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SXSWi panel: Professional video gaming is the sport of the digital age

While football, basketball, and baseball may be the legacy sports of our society, professional video gaming may be the one to take us--and advertisers--into the next generation.

A panel of professional video game players and owners of professional game teams talked about how to make their sport compete with football and basketball in the future.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

AUSTIN, Texas--Professional video gaming could be the next great sport--and the one that will be the choice of the digital generation.

That was the prediction of a panel on the future of the sport at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference here Friday.

Speaking with video game instant-messaging company Xfire's CEO, Adam Boyden, an impressive cross-section of the professional video game industry talked at length about why their chosen sport could join football, baseball, soccer, and basketball at the top of the athletics heap in the future.

Joining Boyden on-stage were Jason Lake, a former property attorney, and now the manager and owner of the LA Complexity, a team in the year-old Championship Gaming Series; Chris Lemley, the owner of the independent Team Pandemic, a championship World of Warcraft squad; Craig Levine, formerly the owner of a pro gaming team and now the head of an organization called E-Sports Entertainment that has built a community around pro video gaming; and Matija Biljeskovic, a world champion player of the Electronic Arts soccer game, Fifa.

Each panelist had his own take on where his sport is going and how far it could go in the next few years, but they all seemed to agree that professional video gaming could be a lucrative vocation for almost anyone willing to put in the time and energy to become a top player. And that, they said, separates and democratizes the sport and separates it from baseball or basketball, which are available professionally to only world-class athletes.

And while professional video gaming is not something that literally anyone can do, the panel argued that it is available to a much wider spectrum of people, at least those willing to commit themselves fully to the sport.

One problem that may currently be holding back professional gaming from its ascent is that there is no standard. There are multiple professional organizations, including Major League Gaming, the Championship Gaming Series, and the global World Cyber Games, not to mention many more leagues in Europe and Asia. So one thing that would help, the panelists agreed, would be some consolidation.

In fact, they suggested, that is all but certain to happen in the coming months and years.

"I think there is a fork in the road that is starting to be explored," said Levine. "There's not going to be room for six or seven leagues going forward. There's going to be more consolidation, with the weak (organizations) falling out."

Boyden asked the panelists if they thought that professional video gaming could ever be as popular in the United States as it is in Europe, where matches "fill stadiums."

Levine responded by admitting that for Americans, the sport has never been that interesting to watch, but that he's hopeful.

"It takes a long time to turn a sport into a spectator sport," Levine said, "but millions of people around the world love (video gaming)."

He added that there are millions and millions of people--a small country's worth of people--playing Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft and that "there's a whole country in the world that would bleed and die to watch this stuff. Whether it's TV (or another medium) spectatorship could evolve. It's a very natural progression, given the tools of the Internet."

Boyden then pointed out that one major difference between established sports like football and basketball and professional video games is that the legacy sports have set rules that are known and followed everywhere. By comparison, the video games change constantly, with new versions coming out each year, he suggested, and so that makes it hard for players to standardize on one system.

For players, Biljeskovic said, that's definitely a problem.

"They don't appreciate the game changing every year," Biljeskovic said. "I really dislike learning the game over and over again...It's like winning a race and someone saying, 'OK, now do it over.'"

Another issue that must be resolved before professional video gaming can be competitive with legacy sports is that it must become attractive to major sponsors.

So the panelists talked about how corporations like Dell or Nvidia are already kicking in big money for tournaments and leagues, but acknowledged that there is a lot of room to grow.

And part of it, they suggested, is about awareness. Over time, they said, sponsors will become more familiar with the sport and the top players and will see the opportunity to exploit it.

A big piece of that puzzle, however, is for the leagues and publishers to figure out how to make the matches palatable to TV, or at least Web, viewers. To date, most professional video gaming is hard to watch as a spectator.

So the panelists argued that the publishers need to be clear that they have an opportunity to be linked to a growing sport, but in order to do so, they must work harder at developing games that can appeal to spectators.

"If you don't make your game more spectator-friendly, your game is going to go away," said Levine. "It's such a win-win if a league picks up your game, because they're essentially advertising your game for almost nothing."

Lastly, the panelists said, in order for the sport to grow as a profession, there needs to be wider awareness that there is money to be made for players.

For now, the bulk of professional players are making around $30,000, they said, but added that there is big cash to be made for the top players, especially those who are great self-marketers.

See more stories in CNET's coverage of SXSWi (click here).