Nets Back in the Hunt for Competitive Gamers

May 15, 2006  •  Post A Comment

If there is such a thing as a cursed television format, competitive gaming is surely the most spectacularly jinxed.

Networks from G4 to MTV to Sci Fi have launched competitive gaming shows-which typically amount to watching gamers play against each other in video game tournaments-over the past several years. The results have failed to capture a wide audience.

Yet in the past two months no fewer than four cable networks-MTV, ESPN, USA and GSN-have announced new projects that seek to turn the intercutting of video game action and button-mashing gamers into high drama.

The reason for the lemminglike drive to once again try the format is the enormous potential payoff. A hit competitive gaming show could attract young male viewers, who have been elusive for television networks but are drawn in droves to gaming. It could also attract lucrative gaming industry advertisers, such as Sony and Microsoft.

“We’ve done a lot of really bad [competitive gaming] shows,” admitted Jeff Yapp, executive VP of MTV Networks Music Group. “What’s interesting is, on the whole, gaming tournaments keep exponentially increasing in popularity. This is a sport we’re going to figure out.”

In recent weeks ESPN announced the competitive gaming special “Madden Bowl.” MTV announced a partnership with Snoop Dogg’s Hip-Hop Gaming League for a series of specials. USA announced a partnership with Major League Gaming to televise its tournaments. GSN announced coverage of a casual-games tournament, the “Worldwide Web Games Championship.”

“The reason there’s so much interest is because the format is starting to work,” said Doug Scott, director of entertainment marketing for game publisher Electronic Arts, which partnered with ESPN for the “Madden” specials. “And everybody wants to be the first to do it right.”

The Next Poker?

The most oft-cited comparison to competitive gaming is poker shows. Like competitive gaming, poker is a seemingly dull and static affair that for years made for dull and static television. With the innovation of hole-card cameras, suddenly the game had a subtext that made it addictive entertainment.

“If five guys sitting around playing poker can be entertaining, [gaming] can be entertaining,” Mr. Scott said. “All it took was one technological innovation and suddenly it worked.”

But nobody knows exactly what that technological innovation for gaming on television is yet, leading even programmers who ordered the shows to be a bit leery of the format.

“We hesitated to do this; it’s an experiment,” said USA President Bonnie Hammer of the upcoming USA series. The Sci Fi show is scheduled a bit under the radar, on Saturday mornings, when viewership generally is at a low point in the week. “We’ve looked at [the format] on and off for years, mostly at Sci Fi, but games are active and watching people play is passive. We want to figure out a way to make it work if we can.”

Steve Lipscomb, the creator of “World Poker Tour,” said he’s turned down several tournaments that were looking to partner on producing a series.

“We looked long and hard at this, but when there are at least a handful of things rushing to market at the same time, that usually doesn’t give something time to grow and flourish,” he said. “But people never imagined poker would work, so if they can find a way to make great TV, they might surprise us.”