Major League Gaming is the world's premier professional console league. As the team embarks on a new season, with a new game in Halo: Reach, we spoke to some of the top players, and the CEO of the league itself to get an insight into competitive gaming's exploding popularity, and what it takes to become the one of the best console players in the world.
It's the MLG Championship final – the eighth game between the aptly named Final Boss and Status Quo. Final Boss, led by celebrated veteran Ogre 2, is ahead – five games to two – but Status Quo is a confidence team featuring some of the most talented players in professional Halo. Under the right circumstances they could easily overcome these odds and power through.
The tension is palpable. Dropping the oddball, Final Boss stalwart Victory X outshoots two competitors, before cloaking his escape with some strategically placed grenades. He clutches the oddball, crouching in the corner, strafing nervously.
On the opposite side of the map, Ogre 2 flanks. His experience and timing catches the less experienced Status Quo off guard.
Disorientated, they become sponges for the bullets blasting in the periphery. With their shields down the remaining members of Final Boss pop headshots with ease. The game is all but over.
Three members of the Status Quo team are down. The clock runs out. Final Boss win the championship, $US100,000, and the right to call themselves the greatest Halo team on the planet.
This is what it means to play at the very highest level. This is Major League Gaming.
"The main thing that keeps me going," claims Tom ‘Ogre 2' Ryan, "is my competitiveness."
Tom Ryan is the most decorated player in the history of professional Halo, and probably the best player to ever clutch a controller. No-one has won more, or more consistently, across a longer period of time.
The ‘2' in ‘Ogre 2' represents the fact that he is, by a matter of minutes, the younger twin brother of Dan ‘Ogre 1' Ryan. Over a period of years both Dan and his brother utterly dominated professional Halo. In the transition to Halo 3, the difficulties involved in adjusting to a new game forced his brother Dan into retirement. Tom, however persisted, and in 2010 became the first Halo player to win National Championships across all three Halo titles.
With MLG's 2011 kicking off this weekend – a new season and a new game in Halo: Reach – Tom is looking forward to the challenge.
"Playing the same game for years with long hours of online practice can actually make it feel less like a hobby and more like a real job," begins Tom. "But when the MLG Pro Circuit tournaments roll around it's all worth it."
MAJOR LEAGUE GAMING AND THE SUNDANCE KID
For Sundance Di Giovanni, CEO, Major League Gaming is obviously a job. But it's a job built on a passion for gaming, and an innate ability to spot an available niche and act upon it.
"MLG started when my business partner, Mike Sepso and I had some time off between companies," begins Sundance. "We're both competitive, life-long sports fanatics, athletes and gamers, so eventually we moved our match off the golf course and on to the Xbox and PS2. Tekken and Halo were our favorites."
"I won 99% of the time."
Like most entrepreneurs, Sundance Di Giovanni beams with confidence (he's also way taller than we expected) but it's a confidence built on the rapid growth of a pro gaming empire – an empire that has evolved from kids huddled round a handful of CRTs to main stages and million dollar investments in less than a decade.
"After spending time playing games," Sundance recalls, "we decided to combine our love of gaming, sports fanaticism and business expertise to create the ultimate video game league on par with the traditional leagues we had spent so much time following. Through our efforts, we turned gaming into a competitive sport with millions of fans around the globe and partnerships with the best developers, publishers and brands."
For an idea based on the idea that gamers are just as happy watching others game as they are playing, the rise of Major League Gaming is an interesting trend – and one that reflects the increasing ubiquity of gaming as a culture. People like watching top players partly because, well, it's exciting – but mostly because they play games themselves and have an understanding of the high level of skill involved. There's an aspirational quality there – viewers want to learn from the best. But they also want to appreciate and watch the best.
In short – Major League Gaming is precisely like any other sport you could name. Sundance, as you'd expect, completely agrees.
"When presented well, competitive gaming can be extremely entertaining. It's not unlike traditional sports like NASCAR or golf. The key is taking an activity that happens at a fast pace and presenting it in a manner that's appealing to fans of the activity, but also allows for new viewers to jump in and get a feel for what they're watching.
"When MLG was founded my son Saja had just been born. He's turning 8 this month. To him MLG is on par with the NFL, NBA and NHL. He sees Major League Gaming as a true professional league that's built around something he loves. So do the other kids in his class. In 5-10 years these are the kids who will be playing at our events and watching our live broadcasts. As the next generation of gamers come into the mix, they'll do so not knowing a time where there wasn't a professional e-sports league and they'll do so regarding Major League Gaming as the leader in the space."
Up and coming professional Faisal ‘Goofy' Khan isn't quite young enough to be part of the generation of gamers Sundance Di Giovanni refers to – but he's as close as dammit. At age 17 he represents, along with Ogre 2's teammate iGotYourPistola and Enable, a group of younger gamers with razor sharp reflexes and accuracy that defies belief – gamers who were barely out of pampers when the original Halo was released. Gamers born with controllers plunked in their hands.
With the debut of a new game in Halo: Reach, and a new team featuring Halo legends Naded and Legit, many experts expect Goofy to make a huge impact this season.
