Approximately one year ago, after having attended Major League Gaming's (MLG) 2012 Spring Championships, I wrote an article about the evolution and emergence of eSports. The article was a primer, of sorts, on eSports, where it had come from and where it might be heading.
One year later, I returned to the Anaheim Convention Center to see how MLG and eSports had progressed.
I left even more impressed than I had been a year earlier. I also walked out of the Anaheim Convention Center with the realization that not only had eSports arrived—it very well might be entering into its own Golden Age.
Sports, Pop Culture and Everything In Between
One of the biggest things I noticed at the 2013 Spring Championships is that MLG events feel more and more like E3 with a ton of great, competitive gaming going on all at the same time.
There are vendors all over the place and a healthy smattering of booth babes to keep things lively. Developers and product manufacturers are also in abundance.
One of the highlights of the event for me was the Infinite Crisis booth. Infinite Crisis is going to be a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MoBA) game set in the DC Comics Universe. For a comic book and super hero freak like me, it was like getting an early Christmas present.
That's the thing though. MLG events are now, more than ever before, a perfect merging of sports, pop culture and just about everything else. There really is something for everyone.
Even if you don't know a particular game, the crowds' various reactions can clue you in to what is going on. You may not know what happened—but you will know it was important.
An example of this merging of worlds took place at the 2013 Spring Championships. MLG hosted an All-Star event where some of the best in eSports joined forces with some of the best from the traditional sports world to play Call of Duty Black Ops II.
You had players like Dez Bryant, Ty Lawson and Dwight Howard all on hand to play Black Ops II in an All-Star game of sorts. That's right, just days before Howard was going to make his decision to leave the Los Angeles Lakers and sign on with the Houston Rockets, he was playing Call of Duty with some well known players and personalities from the eSports world.
It was one of those moments where we will look back on, several years from now, and might just point to it as saying that was the moment when eSports truly arrived.
Statistically, the numbers seem to support the fact that eSports is continuing to become more popular. According to VentureBeat.com, the MLG event in Anaheim drew 21,000 spectators and competitors to the Anaheim Convention Center, a new record for MLG.
That is roughly 1,000 more people than were there for the same event in 2012.
Online viewing of matches continues to surge in popularity, and more and more people are interested in eSports, or at least in learning about eSports.
In general, the entire world of eSports is continuing to grow at a steady clip. The co-founder of MLG, Sundance DiGiovanni, was kind enough to spend some time answering my questions at the Anaheim event. He had an interesting take on some of the developments that we have seen in eSports over the past year:
There continues to be incredible developments and progress in the MLG and eSports industry and we have just scratched the surface. In the last year, we have seen more and more publishers and game developers coming to MLG in the development phase to ensure their games are built with MLG and eSports in mind. Additionally, we have seen incredible growth in the number of online viewers not only for our big Championship events, but for our daily content at www.majorleaguegaming.com. And the deep engagement and viewing time is through the roof—an average of 169 minutes for our last event, that is longer time spent watching our event than the Super Bowl online this year. We only expect that to increase moving forward.
DiGiovanni's statements about how game developers and publishers are now considering how amenable their games will be to eSports during the development phase of game design is a huge development. It could be considered a paradigm shift in the way eSports are received moving forward.
And forward is exactly where eSports is heading.
The Future Is Now
Even if you are only remotely interested in video games, you are probably well aware that two new and very powerful consoles are on the way to store shelves this holiday season.
The PS4 has a Share button on its new DualShock 4 controller, which will make sharing moments and capturing game video as easy as pressing a button.
The Xbox One will have in game DVR that will accomplish the same thing.
Take that, combine it with the excitement that always accompanies the birth of a new generation in gaming consoles, add in the growing popularity of eSports and you have a perfect storm of events all merging at once to take eSports to all new levels.
The reality of this was not lost on DiGiovanni:
The new consoles are being developed with eSports and more importantly, the gaming community in mind. We have seen a tremendous uptick in the number of gamers who are streaming their gameplay, jumping into multiplayer regularly and competing with friends daily. The next gen consoles have the features needed to continue to benefit and grow the eSports community.
It's not just about the consoles though. PC gaming has been going through a renaissance of sorts. In a virtual reversal of fortune, the new consoles actually seem to have some catching up to do to be on par with PC gaming as far as eSports are concerned.
One also can't completely discount the Wii U and how it might factor into all of this. Nintendo's new console has had a tough go of it so far—and it is not a console especially suited to eSports—but you can never count out Nintendo when it comes to gaming in general.
How this all plays out once the Xbox One and PS4 launch—particularly when games like Battlefield 4, Titanfall, Destiny and Infinite Crisis are released (all of which are expected to have a strong eSports presence)—could very well define precisely when the Golden Age of eSports truly begins.
Something I have noticed about MLG over the years is that whether they realize it or not, they have become the quality control unit of eSports.
