New video-game league seeks mass appeal

League hosts its inaugural draft and plans to kick off later this year with televised and streamed competitions. Photos: Gamers compete at Playboy Mansion

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.--To Kat Hunter, it was a no-brainer to make Vanessa Arteaga the very first draft pick for a new pro video-game league.

"Vanessa is a guaranteed win," said Hunter, general manager of San Francisco's team in the new Championship Gaming Series league. Hunter made the first selection in the inaugural player draft, which took place Tuesday night at the Playboy Mansion here.

Six teams comprise the Championship Gaming Series (CGS), which will kick off later this year: the San Francisco OPTX, the Los Angeles Complexity, the Chicago Chimera, the Dallas Venom, the Carolina Core, and 3DNY from New York.

Each team has a general manager and 10 players. Five will play Counter-Strike: Source; two--one male and one female--will play Dead or Alive 4; two on Project Gotham Racing 3; and one on FIFA '07.

The league is backed by satellite television company DirecTV, as well as the U.K.'s BSkyB and Asia's Star networks. According to DirecTV's vice president and general manager, Steven Roberts, the three partners are investing "tens of millions of dollars" over four years in the league.

"We started (the league) about a year ago with the idea of creating what is the next sport," Roberts said after the draft Tuesday night.

CGS is not the only effort afoot to bring video-game competition to TV. In February, for example, Major League Gaming announced that it would televise some of its events.

But Roberts said that DirecTV and its partners believe that CGS can appeal to a broad audience because it will be the first league to consolidate many of the top professional gamers and because it is expected to provide the first organization that many gamers can aspire to join.

For the draft, each of the six general managers had a large number of players to choose from. Over the course of the several rounds, many were chosen.

For 20-year-old Arteaga, being chosen first by Hunter was something she felt grateful for and wants to reward with results.

"She didn't have to pick me first," Arteaga said. "But she had faith in me, and I'm not going to let her down."

Another new OPTX player, Alessandro Avallone--known as "Stermy"--was chosen as the first FIFA player, despite having played the game for only a matter of weeks. But Avallone said he knows how to get good at new games and has been a top-three-rated player in several different titles.

Hunter, who chose both Atreaga and Avallone, said the draft had worked just as she had planned.

"This is exactly the team that I walked in the door wanting," Hunter said. "I'm thinking long term with my team. I'm thinking about year two."

She didn't have to pick me first. But she had faith in me, and I'm not going to let her down.
--Vanessa Arteaga,
first draft pick,
Championship Gaming Series

She said some of her choices--such as choosing Avallone to be her FIFA player, despite his relative inexperience at the game--were controversial. But she expects him to be beating all comers before too long because she sees him as a nothing less than a top-level video gamer.

Meanwhile, Hunter, who is 32, is making the transition from player to general manager. For some time, she was a member of the Frag Dolls, which is game publisher Ubisoft's all-women team. But she said the change is exactly what she wanted.

"I'm much more suited to bringing up new talent and making professional gaming what it should be," she said.

Andrew Reif, the CGS commissioner, understands that making the league a success will be a challenge. But he said the fact that video games are big business throughout the developed world puts the league on solid footing.

"I hope we'll look back 5 to 10 years from now," said Reif, "and say the next great sports property started at the Playboy Mansion in 2007."

Both Reif and Roberts said that a crucial element in the league's success will be that its gaming events will be broadcast live.

In July, Roberts said, up to 10 hours of gaming will be streamed live on the Internet, and 13 hours will be available in the U.S. on DirecTV.

Despite Roberts' statement that DirecTV and its partners are in the league for the long haul, he acknowledges that CGS must still produce a strong viewership.

He added that the league also must measure its performance by whether it gains acceptance and credibility among video game players--and becomes something they aspire to join.

Whether that will be the case over time, of course, cannot be predicted.

But for now, CGS represents probably the first time that video game players will be paid regular salaries to do what they do.

The starting salary for a CGS player will be $30,000. That figure plus bonuses could bring the top players as much as $100,000 or more per year in income.

Hunter said she recognizes that the six teams have a mandate to fulfill: making video gaming exciting to a broad audience.

That might be hard for some people to imagine, but Hunter said she is confident the league's production professionals know what they're doing.

"It's certainly going to be more exciting than watching poker on TV," she said.

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