"This is really the first time I've been on a team that's considered a contender for first place," claims Goofy. "Every team I've had success with in the past was always viewed as the underdog, and my former teammates and I really used that to our advantage by coming out extremely aggressive from the beginning. So I guess the expectations from everyone add a bit of pressure, since everyone will be looking out for us."
Despite his age, Khan is one of the most media savvy of the current batch of pro players. Continually active on twitter, and constantly updating his youtube page with commentary videos, Khan appears to have a genuine, innate understanding of how to use the tools at his disposal to create a following – perhaps because of his age, not in spite of it.
"I believe that individual success will come from exposure to the public and interacting with your fans," he claims. "With today's social networking tools, it has become easier than ever and I truly enjoy getting to know the community.
"I created a Twitter account, so I can talk to fans directly, and established a YouTube channel channel to share gameplay and interviews to help inspire players. When I was an aspiring pro player, I loved the gameplay videos and interviews that Halo pros like Tsquared did, so I figured people would enjoy them."
AHEAD OF THE GAME
Tom ‘Tsquared' Taylor is an interesting comparison. Charismatic and media savvy, Taylor is one of the most successful players in Major League Gaming in terms of his performances, but when it comes to his mainstream profile, he is literally ahead of the game, having been featured in MTV and – as a result of his gaming lessons business – the Wall Street Journal.
When perennial league sponsor, Dr Pepper, wanted to put a pro player on 125 million bottles of Dr Pepper – they chose Tsquared, partly because he was successful player but mostly because, through his dalliances with mainstream media, he had inadvertently become the face of the league.
Point being: if you want to make a significant living from professional gaming, you must be prepared to brand yourself, and be aware of your value to sponsors.
In prize winnings alone, no-one in MLG can compete with Ogre 2, but even he understands the importance of sponsorships.
"It may appear as if top players make a comfortable living," begins Tom, "but unfortunately that is not exactly true. From prize money alone, I made enough money to maintain a comfortable living for the few years when my team was winning nearly every tournament we entered. Sponsorships are hugely important and will eventually help players make competitive gaming in the U.S. a steady career."
You can't blame him for wondering just how long he can maintain success as he gets older and younger, talented players continue to invade the league.
"I'm now almost 25 years old, I'm back in college with only a year or so left and I plan to begin another career when I graduate. My team is doing very well right now and if we continue to do well, I could see myself competing for up to another 5 years max, and then moving on to another career."
BEING THE BEST
That's the future, but for now, Ogre 2 is focused on maintaining his position at the apex of the Halo food chain. With a target blu-tacked to his domepiece, there are thousands of players after his spot, but considering his experience and smarts, combined with his obvious natural talent, they might have a fight on their hands.
"The skills required to remain at the top of the competitive gaming world is fairly obvious," claims Tom. "Quick reflexes and steady hand to eye coordination are largely beneficial. Although both of those things can make you a much better player, the mental part of the game is what really separates the top players from the 15 year old kids with a good shot – because there's an endless amount of those!"
Despite the fact that experience is on his side, Tom remains careful not to overthink things – according to him, confidence and the ability to work as part of a well oiled Halo machine is key.
"Being smart would seem to be a good thing, but I've witnessed firsthand many very intelligent people who just tend to over think things in game," says Tom. "Confidence has always been a huge thing for me. Be as humble as you can outside of the game, but inside the game, one needs to be so confident that he/she is better than the opponent that they could almost be labeled cocky.
"Perhaps most importantly, for competitive gamers who play a team game, is the teamwork. I attribute much of my success in my gaming career to working well with others on my team."
"I really feel like hard work is a bit more important these days with the way the game is evolving. Halo 3 really introduced a teamwork-oriented playstyle where every player on the team makes up for the weaknesses of the other. I feel like that's opened up a window for players who aren't quite as naturally talented as iGotYourPistola to make it big in MLG."
But how does one go from casually playing in playlists to Major League Gaming? We asked Ogre 2 if had any advice for aspiring professionals.
"For young players who are trying to work their way up," he begins, "I would say to take advantage of all nearby and online tournaments. MLG and GameBattles are a good place to look for online tournaments that also offer small cash prizes. The internet is an amazing thing and proving you are a great player online is a great start and doesn't cost any money."
"Don't expect to be picked up by a top team right away. Work hard, find a good team, get seen by a great team, and just work your way up as the opportunities come to you. If you really have what it takes you will get noticed right away by top players and other great players will want you on their team just as much as you want to be on one."
As someone who has more recently made into the top tier of professional gaming, Goofy agrees.
"You just have to have the desire to improve your game and be the best," claims Goofy, echoing Tom's earlier sentiments. "If you're an aspiring pro, find a team and practice as much as possible. Then, head to an MLG event and put your skills to the test. Even if you don't place that well your first event, don't let that bring you down. I mean, at my first event I didn't even make it out of the Amateur Bracket!
"Whatever you may be doing in life, whether it's school, college or work – don't let gaming interfere with it or vice versa," he continued. "Set time aside, stay organized and set a schedule. Consistency is the key to success. If you practice Halo everyday with a team, play with a desire to improve yourself, and maintain a positive attitude, success will come to you."
Major League Gaming's opening event of the season kicks off this weekend, you can check out the live coverage here.
This story originally appeared on Kotaku Australia.