While certain games will receive praise from all varieties of hardcore gamers, the allure of competitive gaming is something that tends to be hit or miss. Even gamers who love the games that are the focus of the various tournaments may not be interested in watching strangers play. This is due to a variety of reasons, including lack of media exposure for the gaming leagues and a failure of the various professional circuits to truly differentiate themselves from one another.
Things might be changing, however, if recent announcements have been any indication. Major League Gaming has signed several key sponsors and partnerships for the coming 2008 season. If its momentum continues, it could well emerge as the number one competitive gaming league in North America.
We sat down with Matthew Bromberg, CEO of MLG, and discussed what's helped MLG achieve its level of critical mass and why advertisers ought to be paying attention.
MLG: Reaching that 18–34 Demographic
With MLG coming into its own, we were curious as to why marketers would be interested in the brand. After all, competitive gaming is still largely unproven compared to most traditional forms of "sport" in the U.S. Bromberg, however, feels his company is uniquely positioned among marketers, citing statistics that demonstrate MLG's critical mass.
"I think there are three reasons [MLG appeals to marketers]: brand, audience and platforms," described Bromberg. "If you want to reach young men, you have to be able to affiliate yourself with a good brand; otherwise it's nearly impossible [to get their attention]. MLG has become a very powerful, authentic brand [for reaching that core demographic].
"Secondly, our audience has become enormous. We've gone from 25,000 unique monthly users two years ago to five million currently. We host 200,000 online matches a month and sign up five thousand new online tournament players everyday; that's more than a 100,000 new users every month!"
"Finally we have platforms, or the numerous locations where consumers are that marketers want to reach," he continued. "With MLG, marketers can reach that audience with a live circuit, an enormous online experience, our television coverage and all the other platforms we can be found on, like Xbox Live and iTunes. To reiterate, I feel that when you can provide those three elements, you have a lot of value."
Dr Pepper: Official Beverage of MLG
While it'd be very easy to say that you've arrived, it's a whole other thing to demonstrate it. With marketing partners like Stride, Panasonic, GameStop, Microsoft, Old Spice and the Navy, MLG is as set up very well for the 2008 season. Bromberg commented that getting to this point was a very gradual process.
"We've had some great long term partners, like Microsoft and GameStop that have been around since the beginning, but our goal is to find a very broad and diverse group of sponsors to help the league grow," said Bromberg. "It's key when you can keep your [sponsors] in the beginning, when all you have is an idea that people believe in. Stage one: you have these people who believe you, and after that you reach critical mass and some sponsors do the math on the media impact and see that it's a good investment; that's stage two, and that's where you want to get. They and their agencies can do the math and that's when you start to pick up more sponsors."
"At the beginning, you sell on vision," he added. "Maybe some of the bigs say, 'come back where you're a little bigger' or maybe say 'wait to see who emerges from the competition' and we've emerged!"
One thing that has undoubtedly helped MLG is that its competition is less fierce than in years past. In particular, the World Series of Videogames folding (and emerging as Giant Realm) really helped establish MLG as a competitive gaming league in North America without peer. "It's been a lot of hard work, but we finally have important components like media and game development partners, top sponsors, and a large audience," said Bromberg. "There are no more leagues that can make these claims so it's good to help us differentiate ourselves.
[Competitors dropping out] is part of the evolution of a marketplace. At the start, you're going to have a lot of competitors and it'll be messy. Eventual gravity forms around the significant competitors, helping a valid league form. And really, anyone can run some match making service, but operating a league is a thing unto itself."
MLG on ESPN
Sponsors are certainly important, but having media and game development partners is key too. ESPN fills the former slot nicely, and will help give MLG a level of exposure it has never before enjoyed. As for the latter, a special collaboration with Ubisoft was demonstrated with a recent cross-promotion pertaining to the game Rainbow Six: Vegas 2.
"The relationship with ESPN has been incredible," commented Bromberg. "They know more about sports and leagues than anyone, so working with them has been very valuable. We've been able to create a top 10 list of the best players together. And we're looking forward to having a live stream on ESPN 360 along with collaborated tournaments. Everything is better because of what they know and it's another way to build out their audience with consumers that maybe weren't familiar with us. Give ESPN credit; they know that young men are increasingly video game obsessed so give them credit for moving into a new area. It also allows their audience a new way to expand."
"An extraordinarily important part [of being a sports league] is you have to be recognized as a sole sanctioning body in order to find good players," he continued. "What we've achieved shows that we have some experience around online multiplayer. It was very exciting for us to partner with Ubisoft to build a MLG map within Rainbow Six: Vegas 2. Going back to validation, they're the fourth biggest publisher in the world and for them to collaborate with us is incredibly exciting and it's the next natural step in the evolution of 'How do we make the best, multiplayer experience?' To get into the process earlier to work with such a large publisher was an important signpost in terms of our development."
"You'll find that the top game types for Halo 3 on Bungie.net are MLG types," added Bromberg on the importance of game developer collaboration. "We're starting to see that on a lot of games. We spend a lot of time developing the right balance and you need to be very careful that things are fair and the best players are winning."
MLG's Venn diagram
What's really telling is that all of the above elements might just make this season the most significant in the League's history…and competition hasn't even begun. All the pieces are in place for MLG to really hit the big time in 2008, and Bromberg could barely contain his enthusiasm.
"The exciting part is that we just announced our new event with ESPN, so in the middle of April our first circuit will start," noted Bromberg. "We've started promoting it; really, all of this is the precursor to the season. We'll have incredibly enhanced streaming on the games, play-by-play and studio recaps. The season's only just about to begin; we're just getting started and it's very exciting!
"Something new we did this year—we tied an online tournament to the seeding of the live competition. We had four thousand Halo 3 teams sign up for the online tournament in three weeks. That shows the level of engagement our fans have.
"We imagine competitive video gaming and social networking as a Venn diagram. A large part of that is having an online profile and knowing where everyone's ranked; this is what people do, across different games, to see how good they are. Once you have that, you can leverage that audience for so many other reasons," concluded Bromberg.