A Million Bucks Up for Grabs as EA Sports' Tournaments Move to the PS3

Competitive Madden gaming, for the better part of a decade, typically involved a weekend of long drives, cheap hotel stays, and lots of standing, sitting and sometimes sleeping on ugly convention center carpet. It fairly assured that only the diehards and elites would show up for preliminary rounds.

Well, not anymore. Virgin Gaming is bringing that online, now, and later in the next year will be running such tournaments from within the video games themselves on the PlayStation 3. EA Sports today announced that Virgin Gaming is not only in charge of its long-running "Madden Challenge" Tournament on the PS3, but also a challenge series involving the label's FIFA and NHL titles, too. The series will pay out a combined $1 million in prize money this spring.

It's a big get for the two-year-old Virgin Gaming, which has the benefit of big brand recognition but still treads in a video gaming space where other ventures promised to be the next big thing and have since vanished. Virgin Gaming is hanging in with large partnerships such as this challenge series; it's also handled a Battlefield 3 tournament for EA, and is involved with NBA 2K12, too.

"It's a big step forward," Rob Segal, the Virgin Gaming chief executive, told Kotaku. "There's a great heritage there, a great brand, and (The Madden Challenge) was very successful and popular in its heydey, This is a chance to build on that."

The EA Sports Challenge Series (more information here) may prove to be bigger than the Battlefield tournament Virgin Gaming will run, which hands out $1.6 million in prize money. Shooters are a staple of competitive gaming, but sports translate well to the individual gamer and the aspiring tournament participant alike, Segal said.

"Everybody understands a game-winning field goal, whether that's in Madden or in the NFL." he said. "They can understand 'If this guy makes this, he wins the game,' They play really well in terms of a mass audience being able to relate to the gameplay. We saw sports titles as being a great place to start."

Indeed, 11 of the 13 games Virgin Gaming currently supports are sports titles, (the other two are Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and Battlefield 3.) A supported game means its publisher shares online telemetry with Virgin Gaming, which it uses to referee disputes and verify winners. Participants still have to register through the Virgin Gaming web site, and conduct transactions there.

Right now, the service connects gamers to arrange matches through its website. Beginning with Madden NFL 13, Segal said, gamers will be able to matchmake from a dedicated menu in the game itself. The service is also developing a smartphone app to assist its clientele.

The way Virgin Gaming handles tournaments makes it apparent why EA Sports would be interested. The EA Sports challenge will be a six-leveled challenge stage that avoids having to seed and pair off a field entirely. It means a much larger pool of entrants, and a chance for them to play and advance on their own schedule, instead of waiting for the next opponent.

How that works, Segal explained, is that an entrant pays a $10 entry fee. It takes six consecutive victories to earn a bid to a final round in the Challenge Series. In each stage, the entrants will be pooled with those who have advanced to that level. Pairings are done by quickmatch. Keep winning, and a contestant gets to keep going. Lose, and he can buy back into the tournament, but will have to start over with zero wins.

'We're not asking you to be the best in the world; you just have to be better than most people. And a lot of people are.'

Not only does it allow for a larger tournament pool without the organizational headache, it's a chance to make more money, in the form of additional rebuys from the same players, as opposed to a single entry fee. Contestants don't have to worry about the associated costs and inconveniences of going to a physical location. EA gets its cut without taking on a logistical headache or outsourcing it to someone else.

There is a fast way to make the final round. If a contestant wanted to guarantee a bid in The Madden Challenge's final round, he'd simply have to pay $400 up front and get himself to New York for three days in April. Virgin Gaming guarantees that everyone who wins out in the online qualifiers will get a berth in the finals. The seats will not be capped, and therefore can't be taken up only by people who choose to pay rather than play.

Whoever reaches New York will be competing for a share of a $400,000 prize pool. FIFA's upcoming tournament will be as large; NHL gamers will compete for a $200,000 prize pool.

But if the new way of running a Madden tournament opens up the field to more casually interested gamers, or those without the same commitment as the old-school convention-center contestants, won't that water down the field?

"You're hoping a lot of them are noobs," Segal laughed, "that's half of the answer. But it's also the prize pool that you're competing for. You really need that scalability (in the tournament field) to reach that prize goal, and a bigger pool of money means the further down it filters.

"We're not asking you to be the best in the world; you just have to be better than most people," Segal said. "And a lot of people are."