Unlike other leagues and organizations that have come and gone, MLG has persisted—and flourished—because they do not take shortcuts or compromise the integrity of eSports just to capitalize on the next big thing or to make a quick buck.
In sharp contrast to that, MLG has slowly, but steadily, built itself into the preeminent eSports league by not taking the easy way out. This has led to MLG becoming a stable place for eSports athletes to excel and have a place to call home.
If you liken this to traditional sports, then MLG is clearly the NFL or MLB or NBA or NHL of eSports. It is where the best players are at. It is also where the money is. At the 2013 Spring Championships, over $100,000 in prize money was on the line, spread over three competitions, Call of Duty Black Ops II, League of Legends and Starcraft II.
What is great about MLG is how they have always carefully scrutinized games to make sure they were competitively balanced and suitable for eSports at the highest level. A prime example of this is that despite MLG's history with the Halo franchise, Halo 4 has not yet been on the pro circuit.
That is not to say that Halo 4 is a bad game or that it would not be amenable to eSports. MLG takes great pains to make sure the games on the Pro Circuit are the best possible ones to further eSports to the next level.
Mike Sepso, MLG's other co-founder, told me at the Anaheim event how willing Activision was to make sure that Black Ops II was as good as it could be to get it included on the Pro Circuit.
DiGiovanni echoed this sentiment:
For us, it is less about the platform and more about the title itself. If a game develops a strong following and competitive community, it will of course do well in our landscape. More importantly, if a game is developed with settings that enable a solid competitive field and we can build an entertaining broadcast to support it, it will be even more successful in the space.
Indeed and with MLG at the forefront of pushing eSports to new heights, the continued growth and evolution of the industry seems to be in good hands.
The Next Step
So what's next? In my opinion, eSports is about to enter into its Golden Age.
WWE had its Golden Age back in the days when Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage were all the rage. Comics had their Golden Age, and some would even argue that comics are having a second Golden Age, albeit in a digital format. A Golden Age of digital distribution of video games and content is clearly about to hit critical mass.
If you look at eSports, it is uniquely positioned to capitalize on many of the factors that were instrumental in other industries reaching their own apex.
Take a few of the following factors into consideration.
Coming off the tremendous success of the Anaheim Spring Championships, MLG will now shifts its focus to its next big event: the MLG Championships slated to take place from November 22-24 in Columbus, Ohio.
That event could very well end up being one of the biggest events in the history of eSports.
But what happens beyond the MLG Championships in November? By the time that event ends, the new consoles might already be on store shelves and the landscape could shift. I asked DiGiovanni about what he thought might happen with a specific eye on what genres he felt might do really well in the next generation, as far as eSports are concerned:
FPS games like Call of Duty are so massive in scale and are really just getting started with their eSports efforts. While we’ve seen amazing recent growth with MoBAs and RTS games, the growth around those genres may slow a little. This doesn’t mean that they won’t continue to drive massive audience numbers, but it’s more about the next wave of accelerated growth. We saw it...with our Anaheim event. Call of Duty had a huge jump in audience. League of Legends was the most watched far and away, but the growth in Call of Duty viewership was impressive.
So shooters might be back on the upswing while MoBAs and RTS might slow down some. Of course, the industry is very unpredictable and something completely unexpected could happen.
Could the sports game genre actually put forth a game that would be balanced enough for eSports? What about fighting games or racing games? Or is there some new genre out there waiting to be discovered that would truly revolutionize eSports?
Whatever transpires it will be a very exciting time for eSports.
Now with all of this excitement and momentum, you might be wondering how to get involved. You might want to know how to compete or you might just want to know what is going on at these events.
And if you are the parent of a teenager, you might be getting dragged to some of these events to either spectate or watch your children compete. What steps can you take to educate yourself about eSports?
DiGiovanni had some advice for anyone wanting to learn more:
I think we need to demystify eSports and educate casual gamers that what we do is all built around competition and entertainment. If you enjoy those things, you will enjoy what we do. To learn more, I encourage people to watch our daily broadcasts on our site—the way we present gaming is very similar to what you would see on an ESPN style broadcast. Get to know the players and teams and build a relationship with what they do. And, jump into a match! We have more than 40 games on MLG: Play, our online competition platform – and anyone regardless of skill level—can jump into a match, play, practice and learn.
Something for everyone? Absolutely.
For further information, go to http://www.majorleaguegaming.com/.
Regardless of your level of involvement, eSports is not going anywhere. The events are getting bigger, the competition is getting better and game developers are now actually building the multiplayer component of many of their games with eSports specifically in mind.
Add in the imminent arrival of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, combined with the stability of the PC platform—all of which will have great new features designed to further promote eSports and make it more accessible to everyone—and it is easy to arrive at a rather obvious conclusion.
The Golden Age of eSports has arrived.
Dave Ungar is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via an Interview with Sundance DiGiovanni, an exchange of e-mail information with Katie Goldberg or a Press Release from Major League Gaming provided by Katie Goldberg.
Follow me on Twitter @DaveUngar68