Thursday, February 23, 2006

Is the World Ready for Major League Gaming?

According to the Wall Street Journal, Major League Gaming Inc. (MLG) has received $10 million in funding to use in its efforts to elevate videogame playing into a professional sport.

Let us leave aside the question of whether playing a video game is a sport at all, let alone a potentially professional one. Rather let us ask whether the world is ready for the professionalization of what is primarily a hobby.

There is an inherent competitiveness in the mindset of most gamers. If a gamer is skilled at a particular game, then he or she wants to show off their skills. One need only spend a few minutes on Xbox Live listening to the taunts of players to see how seriously some gamers take their entertainment. Those of us who grew up with the Atari 2600 remember the Fred Savage film The Wizard and fantasized about becoming famous for our leet Nintendo skills.

For certain, there is an interest on the part of the "sportsman" with regards to professional gaming. Who wouldn't like to write off the expense of their Xbox 360 when filing taxes, let alone get paid to play?

The types of games MLG will focus its competitions on, games like Halo 2 and CounterStrike, are certainly exciting games that require quick reflexes, good manual dexterity, and well-honed skills. These are features that guarantee that the "sport" will be able to develop and promote specific atheletes. If they are lucky, these gamers will have eccentric and interesting personalities.

The question then becomes one of audience. Will anyone pay to watch other people play video games? If G4's Arena is any indication, the evidence is mixed. The show doesn't offer large prizes, it doesn't command a large audience, and it perfectly displays the difficulty of creating play-by-play analysis of gameplay. Can MLG become a televised circuit competition like NASCAR? Only time will tell, but I doubt it.

More likely, the professionalization of video games will follow a path similar to that of professional Collectible Card Game events. The cash prizes will largely be paid by the video game manufacturers and be tied to new releases. I see the development as more a grassroots occurance than a national one. Even if MLG becomes successful, they would do well to remember that even the most successful professional sports began at the grassroots professional level.

I don't know if the audience is there for a league, but I am willing to watch and find out. I do know that gaming still has a lot of PR work to do in order to overcome the negative reporting done by much of the news media. A truly successful league will have to fight against negative PR to promote the sport and will face opposition from those who see gaming as a waste of time or as a contributor to youth violence.

One think is for sure, given my skill at most video games, I won't be among the first generation of video game "atheletes." I would be pwnt by all but the least skilled newb. To paraphrase Breaking Away, "to many people 'professional gamer' is just another joke, but to me it's another thing I can never be."

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