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Friday, November 30, 2012
Can video gaming become a real sport?

By Charles Curtis
ESPN The Magazine

IPL Gaming competitor
America's top gaming event, IPL 5, is bringing competitors from around the world to Las Vegas this weekend.
Remember the days in which critics dismissed poker as something nobody would want to watch on TV?

Well, meet a candidate for the next poker -- electronic sports, aka eSports, in which gamers go head to head in tournaments in front of live spectators.

Already huge in South Korea, competitive gaming has yet to gain traction in the U.S. But David Ting, founder of the IGN Pro League sees big potential for the American gaming community.

Ting spoke to ESPN Playbook as the league's showcase event -- IPL 5 -- comes to Las Vegas this weekend.

The tournament features competitors on the hunt for titles in staples like "StarCraft II" and "League of Legends." For future competitions, the IPL announced it will partner with Capcom to feature "Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition" and "Street Fighter X Tekken."

How did you come up with the idea for the IPL?

It’s not new. It’s been around for over a decade. What is new is people’s watching behavior has changed after technology evolved. People are more comfortable watching Internet-based content on TV because the technology connecting those two is getting better.

David Ting
David Ting is working on changing the public perception of gamers.
Can the IPL make the leap into the world of sports?

If we look at the concurrent [viewership], we’re getting into the college football realm [in terms of] the number of people who watch and the number of hours that are consumed. People always think about having, say, the controller or a keyboard or a mouse as a way to play. But over time, there are going to be full-body sensors -- I’m talking about maybe five to 10 years from now -- that would require a more physically demanding competition like sports. The similarity is there. It’s really about working with people to change perception.

How do you change that perception?

Getting the word out and getting more fans to watch. At that point, we’re ready to talk to TV outlets to see if it makes sense to transition to television as a medium.

I think that’s really the bridge. There is this stereotype where, if you’re great at video games, it doesn’t mean you’re an athlete; you’re just one of the geeks. You can almost argue bowling or golf doesn’t require the same level of athletic ability as, say, basketball or football, but there’s enough of a fan base with golf around the world to make it profitable and an aspirational event, so it’s popular. It’s that transition that will come with time with the growth trajectory we’re seeing on the Internet.

The next level is the best gamers in the world making gaming a living and a profession. It’s about providing the tools, just like poker that became an aspirational sport when there was a lot of money involved and prestige for winning it, like Chris Moneymaker about 10 years back.

What kinds of gamers compete in IPL events?

The model works like the World Series of Poker. We have online tournaments for different regions in the world where we discover talent and fly them into Vegas every six months to have a huge competition. "StarCraft II" is super popular in Korea, The top Korean player gets millions through salary and sponsorship. We partnered with a Korean company to bring the Korean players, but we added the formula of doing tournaments around the world.

At IPL 3, we made magic happen. An unknown 16-year-old player from France won it all. Nobody knew him ahead of time. He won an online qualifier and beat 10 or 11 Korean players to capture the crown at Caesars Palace.

IPL
IPL tournaments are watched by sold-out crowds.
With fighting games, the skills gap is a lot smaller than people think. With some proper training and work ethic, a lot of people in the U.S. could get to that top-tier level of the competition. We’re doing a 72-player single elimination with "StarCraft." "League of Legends" has five players per team, so the cost of transport is a lot higher. So it’s more of a round-robin style.

What’s next as IPL continues to expand?

We’re ambitious. Next year, we’re running the tournament every three months instead of six. There are a few publishers who want to work with us and make this global. We’re going to launch more titles and invest heavily in the fighter genre, like "Street Fighter." Titles like that are great to work with because they’re very understandable by the mainstream. Also, mobile games. We really want an element of luck with some of the competitions to make it even more accessible for the everyday Joe like myself.

Another thing we’re adding as part of IPL 5 is using social voting in our mobile app as well as our Web app to basically do a deterministic score that’s in progress. You can guess which player is going to win. The twist is you can change your vote as time elapses but the value of a right answer drops as time elapses. We believe with this social-voting algorithm, people will [find] out who’s more favored to win.

Sounds like a perfect opportunity to have people gamble on competitors, especially in Las Vegas.

Absolutely. That’s something we’ll definitely look into. We want to have a solidified economy so that we have a good set of regulations.

Find out more about IPL 5 and watch live streams at IPL's website.