Purple Lights and NFL Pros: My First CALL OF DUTY Tournament
By Charles Webb on April 3, 2014
Images courtesy of Activision
I finally get it. I mean, conceptually, I “got” eSports as a thing people do, but all of the interlocking pieces that make it a business, that draw in team owners, sponsors, and, of course, players, kind of eluded me for a time.
But thanks to this weekend’s Call of Duty Championship in downtown Los Angeles, more of the pieces fit together now. I had a chance to speak to a pair of team owners (one of them a pro football player trying his hand at being a pro-gaming team owner) and one of the co-founders of Major League Gaming for a broader picture of what makes the eSports circuit tick.
First off, this isn’t my first pro gaming event: last year, I had the honor of attending 2013’s League of Legends Championship in Shanghai on developer Riot!’s dime, offering another look at how eSports lives across the world. It was a combination of regional rivalries (while the Chinese team got a lot of love, the audience went nuts for the seasoned, hard-to-beat Korean pros), pageantry (complete with stage show), and the usual bells and whistles you’d expect from a stadium sports event. This one just happened to play out on 8 networked PCs on a massive stage.
This weekend’s CoD event, by contrast, was different in scope, scale, and – I was told by a publicist for the event – intent. Taking place in a rooftop tent above the garage for the L.A. Live complex adjacent to Staples Center, the Championships event was invitation-only, confined to the 31 teams, their owners, and miscellaneous press and VIPs.
Where was the crowd? Outside of some bleachers near the back of the event, the approximately 25 hours of tournament gaming was largely underpopulated. According to Mike Sepso, MLG co-founder, it’s not the crowds in the bleachers they’re targeting: its those fans who want to watch the matches streaming on MLG TV at home (and it helps that online is where the advertisers are, whereas Asian gaming tends to favor TV-friendly events).
“We took a more U.S.-centric approach to trying to build the brand of MLG and the culture of eSports,” Sepso tells me. “The rest of the world tends to favor PC games while the U.S. is more of a console market.” Sepso says it’s the difference between NASCAR and Formula One or how the rest of the world embraces soccer in a way the U.S. doesn’t. Sepso says that when they started MLG 12 years ago, “We thought this could take off in the U.S. because consoles were going online and developers were thinking about competitive gaming and the online component.”
And Sepso is looking to mainstream eSports with a little star power. “The fact of the matter is that guys who play in the NFL and NBA are big Call of Duty fans who would love to compete in MLG, but aren’t as good as these guys are. So we’re able to bring them into this culture. This association helps mainstream things for some people and I think.”
One of those pro athletes/CoD fanatics is St. Louis Rams offensive tackle Rodger Saffold. “Pro Player Visits Call of Duty Event” isn’t really a story, but when that player actually owns one of the teams participating in the championships, then you have something.
Saffold, deliberate, thoughtful – huge – met me in the dim lounge for the championship where MLG and Activision was holding its press chats. Plush seats, club-style lighting, plenty of food and under-18 beverages – I’m mentioning accoutrements of the venue because it’s clear that from the top-down, the publishers and the sponsors are doing their best to throw money into eSports, looking for more money to flow back out.
Saffold told me he started off streaming games with some of his friends via MLG rival Twitch.tv before deciding to starting his own company based on his own experience working with managers in the NFL. Saffold owns TheRiseNation, which came out of nowhere to start racking up wins in the championship.
A little less than a year old, Saffold’s team doesn’t yet have a house and is still very new on the pro circuit, but he says he has a clear vision for what he wants in his players. “I want a team that can communicate and pretty much put their ego aside when it’s time to play. We do love to see that they have good energy and get hyped, but at the end of the day we want to see that they can play professionally.”
Saffold has no doubts about eSports as a viable career for his team or the other gamers out there trying to make money on the circuit. “Just like any professional career, they deserve to be compensated. And if [the players] keep winning more and more tournaments, and keep on placing in tournaments, then you’ll win money.” He says his responsibility to his team is to make sure that they’re keeping focused on “how this money works and how they can manage it.”
Team OpTicGaming owner Hector Rodriguez has been at this a little longer than Saffold and is no less optimistic about eSports’ prospects of reaching a wider audience. His team reached third place during the event, but when we spoke, they were still in the quarterfinals.
“Call of Duty is in a weird sphere,” Rodriguez tells me. “[It's] not where other eSports are at because of how young it is. But when it comes to spectatorship and social media reach, there’s no one bigger.” His team cumulatively boast over 2 million Twitter followers and just as many YouTube subscribers. “We kill it on social media,” he says.
Rodriguez got his start as the team caption of OpTic, making YouTube videos of his team’s exploits while working a day job. He says it was a matter of being in the “right place at the right time” to become a part of pro gaming. His current role is one part den mother, another part sales and account manager, one other part still liaison between the team and their current and would-be sponsors.
“Being a team owner is pretty much being in a position where you know you’re going to be the caretaker of the house… make sure the players are all well taken care of – that’s one of my hats. My other hat is sponsorship relationships – I make sure that everything we promise is over-delivered.”
So I get it, now. I mean, eSports is still a business that needs to do a lot more hustling (Sepso guesses 99% of the rest of the U.S. population has no idea what it is), but my feeling is that if they front like it’s legit, the rest of the world will see it as legit.
As for the Championship itself: The venue was great, the players were doling out the same kind of trash talk you’d hear over Xbox LIVE (minus, from what I saw, some of the racist/homophobic/misogynistic/transphobic noise one might expect) and the whole thing felt like (and, God, don’t let me sound dismissive here)… like a sport.
I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.