Major League Gaming (MLG) CEO and co-founder Sundance DiGiovanni has been a leader in eSports since launching MLG in 2002 with Mike Sepso. In the early days of MLG, DiGiovanni explored traditional television outlets like USA Networks and he even served as a gaming and eSports correspondent for ESPN2 s Cold Pizza. These days, DiGiovanni is overseeing MLG s rapid expansion for 2016 and beyond. But first there s the 2015 World Finals in New Orleans Oct. 16-18 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
MLG has partnered with the city of New Orleans for the eSports league s 100th event, which features over $500,000 in cash prizes for the best Dota 2 and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare teams. Over its existence, MLG has had 50,000 live competitors play at its live events. The league has had 45 million online matches and has 10 million players registered on MLG.tv. And MLG has given out $13.5 million in prize money to date without any fan or publisher support.
DiGiovanni talks about the World Finals and the changes that need to be made within the eSports ecosystem for continued success in this exclusive interview.
Why did you choose New Orleans for the World Finals this year?
It s an iconic city that I personally am very fond of. When we did some research on branching out, the mayor s office and the city wooed us pretty heavily. They made some strong arguments and provided a lot of support for eSports. I have some personal attachment to the city with friends from the area. We ve never been there before. And after years of trying to get it on the schedule, the timing was finally right.
What impact do you feel broadcast TV like TBS will have on eSports?
The Turner effort is going to be a really interesting entrance into the space. We re working with WME/IMG to help support that. We think they re being very respectful of the space with CS:GO in this first initiative. My hope is that they ll do it right. They have great people attached to it both on the Turner side and IMG is very passionate about it. It s not just shoehorning an event into a shorter TV format. It s coming at it with a bigger plan for digital and TV. Every indicator to me is that this is going to be done very well.
How has MLG s involvement With ESPN on the X-Games evolved?
TV can be complimentary to eSports, but what we do is so global. Our audience started with a digital experience that s accessible anywhere you are. We have 200 countries tuning in to events on MLG.tv. What we try to do with ESPN and other future TV partners is create a complimentary TV experience that s something special that has a higher quality and more polished broadcast that s more traditional to what Fox Sports or ESPN does. But you can t cut off your international fans. It needs to feed into that global audience. So you need to create a slick TV broadcast and push that out to digital outlets as well. Those two things together give a tremendous experience to the viewer at home.
TV is extremely complicated and it s not an end-all, be-all. As more people move away from subscriptions and cable providers, maybe we can help some of those broadcasters create an experience for viewers. Our goal is always to put on a show that is tailored to our audience and offer great competition. What we do translates to TV very well, but it doesn t rely on TV.
What role do you see sports arenas playing for MLG moving forward?
Stadium shows are a lot of fun. The challenge is that our experience is a little different and stadiums create challenges in hosting an event. There will be a couple of MLG stadium events next year. But we will also have open events where it s more in line with what we ve seen historically with big stages for the games as well as experiences for the fans and brands. Those experiences take up more square footage than what s available in a lot of stadiums. When we look at basketball arenas, it creates a whole other set of problems, but also opportunities. We ll balance it out with the style of events we ve done and grow our audience to give fans an opportunity to have an event in a stadium with 15,000 fans. We ve never done it to that scale before. We re going to have to find a balance there. You ll see us with a calendar of events next year far larger than we ve ever attempted. We ve done 11 events before, but we re doing far more next year.
What are your thoughts on drug testing in eSports?
It s a tricky question. I don t want to see people get an unfair advantage, but we live in a world where Adderall prescriptions are easy to get. The challenge is if you have a league and a structure where there s an attached paycheck and a guarantee, you re going to have to go on a case by case testing of players and validating whether they have prescriptions. One thing I m concerned about is that I m afraid some players who don t have Adderall are going to go out and get a prescription. We have to be concerned about the health and safety of our players, but there is a lot of grey area around the topic. I m not sure if any one policy is going to fix everything. I hope it s more than just posturing to players coming out to saying they were on something. The number one thing we can do is educating and teaching players — and aspiring players — about the risks associated with abusing prescriptions for a competitive advantage.
What are your thoughts on betting and Fantasy eSports, especially with FanDuel and DraftKings now in the mix?
There are a lot of challenges there. Anything that gets to scale, you e going to see wagering. We ve had discussions with all of those companies, and with proper involvement and proper awareness it can be a great interaction with community. I don t want to see companies try to make a quick buck and not try to respect the space. Everyone s trying to grow the business. My hope that this doesn t become a distraction or a negative, and that the players in the wagering and fantasy sports space add to the opportunities for the players and fans. So far, in my conversations, I feel pretty god about their initial approach. I don t think it s going anywhere. You can t put your head in the sand. You have to be proactive and have these companies not be predatory and instead open up more opportunities for people to enjoy eSports.
What changes do you think need to be made to the current eSports ecosystem to prevent match throwing like we ve seen in Korea with StarCraft II?
The history of eSports is one-off events and players having to travel 40 to 50 weeks a year chasing paychecks. We need more league structure like Turner or our Call of Duty league. We need things in place where players know it s not about making a quick buck, but there s long-term livelihood and throwing a match would be a death blow to be a pro in the league. We need things like a structured league with guaranteed player salaries and a cohesive schedule with international travel for us to get to a place where a player isn t drawn to make $5,000 to $10,000 by influencing a match unfairly. And we need rules in place that prevent players from sharing information or participating in that. It s something that s going to take time. Traditional sports have had to struggle through this and we ll have to struggle through. We need more structure and more predictable schedules, and vigilance all around.
The issue of some players in Korea cheating comes out of not having structure and security. It s important for players to know that if they play well, they have job security. And even if they don t, they have a contract with some terms they can rely on.
What role will MLG have in the new Call of Duty World League?
We have some plans for COD moving forward. We ll be able to talk about it in the coming weeks. We re excited about the global structure Activision is taking. It s another indicator of what we ve done for last two years has worked well. We re going to go bigger.