Another sign of how video game tournaments are encroaching upon the realm once reserved for competitive sports, ESPN and its X Games sporting venue announced the addition of Major League Gaming (MLG) to its Summer X Games 2014 Austin event. To take in June of this year, MLG will have eight teams going against one another using Call of Duty: Ghosts, with a double-elimination arrangement. Four of the teams will then move onto a single-elimination format. The three teams left will be awarded X Games medals, as with any other X Games athletes. Already one of the most popular gaming tournament leagues in the world and certainly the largest in North America, the MLG: Call of Duty: Ghosts event is expected to attract a record crowd, both in-person and online. The Summer X Games 2014 Austin starts on Friday, June 6th, at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.
To capitalize on a rapidly growing competitive league right in the heart of its demographic, X Games, together with Major League Gaming, announced Monday that there will be a "Call of Duty" tournament as part of X Games Austin in June.
The "MLG Call of Duty: Ghosts" tournament will feature the top five "Call of Duty" teams based on MLG Pro Points plus the top three teams from the "Call of Duty" championship held in Winter Park, Fla., last month. The eight teams will compete in a double-elimination group format, with four teams advancing to a single-elimination bracket. X Games medals will be awarded to the winning teams.
"It's going to be [MLG] bringing our high-level production into a really full weekend," MLG CEO Sundance DiGiovanni said. "We're looking to build something here that hopefully becomes a tradition at both the summer and the winter X Games over time."
MLG is one of several professional video game leagues worldwide and the largest in North America, hosting tournaments in such games as "League of Legends," "Call of Duty" and "Starcraft" and sports games like "NBA 2K14." Teams of gamers make up MLG rosters and will compete in online preliminary tournaments broadcast on MLG.tv. Then major tournaments are held in venues like the Anaheim Convention Center in Southern California, where thousands have watched tournaments in-person.
"We are for the first time in a position where we have the league structure, the broadcast piece, the direct access to media and brands who are interested in advertising and marketing to this audience, and it's built in such a way where there's this tremendous scale in front of us," DiGiovanni said.
No stranger to ESPN -- he was the video gaming expert on "Cold Pizza" -- DiGiovanni said the partnership with X Games was an extension of a longtime relationship he has had with the network.
The partnership with X Games was about a year in the making, according to Tim Reed, senior director of content strategy for the X Games. X Games Austin expands this year into a three-day festival with top-tier musical acts and events surrounding the competition.
"As X Games looks to grow and launch into the festival event we're producing, this is great added content to the overall plan," Reed said. "I'm definitely excited to see how it translates [to X Games]."
Joe "Merk" Deluca, a member of Team EnVyUs, will be at X Games Austin because his team finished second in last month's COD championship. He said the partnership between MLG and X Games makes a lot of sense. Deluca played in front of as many as 20,000 people over the course of a weekend at the MLG Championships in Anaheim last year, but he says the ability to compete for an X Games medal is what sets this MLG competition apart from the rest.
"I want to win an X Games medal," Deluca said. "That would be a dream in itself."
Bringing gaming to the X Games was a good match because people interested in professional gaming are likely to be fans of the X Games and other action sports, Reed said. Couple that with the surging popularity of the new genre of e-sports and X Games has what it hopes will be a popular attraction inside the festival grounds at the Circuit of the Americas.
"It made sense from X Games' perspective," Reed said. "The audiences are similar: youth, fun to play with, and they like music, sports and gaming. So it all kind of lines up with [the X Games] audience."
A three-day ticket to X Games Austin will cost $89 and allow holders access to the MLG tent and other attractions at the festival. There also will be an upgraded ticket option for reserved seating inside the MLG tent, a gift bag and other perks. Ticket information can be found here.
The "Call of Duty" franchise is one of the best-selling series in gaming history, but first-person shooters like COD feature realistic violence. "Call of Duty" games can't be bought by anyone under 17, and ESRB rules will be followed at X Games. No one under 17 can enter the tent at X Games without a parent or guardian.
"The subject matter is mature and it's not something that is going to be right for everybody, but there's a huge section of the audience that plays these games," DiGiovanni said. "You'll see when these games are released -- one of the main places they are advertised is on the ESPN networks."
New York-based MLG claims better than a 1,500 percent growth in online video consumption over the past four years and 600 percent growth in total audience over the past three. Much of the interest in e-sports comes from South Korea, Japan and China, but video game tournaments and leagues are rapidly growing in the American market.
There is also money to be made by the competitors. Some of the top professional video gamers can earn over six figures, and many have become celebrities within the gaming community. Having a league that can provide a living wage for many of its professionals was one of the early goals of MLG. Now that it has achieved sustainability, the league is looking to grow in areas where its audience already is, like the X Games.
If the Austin event is successful, MLG and X Games may look to expand their relationship, possibly making on-site gaming a regular attraction at X Games.
"Ideally, we get the [X Games] brand to travel in the gaming space and drive some engagement with an X Games audience," Reed said. "If the tent is full and people are enjoying it, then it's a success."