Major League Gaming (MLG), now owned by Activision Blizzard, will run its first-ever eSports event in a professional arena starting later this week.
Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio—home of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets—will host the MLG Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) Major Championship from April 1 to April 3. The best CS:GO teams will compete for a $1 million prize pool in front of a sold-out audience of 9,500 live fans.
Mike Sepso, senior vice president at Activision Blizzard and former president and co-founder of MLG, said MLG audiences have outgrown the smaller venues used in the past. “Our competitions have grown so large that we had to go to sports arenas,” he said. “It’s the progression that all of eSports is moving towards.”
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Both attendees at Nationwide Arena and viewers at home will have the opportunity to sample the potential “future of eSports,” as MLG tests multiple new interactive features to enhance the stadium experience and the live streams that fans around the world tune into.
Inside Nationwide Arena, MLG will debut a new 150-foot-wide stage. Each of the 10 players on stage (who compete in five vs. five team matches) will have a 30-foot LED screen behind their individual pod. Sepso says these screens will deliver real-time information for fans in the stadium. For example, the screens will react as players take damage during virtual first-person shooter gun battles.
“We’re trying to provide fans with the full range of information that exists in an eSports competition,” Sepso said. “There’s a lot more going on in an eSports match in terms of overall data that fans need to understand than in an NBA game.”
MLG will use fan feedback from this Columbus event to build its next-generation eSports experience. The idea is to expand beyond the screen—whether that screen is a Jumbotron inside a stadium or the display on a home computer.
“A big part of our mission to take eSports mainstream is to deliver all of the necessary information through innovation that makes the viewing experience better,” Sepso said. “We want eSports to appeal to fans who are not as knowledgeable about the game.”
Fans who tune in to the CS:GO event will have the option of receiving additional graphically-driven real-time data around the video screen they’re watching. This enhanced viewer experience will be hosted separately from the traditional MLG.tv broadcast at MLG.tv/CSMajor. The data displayed on-screen will focus on situational insights based on the gameplay, offering additional stats.
“Imagine with 30 seconds left, there’s one player alive on a team and it’s all up to him,” Sepso said. “You’d most likely wind up being fed info and a headshot of the player indicating how well he performs in clutch situations, etc. There will also be live team stats, leaderboards, and that type of data.”
One focal point for MLG will be delivering storylines behind the players and teams involved in the competition. Sepso points to the NFL as an example of a great storyteller that gives casual fans who watch the game infrequently a reason to watch football—even if they don’t understand specific offensive and defensive stratgies of the sport.
“We want to use technology to innovate and over-service the core audience, so they’re getting a more enhanced experience, but also draw in and make it more accessible to people who not as familiar with eSports—but are sports fans,” Sepso said. “That’s part of what makes the current version of most eSports content somewhat inaccessible [to the mainstream viewer].”
CS:GO remains one of the most popular eSports games in the world today. MLG brought CS:GO to the X-Games Aspen last year through its partnership with ESPN. The Valve game was also featured in the recent Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) World Championship in Katowice, Poland. And CS:GO is the exclusive game for the upcoming Turner Sports and WME/IMG ELEAGUE, which debuts May 24 and has a $2.4 million prize pool spread over its first two seasons this year.