Video-Game Tournaments to Be Televised

Multiple Platforms, Integration Deals Lure Top Marketers in Search of Male Demo

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The deal: Major League Gaming, an organizer of professional video game tournaments, has signed multiyear sponsorship agreements with Boost Mobile and Toyota's Scion for its live events.

The result: For the first time since the league was formed three years ago, the events will be televised on USA Network, and have Internet and mobile distribution. The marketers, following in the footsteps of numerous advertisers that are cozying up to 13- to 34-year-old male gamers, will be integrated into the content and have exposure across TV, broadband and wireless platforms. Both partners will promote the gaming contests, intended to be a budding sports franchise akin to action sports, poker and Nascar racing.

Marketers: This is your missing male audience. That's the message video-game tournaments want advertisers to hear.

They’re not household names yet, but Ksharp, Tsquared and Killa OR are part of a highly desirable demographic of young hard-core gamers who will soon be everywhere from cable TV and the Web to cell phones.

The professional video-game tournaments they and their peers compete in are growing rapidly, and because of increased attendance and popularity have become attractive vehicles for sponsorship and integration deals with advertisers looking for engaging, nontraditional ways to reach a tough-to-find audience.

Like the early days of extreme sports

Just as Mountain Dew, Jeep and Quiksilver planted their flags early in the extreme sports world and juiced their brands by doing so, major marketers are rushing to sponsor video-game tournaments to stand out to young men who spend on average 20 hours a week with the likes of "Halo 2" and "Need for Speed."

The contests are becoming more mainstream and garnering broader exposure than ever as the video-game business overall has grown into a $10.5 billion a year powerhouse, eclipsing the domestic box office for movies.

While the tournaments have been popular internationally for years, they're just beginning to catch fire domestically, attracting heavy-hitters like DirecTV, which plans to launch its own tournament this spring, dubbed Massive Gaming League.

Major League Gaming, based in New York, has two seasons of live events under its belt, gathering sponsorships from Nokia, Converse, GameStop and others. Its executives are ramping up this year's tournament with new marketer partners and distribution deals that aim to put video gaming in front of a wider audience.

'Waiting to explode'

"We feel like this is a cultural phenomenon waiting to explode," said Matt Bromberg, Major League Gaming's president and chief operating officer. "Could it be the next poker? Is it what action sports and Nascar were years ago? It's definitely emerging into the mass market."

Marketers: This is your missing male audience. That's the message video-game tournaments want advertisers to hear.

Its star players can earn into the six figures from cash prizes and endorsements. The bulk of the big money-makers are in their teens and early 20s, and a number have been featured on "60 Minutes" and MTV’s "True Life: I'm a Professional Gamer." Xena, the gaming moniker of 15-year-old Bonnie Burton, is an MLG pro, billed as the best female "Halo 2" player in the world.

Major League Gaming will kick off its third season this weekend at the Meadowlands in Secaucus, N.J. Executives have signed multiyear sponsorship deals with Boost Mobile and Toyota's Scion and, for the first time, a TV distribution deal with USA Network.

Airing on USA Network

USA Network, the top-rated basic cable channel, will air seven hours of the tournament on Saturday mornings beginning in November, the start of the key holiday selling season for video-game hardware and software. The show will be paired with "WWE A.M. Raw," a professional wrestling program, and the two will co-promote each other to their similar target demographics.

The show will have many of the trappings of traditional sports, such as play-by-plays and interviews with gamers, intending to introduce them to a broad audience.

Boost Mobile will make exclusive content, backstories, on-the-road diaries and player profiles available to its 2.6 million subscribers. Executives said the tie-in will serve as a foundation for launching Boost's own mobile gaming services and will help cement its positioning as a young lifestyle brand targeting 14- to 24-year-olds.

"Gaming is a key lifestyle activity for our demo," said Jeff Werderman, senior director of brand marketing. "They're passionate about it, and they spend a lot of time on it."

Boost intends to showcase the pro gamers themselves and the aspirational quality of the tournament. "What kid doesn't aspire to make a living playing video games?" Mr. Werderman said.

Because gamers will be equipped with Boost Mobile phones, the trademark chirp will be omnipresent during the contests, he said.

A broadband component will stream hours of game play on from the tournaments, which take place in cities such as Atlanta, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The finals, scheduled for later this year in Las Vegas, will dole out more than $800,000 to the winners.

Scion will sponsor the tournament's "most improved player" award, giving away a limited-production 2006 Scion to the winner.

Integrating brands across all platforms

Both Boost Mobile and Scion will advertise during the TV show and will be integrated into the programming across all its platforms. Boost will supply the pro players with cell phones throughout the events. The marketers will sponsor a bus tour starting this summer that will hit 100 cities in search of new potential pro gamers.

In addition to Boost Mobile and Scion, deals with other A-list marketers in the beverage, retail and packaged goods categories are in the works, though executives declined to give further details.

The tournament, dubbed Boost Mobile Major League Gaming Pro Circuit presented by Scion, comes on the heels of $10 million in venture capital funding for the parent company, Major League Gaming Inc. The financing, from Ritchie Capital, came earlier this year, as did Mr. Bromberg's appointment to president and COO. He had been an executive at Time Warner’s Moviefone and AOL Games.

Pro video gaming is a huge spectator sport in some countries, particularly throughout Asia, with 55,000 people flocking to a competition in Singapore last year. Other tournaments easily attract thousands of spectators in the U.S. Major League Gaming's events have grown quickly from a few hundred people in the early days to an expected 5,000 this weekend.

Response online has been strong. After its past events, MLG has streamed tournament footage on its site and generated nearly 500,000 downloads for each of the seven contests.

International competitions

MLG has company in the space, and some tournaments are well-established in the international market. The World Cyber Games, which recently signed Microsoft as a multiyear sponsor, draws more than a million competitors annually and gives away $2.5 million in prizes. As part of Microsoft's new alliance, the finals of the '07 tournament will be held in Seattle.

The Cyberathlete Professional League hosts tournaments around the world under the tagline "Play Hard -– Go Pro," and gave away $1 million to video-game players in 2005. Its sponsors include Verizon and Red Bull.

Marketers themselves have gotten into the game. Big-box retailer Best Buy recently launched a tournament around "Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter," intending to boost sales of the Xbox 360.
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