Ottawa native Nelson Triana is currently ranked No. 1 in Canada and No. 2 in the world for the Xbox game Halo 2.
Major League Gaming comes to Canada
Last Updated Aug. 21, 2007
There was a time when playing video games was dismissed as a wasteful pastime by parents who watched their couch-bound kids punch away on controllers and seek to attain that elusive high score. These days, however, playing video games can be a career.
The gaming industry has become a huge worldwide business, accounting for almost $5 billion US in total revenue for Canadian video game companies alone. Put all that revenue together, and video games now bring in more money worldwide than Hollywood.
An audience with that kind of size and spending power usually equals major marketing opportunities, but unlike traditional sports and entertainment, the thing the gaming industry has lacked in Canada is a spotlight — a media platform that showcases the best pro gamers in the country. Now, that's changing, too.
The Major League Gaming (MLG) circuit has been operating in the United States since late 2002, and in November it will hold its first major competition in Canada – the MLG Canadian Open. MLG runs a series of professional video game tournaments that provide a platform for accomplished pro gamers to advance their careers.
In the beginning, MLG struggled to make an impact with audiences. Low turnout led to the cancellation of tournaments for select games like Tekken 5 and Gran Turismo 3, but the organizers viewed these as minor setbacks and kept scheduling events, which have been steadily building a following. There's typically one each month, with hundreds of competitors and more than 1,000 spectators for the largest tournaments.
MLG in Canada
Fast-forward to 2007, and MLG has expanded for the first time by bringing its product north of the border. The MLG Canadian Open, held in Toronto Nov. 2 to 4,will showcase the best players from a series of online competitions held through the summer and fall.
Canadian pro gamers are no strangers to the bright lights and increasingly big money of pro gaming, given that they've already competed internationally at events like the World Cyber Games (WCG), and the World Series of Video Games (which makes a stop in Toronto August 24 to 26). But the MLG means Canadians can now compete on a regular game circuit in their own country, as well as on the world stage in Asia and Europe.
Ottawa native Nelson Triana knows all about that experience, having competed with the best in Halo 2, the most popular Microsoft Xbox title. He's currently ranked No. 1 in Canada and No. 2 in the world for the game Halo 2. But Triana was routinely forced to travel south of the border to play against the best.
"It'll be nice to have the circuit closer to home," says Triana. "There's a lot of good gamers up here."
Stephan Richard, executive director of WCG Canada, knows Triana and other Canadian pro gamers very well. He travelled with them to WCG Grand Final tournaments in Singapore and Italy over the past two years.
There's no active collaboration between the WCG and MLG at the moment, though negotiations are taking place. Richard, who is based in Halifax, says the biggest difference between the two organizations is scope. The WCG is patterned after the Olympics, and boasts 800 gamers representing 70 countries. MLG is more localized, looking to promote the talent playing the games on top of the industry as a whole, while operating regionally just in North America.
"Some may see (WCG) as competitors with MLG because we're going after a unique pool of sponsors, but I don't see it that way," says Richard. "I see MLG coming to Canada as a positive move. In some ways, it is the result of the great work and efforts that WCG has put in building a competitive gaming community in Canada over the past few years."
MLG's move northward could also add a new pool of talent to the publicity-starved league, especially if there's more money to go around. In 2006, 18 pro gamers made healthy salaries of $30,000 US or more in prize winnings.
A good example is Ben "Karma" Jackson. He's hasn't turned 19 and yet he went unbeaten in Halo 2 MLG competitions throughout the U.S. for a full year in 2005-06. The Seattle-born teen got so good at the game that he was credited last year with being instrumental in helping to take down the world's top Halo 2 four-person team called "Final Boss" when he played on a team with a few other pro gamers.
Aside from his $250,000 US annual contract with MLG, Jackson also earned close to $100,000 in prize money alone during the course of his unbeaten streak. He's known for his steely demeanor during gameplay, something that resembles what a pro hockey player might be like when taking a penalty shot.
"I talk a lot of trash though," Jackson concedes. "Just like any other sport or whatever, you want to get in the other guy's head. We were the top Halo 2 team and we almost got beat going down 2-0 in a best-of-5 series, but we came back to win and I think they got intimidated by all that trash-talking."
Triana's team was on the receiving end of that verbal tirade.
"I'm a good Canadian boy so I don't trash talk," Triana says with a laugh. "But it was a great experience and you learn a lot from those types of meltdowns."
How MLG works
MLG uses a payment structure similar to Major League Soccer, where the league pays the salaries of the players. Except that it can't pay everyone, so only the ultimate pros are offered exclusive contracts.
But the video gaming league is looking to change that by doing more to market its talent in order to garner more interest and drive up revenue. It operated on a budget of $35 million US in 2006, derived from sponsorships from companies such as Boost and GameStop/EB Games.
The traditional knock against MLG is that it has the perception of being difficult to televise. But it definitely has a cult following. USA Network ran seven episodes last year and drew relatively good numbers of over 100,000 viewers, says Sundance DiGiovanni, co-founder and chief marketing officer for MLG.
"People are making millions playing poker and driving around in circles making only left turns — and it's all on TV," he says. "We believe that if you're truly phenomenal at something, then you should be celebrated for it. In order to have a league, you have to establish personalities and give people something they wouldn't expect."
MLG will be giving Canadian gamers the media spotlight they've been lacking until now. A taped 90-minute special will air in November on G4TechTV following two individual Canadian gamers, as they train and prepare for the Toronto MLG Canadian Open.
From there, The Score and G4TechTV will share MLG telecasts with six broadcasts per week that include repeats spread out over 15 consecutive weeks.
"We know how to put on a good show," DiGiovanni says. "People will see that soon enough."
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