Donkey Kong versus Mario. Nintendo versus Sega. Xbox versus PlayStation.
Rivalries have been a part of gaming culture since the early days of the arcade, but
never has the competition been so fierce until now with Major League Gaming (MLG). In
2010 MLG has planned five stops with Orlando being the first in its 2010 Pro Circuit.
Aspiring competitive gaming stars were afforded the chance to compete when MLG
came to Orlando two weeks ago with $70,000 in tow to find the best gamers in Halo,
Tekken and Super Smash Brothers Brawl. With the top Halo prize clocking it at an
astounding $20,000 and even the eighth place prize at a sizeable $1,600 for a 5 person
team, gamers came out in droves to the event. While the Orlando 2010 Pro Gaming
Circuit event isn’t nearly as big as some of the others, the Josten’s center at ESPN’s
Wide World of Sports was bustling with activity.
At 70,000 square feet the Jostens center was filled with hundreds of video
game consoles and TVs, projectors, sponsor booths, a small production studio for
streaming the events online, a stage for major matches and large crowd of gamers.
Among them was 14 year old Jonathan Sykes who was there for his very first “offline
competition.” “Well I got a lot of suggestions from online friends because I play online,”
Sykes said when explaining his decision to come compete to the Tangent. “And I’ve
been thinking about it for a while and I finally asked my parents about it and they agreed
to let me play.”
When one imagines competitive gaming it’s easy to picture a room full of brash,
loud, foul mouthed individuals that are typically found playing games online, but that is
not the case with MLG. Sure, there is the occasional trash talking, but for the most part
camaraderie is king. Sykes, whose nickname is “Zenith” when he plays Super Smash
Brothers Brawl for the Wii, gives a fresh look into competitive gaming. “It’s good to be
able to meet the person you’re playing because you can congratulate them, wish them
good luck, stuff like that.”
“I only really see them at events, but I’d say I’m pretty much friends with all the
top pros,” Pro Player Charles Thorlakson said “I mean, we don’t really talk too much
outside of tournaments but when we’re at the tournaments we always have a good time
together so I’d say we’re all friends.”
The camaraderie also extends to the fans who are watching matches together.
One somehow feels at home when watching a familiar game being played on the big
screen with dozens of other fans doing the same. Rooting for the home team, cheering
for opponents, gasping when something shocking happens, laughing in disbelief when
something amazing occurs. The bond between the fans is palpable.
The logistics of the competition also draw gamers from their Internet connected
consoles to the event. “It’s pretty different. The environment is different,” Sykes told
the Tangent. “When you’re online you have the connection that can throw things off,
but when you’re offline and actually playing with the person, everything’s constant. The
connection is constant.”
While several thousand attended the event at Disney’s Jostens Center, MLG events
weren’t always this popular. “I’ve been coming to these events since 2005 and we used
to host these events in little ball rooms and hotels and now, look at it out there, it’s
humungous.” MLG Player Manager Charles “CR” Thomas told the Tangent. “It’s grown
exponentially since we’ve started. And it’s going to continue to get bigger. We’re the
main developing model for all of it. There’s been other gaming leagues that have tried
to develop a model for competitive gaming and they’ve all failed except for us and we’ve
been going strong for years now.”
While team Instinct won the Halo competition and $20,000, Orlando, Fla. native
and member of team Classic Sean “Legend” Hinsinger won 2nd place and took home
$12,000. “I would love to see it [MLG] go main stream,” Hinsinger told the Tangent. “I’m
not sure what the sport is called that they do on the olympics with the sticks back and
forth, but I think this would be a little more entertaining than that. But I’d like to see it go
big, definitely. I hope it does.”
While the popularity of professional competitive gaming has seen significant growth
over the past decade, it truly began in the early 1980s.
Throughout the summer of 1981 soon-to-be-arcade-owner Walter Day scoured more
than 100 arcades in Iowa recording the high scores of each and every arcade game.
Once finished with his mission, Day opened his own arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa, named
Twin Galaxies the following November. Day later released his high score database
publicly as the Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard which became the definitive source
for video game records. Day arranged contests between top players through Twin
Galaxies and eventually gained national attention.
Two short years after amassing the list of high scores, Day and Twin Galaxies
established the U.S. National Video Game Team (USNVGT) as the first group of
professional video game players. While traveling the US, the USNVGT held the 1983
Video Game Masters Tournament and had the results published in the 1984 US edition
of the Guinness Book of World Records. The USNVGT also issued challenges to the
Italian and Japanese embassies, calling for international video game competitions and
competed in the UK against another team of pro players.
While competitive gaming has its roots in arcades, its future rested in the hands
of online multiplayer PC games such as Doom and Quake. In the early days of PC
multiplayer games, few players were able to compete over the Internet as connection
speeds through dial-up modems were only fast enough at some colleges and for
employees of large businesses. To overcome slow Internet connection speeds and feed
the need to game competitively, some Doom and Quake fans resorted to competing
in person at LAN parties. Local Area Networks (LANs) would allow gamers to connect
their computers while in the same room without having to suffer the speed loss from
information having to travel long distances.
PC gaming may have increased the number of competitive gamers within the
gaming population, but broadband Internet connections, the ubiquity of video game
consoles and games such as Halo brought competitive gaming one step closer to the
mainstream. While several leagues and competitions including the Electronic Sports
World Cup have existed only fleetingly and tried to stake their claim as the definitive
competitions and leagues, only the MLG has achieved that status.
Founded in 2002, Major League Gaming has organized competitive events,
represented professional gamers and, according to its website, is working on bringing
competitive gaming to “the approximately 40 million consumers in North America who
have a passion for playing video games as a competitive social activity, while giving
sponsoring brands access to this highly influential demographic.” Although MLG clearly
has a financial interest in professional gaming thanks to current and future sponsorship
deals for products such as Doritos, Dr Pepper, Hot Pockets and Old Spice, it has done
much to popularize competitive gaming among gamers.
In 2006, USA Network televised MLG’s Halo 2 Pro Series, making it the first
televised console gaming league in the United States. Since then MLG has hosted
competitions going from city to city giving gamers the chance to congregate and duke it
out in person for cash prizes, sponsorships and even spots on major league teams.
Just like baseball, basketball and football have their own characters, competitive
gaming has no shortage of them. Those familiar with the arcade classic Donkey Kong
may have never even heard of the battle between Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell.
Locked in a constant struggle for the high score while keeping Twin Galaxies caught
in the middle, Mitchell and Wiebe appeared in the documentary “The King of Kong,”
gaining widespread notoriety in gaming circles. With the quick growth major league
gaming has experienced, it has spawned its very own stars.
Tom “Tsquared” Taylor founded “STR8 Rippin,” one of the most popular MLG teams
known for its success in the arena of Halo competitions. Taylor also holds the unique
honor of having signed the financially largest contract a pro gamer has signed. The
contract weighs in at a whopping $250,000 and links him to MLG and undoubtedly a
whole host of sponsors.
The most well known competitive gaming figure is Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel,
comes from the PC gaming circuit. Wendel has turned his professional gaming career
into a lucrative business model that includes his own line of “professional” gaming gear
such as keyboards and mice. “Fatal1ty” has racked up $500,000 in prize money from
competitions alone and it’s likely that his products have generated several times that in