Major League Gaming aims for recognition as a top five U.S. sport

MLG watching

Major League Gaming’s 2013 Spring Championship, which took place June 28-30, 2013 in Anaheim, CA., was the eSports league’s biggest event ever. Over 21,000 players and fans competed and watched in the Anaheim Convention Center, and many more viewed the live streams online. Sitting down with Digital Trends at the event, MLG president and co-founder Mike Sepso spoke proudly about the sheer size of the proceedings before admitting that almost every event they hold is their biggest event ever. 

Mike Sepso, president of Major League Gaming
Mike Sepso, president of Major League Gaming

One of MLG’s biggest advantages is that “we live in the Internet age, not the television age,” Sepso explained. “If the NFL was starting today, they would not do rights deals with television networks,” he said. “They would broadcast it all themselves. And we got to do that from the very beginning. Although we did TV for a few years, our audience has always been bigger online. So we get to be both the NFL and ESPN.”

They’re trying to expand on ESPN-style “shoulder programming,” or what Sepso refers to simply as “strategy and highlights” content. Commentators (called “casters” in the esports world) chatter over live streams and MLG creates original programming highlighting strategies in specific games. “We know that a lot of what younger players—amateur players—want to see is, you know, they’re all watching to see how the pros are doing,” he said.

Right now the big three are League of LegendsCall of Duty: Black Ops 2, and StarCraft 2. In 2012, Tekken Tag Tournament 2, Mortal Kombat, and Halo 4 were on the main stages at MLG’s events. The lineup rotates constantly; up next are Sony Online Entertainment’s PlanetSide 2 and Warner Bros.’ Infinite Crisis, two games that were present and playable at the Spring Championship but weren’t part of the main competition. MLG works extensively with the developers on those titles, helping them with built-in streaming and integration of other MLG features that are necessary for ideal competitive league games.

“That’s the future of MLG… closed beta games debuting at our events so that the top 20,000 people in the core competitive community get their hands on it, working with our league operations and MLG Play people, integrating directly with MLG Play through our API and our developer competition platform,” Sepso said. “The future is: games start there, they integrate with us online, we work with the developers hand-in-hand to really fine-tune the mechanics for competition, then we start building content around it.” MLG already has weekly shows dedicated to PlanetSide 2.

MLG PCs

In the past, MLG approached developers to form such partnerships. It’s a sign of the league’s growth that that relationship has been reversed lately. “We built the API for MLG Play to get every developer—independent or, you know, billion-dollar franchise—everybody gets an opportunity to integrate with our platform…it pays off for everybody, you know?” Sepso said. “Games are all about engagement for years at a time. It’s not about opening weekend sales like the movie business anymore. It’s about sell it, but then continue to sell the DLC or free-to-play games that rely on in-game purchases to drive revenue. What we are really good at is keeping players engaged with a game for years at a time.”

“If the NFL was starting today…they would broadcast it all themselves.”

The big championships take place across a range of venues, but Sepso can envision a future where MLG has dedicated venues of its own, more like traditional sports. “We’ll start by doing the same venue over and over again in major cities, and then test cities, and see where the best pick-up is,” he said. “I think that we’re going to kind of wait and see, you know, what the demand is and how that grows.”

“We have to constantly kind of reinvent what our event looks like, and I think we’re being pulled in two different directions,” he said. “In one direction is: everybody wants these to happen more, like monthly or weekly, not three or four times a year. And on the other side, people want them to be much, much bigger.” Currently MLG holds championship events roughly every three or four months, and the rest of the league season is held and broadcast wholly online. But Sepso is considering switching to several smaller, single-game events every week or month, and having one or two enormous championships events—even bigger than the Spring Championship—per year. They’re already broadcasting live competition 6-10 hours a week; why not host some of that in person?

MLG Audience

For now the main goal is to make Major League Gaming one of the top five sports in North America, and they’re well on their way. When it comes to cable sports broadcasts, only the college football Bowl Championship Series beats MLG among 16- to 24-year-old males, Sepso said. Not the Rose Bowl, not the NBA playoffs, not the NFL draft. And while MLG has flirted with cable broadcasts in the past through partnerships with ESPN, it’s not coming back to TV any time soon. The league’s streams frequently reach five million viewers in 175 countries for hours at a time, and they all happen online. Besides, Major League Baseball’s average viewer is 50. 

“People under 24 don’t have cable. If you sell your rights to ESPN and Fox and CBS and ABC and NBC, how are you going to reach 24-and-younger viewers?” Sepso explained. “You can’t get five million people to tune in for three hours on television, and the reality is 80 percent of our audience doesn’t have a cable subscription, so how are they going to watch? Why force the audience to go somewhere that’s not native to them, right? Our sport happens on the internet. We should broadcast it on the internet.”

“[Where will MLG be] in five years? Right between MLB and NASCAR. In ten years, right between NFL and NBA.”

The bottom line is that MLG is not going anywhere. Sepso predicts growth and more growth. “[Where will MLG be] in five years? Right between MLB and NASCAR. In ten years, right between NFL and NBA,” Sepso predicted. Major sports personalities engage with MLG in real ways. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is the league’s newest board of directors member. Lakers center Dwight Howard was a player commentator during the June 29 evening broadcast. Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant played Call of Duty on the main stage the same night.

“The major stars of the NBA and the NFL are already coming here to be a part of what we’re doing,” Sepso said. “I think it points to the future. If you’re a competitive person and under 30, you probably are aware of or participating in MLG. And that counts if you’re a Laker or a Dallas Cowboy.”

MLG’s 2013 Spring Championship wrapped up on Sunday, June 30. See the results here and read Digital Trends’ firsthand account of the opening day here.

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