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Pro Gaming: Master StarCraft, Get Paid

Imagine you're right out of high school, making more than $100,000 a year. Now picture yourself doing it by playing video games. It happens. Not every day, but it happens.

Last week, a group of the best video game players in the world gathered in Dallas to compete for their share of $170,000 in prize money. Some 15,000 fans paid at the door to watch them. Around the world, 2.6 million more tuned in via the Internet.

This was the Major League Gaming Winter Championship. If you know "League of Legends," "StarCraft II" or "Call of Duty," there's a decent chance you're at least familiar with competitive gaming. If not, you might be surprised to hear it exists. It does, and it has more in common with better-known competitions, or sports, than you may think: An incredibly dedicated fan base, professional commentary with live action, winners and losers, favorite players and teams, and of course, paychecks for the players themselves.

Behind the tournament was New York-based Major League Gaming, a company started in 2002 that now stages about four large-scale events each year in the U.S.

"What we do is we take something which is, to an older group, may be a little bit confusing," says Sundance DiGiovanni, MLG's chief executive and co-founder. "But we take video games, which are an incredible social platform, which encourage sharing, which allow for connected digital play across the globe -- not just the country but the globe -- and the language, just like with any sport, is the game."

To many people, pro video-gaming is an underground affair, if it even registers. To the gamers, fans and broadcasters, it's a lifestyle. You don't need to tell them who Day[9] and Evil Geniuses are.

Always evolving

Should you be of a certain age, you recall the Atari 2600 home console or Donkey Kong in the arcades of the 1980s. This isn't that. Among the many things the Internet has changed, one of them is gaming. And the culture around online games bears little resemblance to you and your friends fighting over the track ball on Centipede.

To DiGiovanni, electronic gaming doesn't have to be particularly different from pro baseball. It's a competition, built around an enjoyable activity, but one capable of being played at an extraordinarily high level. Sponsorships, endorsements and tournament winnings all can be part of a rare talent's compensation, as they are for a major league pitcher.

For the unquestionably elite, pay can be impressive, especially when considering many pros are still in their teens or just a few years north of 20. MLG representatives say that around 100 of the world's top players earn six figures or above annually. If you had won "StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm" in Dallas, you would have taken home $25,000.

The company, citing Comscore data, says 60% of its audience is 18-34 years old and 85% male. Major League Gaming itself brings in revenue via the gate at the events, advertising and user payments for certain enhanced features on its website. This 11-year-old company isn't public, but DiGiovanni indicates that an initial offering one day, though not yet, could be in the cards.

"I don't want to operate the business focusing on a sale or an IPO," he explains. "I want to focus on delivering quality content to the consumer, growing the revenue lines and diversifying the revenue."

DiGiovanni examines other sports, such as the NFL, Nascar and golf, noting how they grow, how they relate to fans and the merchandise they associate with. Though this is gaming, it's a business, and there's no question he takes that seriously.

This year, MLG is targeting revenue in excess of $20 million, along with its first annual profit, DiGiovanni says.

"I want to be golf, but a digital version where [costs include] $1,000 for clubs, membership fees, green fees, all these things," he says. "What we have is a platform where if you're playing StarCraft, you need a PC, you need a mouse, you need a controller, you need a headphone set. So we have partners in all those areas."

Love of the game

Gaming being akin to traditional sports is a theme heard regularly at the championship. Chris Jack, 21, drove to Dallas from Denton, Texas, with two friends for "League of Legends," and he spoke of "esports," as they've come to be known, in ways not unlike DiGiovanni.

"If you think about it like football, they watch a lot of video for different teams and different opponents to get a grasp of how they play and to really learn how they work," he says. With video games, "really, just by watching you can actually up your level quite significantly."

Erik Johnson, 20, attended with Jack, and he points to the camaraderie of the gatherings and the ability to relate to the players as another appeal. "Video games are more accessible to more people," he says. "And you can get to a higher level of game play. The cutoff between professional and just casual players isn't nearly as high [as traditional sports]."

Kichiro Tokudaiji, also 20, played for a time competitively in Japan. Asked what he gets from watching others play, he explains that he's improved his own skills from studying the pros.

"Now that I've watched over and over and over again, I know how to play different champions [League of Legends characters]," he says. "I even picked up a random champion just out of nowhere, watched some guy play it. And the first time I played it I was really bad. After watching him again a few times, and knowing how to do all of his techniques, I got so much better at it."

One critical component of pro gaming is the commentary. That's where a Chris Puckett comes in. Puckett, 26, has been with MLG for nine years, and he's one of their star analysts. As a teen-ager, he was on the ascent as a "Halo" player, eying a possible pro track. It was at an early MLG tournament that he met DiGiovanni, and they struck up a friendship that set him on the path from playing to covering.

Puckett, who's done 62 MLG events, served as one of the main commentators, or "casters," in Dallas, leading the "Call of Duty: Black Ops II" analysis. The casters aim to bring a dimension that doesn't exist for anyone simply seeing a game being played on mute. He and his colleagues are experts of strategy and the intricacies of a virtual battlefield, as well as the participants in it, and that's what they share.

"As you soon as you add in the commentators, we're able to start telling you about the personal lives and the background of these guys," he says. "You kind of are able to attach yourself emotionally to one player, one team or another -- it's a commentator's job, if we're doing it right, that's what I hope [is] coming out of it."

Playing games for Puckett is now his work, not something to pass the time fighting level bosses. Sessions last for hours at a time, screens are run over and over again. This isn't about fun. It's about mastering the video game to provide insight that few could claim.

"You think about things that a lot of people don't even realize are in the game," he says. "It's kind of like the expert level in chess, not just moving a piece, but knowing why you are moving that piece and where you want it to go next."

Maybe a metaphor for MLG. DiGiovanni hopes that for the company, where it's going next is upward on the popularity spectrum.

"What we're doing isn't new," he notes. "Once people understand that, 'OK, it's a sports media business, it's basically an entertainment property.' No different than the NFL, UFC, PGA or poker for that matter."

The new here is the platform. "We have the first truly digital sport, truly global, real time, with massive engagement from day one," he says. "And the other thing is … there's a new batch of 16-year-olds every year."