the three days of competition attracted a total audience of in the millions. "Events like this rival the audience sizes of cable and broadcast TV," says Matthew DiPietro, vice president of marketing for Twitch, which broadcast the competition on the Net at twitch.tv.
Out of the shadows
For more than a decade, pro gaming existed in the pop culture outback. But sanctioned events began cropping up on broadcast TV five years ago. As the size of the game-playing public grew, video game pro leagues blossomed and bypassed traditional TV networks for Internet broadcasts. Today, more than 211 million in the U.S. play games at least occasionally, according to market tracking firm The NPD Group.
That's paid off for Major League Gaming, a group founded a decade ago, that last year attracted more than 15 million online viewers during its Pro Circuit events, which included team-based matches on games such as Halo: Reach and StarCraft II. This year's MLG Fall Championship, to be held Nov. 2-4 in Dallas, could draw more than 15,000 in-person attendees and millions of viewers to its live online broadcast over the weekend.
MLG's last major event, the Spring Championship held June 8-10 in Anaheim, Calif., had 4.7 million unique online viewers, with 2.2 million tuning in on Sunday alone. "We take the competition that is inside the game and patch it together and create ESPN-style programming," says MLG CEO and co-founder Sundance DiGiovanni. "Although the medium may seem a little strange to some people at first, the level of competition, the engagement, the size of the fan base and the excitement that we are able to create lends itself incredibly well to an experience, whether you are are viewing it on your computer or streaming it through your television."
Pro video game competitions are a glitzy mashup that's extremely alluring to generation Y and Z, young adults under age 35. There's a dash of Ultimate Fighting Championship events, a pinch of reality TV game shows such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and The Voice, and slices of indoor athletic events such as basketball and hockey.
Online viewers not only get a taste of that atmosphere but also generous helpings of video production values, such as face cams and picture-in-picture swiped from other sports. "We borrow the very best things from the NFL and the NBA, and there is a definite ebb and flow and style to it," DiGiovanni says. "The only difference is, our sport is a digital one. It happens on screen and gets broadcast out to folks like they would see any traditional sport."
Since pro gaming happens online and has a hodgepodge of international organizations, it's not easy to get at overall viewership or industry figures. But it's safe to say that "pro gaming is not only growing, it's exploding, and with it, pro gaming purses and salaries sufficient to pay the mortgage," says Min-Liang Tan, CEO of game hardware company Razer, which sponsors 400 pros worldwide. "If you practice enough, if you get good enough,you just might get your own YouTube channel, six-figure contract and million-dollar payday at the world championship."
The developers of Black Ops II hope to fuel that growth. Last June, Vonderhaar and several members of the Treyarch creative team went to MLG's pro event in Anaheim where 2010's Black Ops was among the games competed on. The level of competition was really impressive," he says. "But something was missing," Vonderhaar says.
Treyarch decided the game itself needed new bells and whistles to raise the excitement level. In addition to fine-tuning the storyline within the game --the literary and visual equivalent of a TV miniseries -- and the maps and inner-workings for the hugely popular multiplayer game, Treyarch tackled the addition of broadcasting and competitive play features.
Just as players now join into online multiplayer matches, they will be able -- in the upcoming Black Ops II game -- to decide to sign into a broadcasting mode. Matches could be live-streamed over the Internet.
Some could choose to provide commentary, while others watch games with the ability to switch to different views of the map, as well as see or hear the action from the perspective of any of the competitors. Participants will have the equivalent of a football jersey, detailing their team and skills. "It's fun as a spectator to be inside their team and see how they are working together," Vonderhaar says.
A ripple effect
The possibility of millions playing nightly in Call of Duty: Black Ops II leagues after the game is released on Nov. 13 could possibly rival participation in such sports as bowling. Black Ops II's new features are "going to make the viewer experience that much better," says Matthew Haag, a 20-year-old pro gamer who will participate in MLG's event next month. "It's really going to drive more players to compete and watch more tournaments."
Growth in amateur competition will not only help energize interest in pro gaming but will build a larger base from which pro players emerge, says MLG's DiGiovanni.
Team play certainly appeals to Strasburg. Playing on the same three-man team in a new Black Ops II multi-team death match mode called, he avenges my character's death. "I got him for you, don't worry," he says calmly, with a smile above his reddish-blond goatee.
Adds Strasburg: "It's pretty amazing to think that you are able to do all of these things against people all over the country, all over the world, for that matter."
By Mike Snider, USA Today