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With TV, the games, they are a changin'

`Championship Gaming Series' hopes to follow the path of poker and extreme sports.

July 10, 2007|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Complexity couldn't overcome an opening 5-0 loss in the men's "Dead or Alive" competition Monday night in "Championship Gaming Series" play and ended up losing 24-17 to archrival New York 3D.

Huh?

DirecTV's inaugural broadcast of a made-for-television e-gaming league at times seemed to be as much game show as athletic event. Stagehands called for applause after commercial breaks, and "ring girls" came onstage carrying the appropriate sports symbol -- a soccer ball, boxing gloves or a starter's flag -- to signal the upcoming video game to be played.

More than 200 fans -- most of them clutching thundersticks like those found at a baseball game -- sat in bleachers inside a Manhattan Beach soundstage. Most clearly got into it, loudly encouraging their favorite team, which not surprisingly was Complexity. That was particularly true during the "Counter-Strike: Source" segment that L.A. won in overtime.

The premise for "Championship Gaming Series" is simple -- six teams, 60 players, six general managers, team logos, four games a week through July, team standings and point tallies. In other words, a typical sports league, where head-to-head competition rules the day.

Last month, the 60 players were among the hundreds who made their way to Soundstage 22 on the 20th Century Fox lot in Century City to try out. This soundstage, which has been host to movie shoots and television series tapings, had seen nothing like these gamers and was tricked out with smoke machines, pulsing lights and a monster sound system.

Gamers were drawn to Los Angeles by the opportunity to earn a $30,000 base salary and the chance to win even more in bonuses. And DirecTV, whose coverage reaches 16 million households in the U.S., is hoping to cash in on e-gaming's popularity.

There are 10 players on each of six teams -- L.A. Complexity, San Francisco Optx, Chicago Chimera, New York 3D, Carolina Core and Dallas Venom.

In addition to the kick-boxing version of the "Dead or Alive" series and "Counter-Strike: Source," a popular video game in which heavily armed virtual squads seek to destroy each other, players are competing in "FIFA Soccer '07" and "Project Gotham Racing 3," an auto racing challenge.

Who is expected to watch the league's twice-weekly broadcasts that will show gamers furiously working their video game controllers, as well as scenes captured by virtual cameras embedded in the game software?

Gamers, including Nate Ernstoff, whose team got bounced during last month's tryout. The 24-year-old Connecticut resident already is plotting strategy for the league's 2008 tryout.

"We've been ranked as the top 13th team in the country," Ernstoff said of his team. "I think our chances of making it get better and better. If they have another draft, we'd definitely come out [to Los Angeles] again."

DirecTV and corporate sponsors such as Mountain Dew, Xbox 360 and Dell Computer are counting on that kind of unbridled gamer passion, which they hope extends to the tens of millions of Americans who play e-games for fun.

Each two-hour program will include a pair of matches, with the next slated for 7 p.m. on Wednesday. CGS coverage also will feature behind-the-scenes and background segments on the teams as well as the players, all of whom are temporarily living in an apartment building in Los Angeles.

"There's definitely a reality show waiting to happen with the way we're doing it," said Eric Shanks, who oversaw sports programming production for Fox before becoming executive vice president of DirecTV Entertainment.

The idea is to do for e-gaming what television has done for extreme sports or poker -- turn a fringe sport or lifestyle into television programming that will attract viewers and advertisers. CBS, MTV and Spike TV also plan to broadcast e-gaming during coming months, and USA Network last year broadcast some gaming tournaments.

On game day, the teams take to the stage, er, field, in front of a live audience. With lights flashing and music booming, announcers and camera crews scramble to cover the action as gamers -- there is a female member on each team -- furiously work their video game controllers.

CGS is using virtual cameras embedded in the game software to show live action. Viewers see race cars as they spin out on turns and are able to lurk inside buildings as the "Counter-Strike: Source" gamers hunt each other down.

Gamers and the games that they play on PCs and such consoles as Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, are getting an increasing amount of attention from potential advertisers.

"I think gaming is on the cusp of becoming a mainstream sport," said Lauren Hobart, director of marketing for Pepsico's Mountain Dew, a brand that continues to benefit from its early role as a sponsor for extreme sports.

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