Game On!

A dozen high-definition cameras, an Emmy Award-winning sports producer, and a crew of 85 captured the action for DirecTV in Los Angeles. A booming voice introduced the teams as coaches in neckties paced the sidelines. The crowd roared as the players burst through tunnels—then took their seats in front of TV monitors.

The Championship Gaming Series (CGS) is the latest launch in a string of new televised videogame competitions, some featuring fully professional players. Team 3D New York took an early lead in the game Counter-Strike: Source, in which terrorists and counterterrorists trade gunfire in a barren building as a nuclear bomb ticks away. But with time winding down, the L.A. Complexity squad struck back, and a well-placed grenade took out the New York bomber and pushed the contest into overtime—where L.A. felled the 3D attackers and grabbed a 10-9 win.

Professional videogamers on TV? Get used to it, say the players. “We live in a digital era, so it’s only logical that we have a digital-sports league,” says 35-year-old Jason Lake, general manager of L.A. Complexity. “This is our baseball.”

CGS debuted live in high-definition July 9 to 16 million homes on DirecTV channel The 101. Equal parts professional wrestling, poker and Iron Chef, the league is funded by more than $25 million from well-established News Corp. broadcasters DirecTV, BSkyB (UK) and Star (Asia) and will avail itself of the corporate giant’s worldwide distribution of 100 million homes and its MySpace social-networking site.

Tournaments focused on the $16 billion videogame industry have sprung up on CBS, MTV and USA, with an evolving echelon of pro and semi-pro players. Chasing their legions of fans are blue-chip advertisers, GM and Mountain Dew among them.

Televised gaming has plenty of naysayers, but as television struggles to stay relevant to young males, high-ranking executives in the News Corp. empire think they’ve got a sure-fire hit in CGS. “I’ve never seen a sport that’s so successful at the grass roots not have a TV outlet,” says Fox Sports Chairman David Hill, who planned the CGS launch while he was head of DirecTV entertainment. “Videogaming can be bigger than Ultimate Fighting, bigger than beach volleyball and bigger than hockey—and bigger than the NBA as it is now.”

Programmers say they’ve never seen such an invasion of videogaming on television. The 2007 World Series of Video Games, scheduled to premiere July 29 on CBS’ Sports Spectacular, offers a four-part series of tournaments featuring games like Guitar Hero and Fight Night and is sponsored by Intel, among others. Major League Gaming (MLG), a series of Xbox tournaments around the country with a $1 million purse, ran on USA last year and is close to announcing its TV partner for this year. MTV Networks channel Spike recently announced that it will air World Cyber Games, a World Cup-style competition with 70 national teams winding down to a Grand Final Champion, in November.

The TV content is not limited to competitions. The nation’s largest cable operator, Comcast, put a stake in the gaming field early with its G4 cable network, which launched in April 2002 and is available in 62 million cable and satellite homes nationwide. G4, aimed at the male 18-34 audience, provides breaking news, analysis, and opinions on games and gamers on its TV network and Website, including live coverage of the annual gaming conference E3 earlier this month.

Besides its weekly Game Head series, Spike is in talks with game publishers for original series based on various videogames and will air its fifth annual Video Game Awards program in December. Over the years, the VGAs have averaged over a million viewers, with such sponsors as Verizon and General Motors. “Men obviously spend a lot of time playing, and it’s our mission to super-serve them with content,” says Spike Senior VP of Marketing Dario Spina.

DirecTV, meanwhile, is considering a reality show with pro CGS gamers holed up in an L.A. dormitory.

Few competitions have struck with the ferocity of CGS. Whereas most have individuals facing off in a tournament setting, CGS features paid professionals on city-based franchises. The league features six U.S. teams, such as the Chicago Chimera and the San Francisco Optx, and 10 more across the globe, from Sydney to Singapore. Besides Counter-Strike: Source, players compete in Dead or Alive, with martial-arts combatants as beautiful as they are dangerous; Project Gotham Racing, a drag-racing derby set in cities like Tokyo and Manhattan; and World Cup-style FIFA Soccer.

“DirecTV is betting big on CGS,” says Lake. “They see it having the same qualities as the X-Games.”

Rock Stars in Asia

CGS is modeled after competitive gaming in Asia, where multiple cable channels are dedicated to the pastime, spectators fill arenas to watch competitions (120,000 once packed a Korean stadium for gaming), and elite players like Yo-Hwan Lim get rock-star treatment in public. Following a CGS tryout, players with nicknames like sWOOZie and OffBeatNinja were drafted June 12 at the Playboy Mansion. Some $5 million will be paid to players this season; 60 “athletes” make a $30,000 base, and top performers pull down in excess of $100,000. The programming is produced by Mike Burks, a veteran of Olympic and Super Bowl broadcasts, and the league is overseen by CEO Andy Reif, who as COO of the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour helped bring beach volleyball from a small-time circuit to a TV spectacle featuring world-class athletes and major sponsors.

