When the "Call of Duty" Championship comes to L.A. Live on March 28-30, 20,000 fans will be in attendance. But what may be even more impressive is the millions more that will be watching via MLG.TV, as 32 teams compete to play the bestselling Activision videogame for the $1 million prize.
Videogames have clearly become a spectator sport. No wonder competition is fierce among online broadcasters in a booming category known as eSports. Tens of millions of viewers tune in to watch professional, sponsored gamers earn massive paydays.
Twitch has become the top player, though its live-streams of seven of the biggest tournaments is just a small part of what fuels its incredible growth. But on the other side of the country, Twitch is starting to feel the heat from rival Major League Gaming.
Based in New York, MLG has created what many consider to be the NFL of organized videogame tournaments, with a pro circuit of its own comprised of 700,000 matches per month that culminate in two arena-packed events. But in order to expand, MLG founders Mike Sepso and Sundance DiGiovanni realized they needed to be ESPN, too.
"We needed our own premium distribution platform to effectively differentiate our content, and it was clear that other professional eSports content producers needed it as well," says Sepso, MLG's president.
In July, the company tested the concept of MLG.TV, with shows developed around competitive play. The network quickly caught on among the advertiser-friendly demo of 18- to 34-year-old males. It officially bowed at the end of November across all digital platforms, including a newly launched app on Xbox Live.
From December to February, the channel's viewership grew 760% -- surpassing 5 million -- without a tournament taking place. Yet Twitch is still the juggernaut in the space, more than doubling its size over the past year, with 45 million people watching 12 billion minutes on the company's own multiplatform digital network. That's largely because Twitch has given gamers a YouTube-like space in which they can record themselves playing, and upload video for others on the Web to watch.
"The growth we've experienced since then has surprised even the most bullish of us," said Matthew DiPietro, Twitch's marketing VP.
But MLG is focusing more on professionally produced (read: expensive) content, including "SportsCenter"-like news coverage of tournaments. The company's founders believe the strategy will attract advertisers; most of MLG's revenue comes from online ads and sponsorships.
MLG also is producing behind-the-scenes looks at movies that might appeal to its core fanbase. In February, that included a "Star Craft II" tournament sponsored by the homevideo release of Lionsgate's "Ender's Game" -- followed by a stunt for Relativity's "3 Days to Kill."
MLG has focused on attracting Hollywood to lead its first wave of promotions for a reason. "Movies are in our wheelhouse," Sepso says. "Gamers are good consumers to advertise entertainment."