By the second day of the tournament the playing field at the Anaheim Convention Center is littered with pizza boxes and crushed Red Bull cans. Fans in baggy pants and baseball caps cluster around monitors for XBox and Nintendo consoles for Round 2 of the Boost Mobile Major League Gaming Pro Circuit event. Hip hop blares as oversize flat-screen TVs catch superstars Thomas and Daniel Ryan (a.k.a. The Ogre Twins) blasting away Halo 2 opponents. It's eye candy for geeks. It's also prime time for video gaming's P.T. Barnum, 33-year-old Sundance DiGiovanni (his real name, no joke) who, with shaved head and an actor's good looks, works the Anaheim crowd with an electric smile.
It may not be the National Football League, but video gaming is moving way beyond its origins in kids' basements to a growing presence on TV. In November, Major League Gaming (MLG) will begin airing tournaments on Saturday mornings on the USA Network (GE), which can be seen in 89 million U.S. homes. There's already a four-year-old World Series of Video Gaming, founded by the William Morris Agency Inc., which will be shown on the Voom high-definition channel starting in September. And DirecTV Group Inc. (DTV) will air three tourneys via satellite in August and then launch its own league in 2007 in partnership with Microsoft.
Who's going to want to tune in to watch a bunch of kids huddled over game consoles? TV executives say they aren't worried, insisting that this will be good TV, with split screens to show ongoing games as well as background vignettes similar to the spot portraits produced for Olympic athletes. "If we can make a hit out of guys racing around circles with NASCAR, we can do it with kids on their computers," says Steven Roberts, DirecTV Entertainment vice-president, who, in addition to Microsoft, has signed sponsors such as Best Buy (BBY) and Mountain Dew.
What's more, airing video game play is a clever way to try luring back to TV one audience that has fled the small screen in droves for other entertainment options: teen boys. And DiGiovanni, who managed a video arcade in high school in upstate New York, may be just the guy to get kids to sit in front of the tube: He has enough of a rebel streak to endear him to 14-year-olds.
After a failed movie-directing career, DiGiovanni met former bond analyst Mike Sepso, and the two launched MLG three years back, raising $10 million in venture capital. Today they stage online competitions as well as seven tournaments a year, turning game play into Web content and cell-phone shorts.
While Sepso crafts MLG's direction, DiGiovanni markets the tour with the gusto of a Vince McMahon -- the smashmouth impresario of pro wrestling. As a gaming commentator for ESPN2's Cold Pizza, DiGiovanni created a following among gamers that has helped him sign on hot players. "He's a cool dude," says 19-year pro-player Tom (TSquared) Taylor. "He told me to practice, and I did." Sounds like marching orders for a league of virtual warriors.
By Ronald Grover