“My goal is to create programming that’s compelling for hardcore gamers but also entertaining for someone with only a familiarity with gaming, or none at all,” Reif says. “Watching people play videogames can be like watching paint dry, but when done correctly, it’s a film unfolding before your eyes. It’s sports meets entertainment meets technology.”

DirecTV execs say gaming can be every bit as compelling on TV as football or basketball. “It’s got the same emotions, stress and excitement as some of the best traditional sports out there,” says Steven Roberts, DirecTV VP/general manager of games & strategic initiatives.

The gaming leagues certainly have potential viewers. Some 54 million U.S. households will have a game console by 2010, reports Kagan Research, about half the number of homes that have televisions. Popular platforms include Xbox, PlayStation, Wii and the PC.

According to Forrester Research, 20% of people 18-26 considered themselves “heavy gamers.” A recent study from Horizon Media showed that 75% of males 12-17 played videogames in the past week, far more than those who exercised (64%) or went to the movies (51%). “Gaming is such an obsession with young men,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “They simply don’t watch [as much] television.”

But gaming is not limited to young men. An Entertainment Software Association study showed that 67% of American heads of households play videogames and the average player is 33 years old. Meanwhile, women represent around half the participants in “casual” videogames like Tetris and The Sims (passive games as opposed to shooting and driving games), and the first CGS draft pick at Hef’s mansion was a woman named Vanessa Arteaga.

“Gaming is a huge part of our culture,” says sports consultant and former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson, who works with Major League Gaming on its television production. “There are huge numbers of men and women involved and tremendous amounts of money being invested in it.”

That now includes Madison Avenue. Presented with data that shows the typical gamer isn’t a kid in his parents’ basement, marketers are slowly coming around to videogaming. In general, they say gamers are brand-loyal. They’re early adopters and Web-savvy and have disposable income. And they may be losing interest in television. “[Gaming] gives marketers the opportunity to connect with a hard-to-reach target with content they enjoy,” says Matt Story, director at Play, the gaming division at Publicis Groupe’s Denuo. “[Videogame programming] brings that consumer back to TV.”

Moreover, ad execs say, the stop-and-start nature of videogame contests is well-suited for mobile devices—especially compared with the 2½- to 3-hour duration of other pro sports.

Many in the ad community also believe that gaming, with its digitally inclined participants and interactive nature, has considerably more upside on the Web than traditional sports. MLG co-founder and Chairman Mike Sepso says Comcast bought the broadband rights to the MLG circuit for what he calls a “huge” license fee (he won’t say how huge). The World Series of Video Games gets as many as 250,000 users watching streaming video of competitions, says Commissioner Matt Ringel. And gaming Website IGN clocked 30 million unique visitors in June—comparable to what a major-market TV station might get.

“Playing God”

Perhaps the biggest challenge, say producers, is making games come alive on TV. They compare gaming to NASCAR: On the surface, watching cars drive in a circle may not be all that engaging, but when the viewer understands the strategy and has reasons to root for and against various competitors, it ups the emotional stakes.

Sports-production veterans say the key is technology that gives the viewer a virtual vantage point within the game—think of it as sitting on the cartoon combatant’s shoulder, as opposed to the gamer’s shoulder—telling intriguing stories about the players to give viewers something/someone to root for, and spending heavily to keep production values major-league. (A DirecTV exec says the gear and manpower at a CGS production is comparable to what one would see for an NBA playoff game.)

Whereas a poker telecast has room for commentators to spice up the production with strategy and color, the breakneck speed of videogames does not. Having worked on the World Series of Poker, Pilson says it’s critical for gaming, like Texas Hold ’Em, to have the camera “play God”—show what the players can’t see, whether it’s the card in the flop or the bomb-clutching terrorist lurking behind the door. “I’m not a gamer, but I got very excited watching [MLG],” he says.

To be sure, not everything indicates that videogames will join the ranks of basketball and NASCAR—or even poker and beach volleyball—on television. After all, the seven MLG programs that aired on USA averaged an unspectacular 0.4, although Sepso attributes that to its 10 a.m. Saturday slot, which he calls “the worst possible time for our demographic.”

(A few weeks into its TV campaign, DirecTV says ratings aren’t yet available for its CGS programs. But “the overall response has been very positive,” says a spokesperson.)

No matter how much a telestrator or instant replay breaks down the action, the breakneck pace of gaming remains hard to follow. “Historically, it’s been difficult to translate to TV,” says G4 President Neal Tiles. “So much happens so fast that it’s hard for the human eye to follow.”

And some marketers caution that the target demo may be more more likely to use commercial breaks for text messaging, Web surfing or fiddling with their iPhone than for sitting through ads. “As viewers, they’re constantly multitasking, not just watching TV,” says Justin Townsend, CEO of in-game advertising firm IGA.

Nonetheless, DirecTV is moving full steam ahead with the CGS. “All the right pieces are in place,” says Executive VP of Entertainment Eric Shanks, “for us to capitalize on a huge phenomenon.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.