Games as Sports: Can Pro Gaming Succeed?

Games as Sports: Can Pro Gaming Succeed?

Do you enjoy settling into the couch and eating chips while you play video games? How would you feel about settling into the couch and eating chips while you watch someone else game?

That’s the general idea with gaming as a spectator sport, which is most widely represented in North America by Major League Gaming (MLG), a “professional video game league.” Gaming is a pretty competitive pastime on its own, of course: If it’s not you against the game’s artificial intelligence in a struggle for the world, it’s you against your buddy sitting next to you, or you against an entire team over an Internet connection. It makes sense that gaming would make for an exciting sport to watch, as there’s something primitively pleasing about watching players hunt each other down, or unraveling their strategies as they throw armies at each other. Best of all, in a video game nobody gets killed or hurt (aside from the potential of sprained thumbs).

It’s no surprise that the MLG organization recently managed to pick up $10 million in new funding. But does North American MLG have what it takes to reach the popularity of televised physical sports, or even televised poker tournaments?

South Korea has been treating gaming as a sport for years, with an emphasis on Blizzard’s famous real-time strategy game, StarCraft. The country raises and funds professional gamers who participate in huge televised tournaments that are backed by major corporations.

MLG has a ways to go before major North American TV stations will provide dedicated time slots and companies will freely open their wallets to players, but that might just be a matter of time. As outlined by CNN, the circumstances surrounding StarCraft‘s huge popularity across South Korea involved, amongst other factors, a near-universal adoption rate thanks to a recession and a population that is almost entirely plugged into high speed Internet. Likewise, video games in America are gaining recognition as an affordable pastime in a troubled economy. People who play them might also be interested in watching others play them on a professional level.

However, North American MLG and South Korea’s take on the sport has a large difference: South Korea’s biggest, most serious tournaments revolve exclusively around StarCraft, whereas MLG sets up tournaments for a variety of games. Shooter games from the Halo series are a popular choice, as are traditional fighting games like Tekken 6 and less orthodox fighters like the Super Smash Bros. games. A viewer who enjoys one genre but not the other won’t have a reason to tune in regularly, whereas someone who simply likes hockey might watch a game, even if their favorite team isn’t playing.

But that point segues into another advantage MLG has as a spectator sport: The rules of the game are forever changing, which prevents competition from getting stale. Even South Korea was shaken up when StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty came into being last summer. Baseball will always feature nine guys and a bat and a ball, but throwing Solid Snake into a Super Smash Bros. game shifts its balance entirely.

MLG has potential to become widespread. Even if it doesn’t reach the levels of popularity it enjoys in South Korea, it’s fun to consider that professional gamers in North America may someday gain publicized scorecards that track their stats for princess rescues.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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