Last weekend, a different type of professional athlete descended on ESPN's X Games in Austin. For the first time ever, professional gamers—in the form of eight of the world's best Call of Duty teams—put on a show for the attendees of ESPN's annual extreme sports competition. And according to Major League Gaming, the esports company that ran the Call of Duty competition, it won't be the last time we see this kind of partnership.
“The X Games is constantly expanding its roster," MLG's president, Michael Sepso, told the Daily Dot. "When X Games started there weren’t even any motorsports. This is a much bigger event now."
And while many esports fans probably assumed it was MLG, being the much smaller brand, who reached out to ESPN, Sepso said it was the other way around. X Game's approached MLG about a year ago to float the idea.
“We’ve been working with ESPN for about eight years, so we have a long relationship with them,” Sepso added.
An MLG team arrived in Austin days before the event to construct a temporary studio at the heart of the X Games venue, which was meant to recreate the look and feel of one of the company's major event. Each match was accompanied by live studio commentary and broadcast live over the company's streaming platform, MLG.tv.
The specifics of the production were largely left to the discretion of MLG, including the choice of Call of Duty.
“ESPN just wanted an MLG event and we decided what game it would be,” Sepso said.
MLG managed to sell out the limited number of VIP tickets that would guarantee spectators a seat at the event, and those seats remained largely filled over the weekend of play. Long lines bordered the side of MLG’s tent as a number of fans without VIP passes were willing to wait in the 90-degree Texas heat for the chance to step inside and see some professional gamers ply their trade.
Those attending were treated to an exciting final match that saw Optic Gaming emerge victorious with gold medals in tow.
While no other future esports events under the ESPN or X Games banners have yet been announced, Sepso did make it clear that MLG was interested in keeping the relationship going.
“It’s not a one time thing,” Sepso said.
“We are in communication with ESPN about what we should be doing together. We’ve been working with them for a long time and we’re constantly looking for ways to expand that relationship.”
As for what MLG hoped to accomplish at the X Games, and more generally through their relationship with ESPN, Sepso pointed to the company’s overarching goal of expanding the reach of esports and thus the potential reach of MLG. The organization has been pushing their MLG.tv online streaming service and in April announced the construction of a dedicated esports arena to be built in Zhuhai, China.
“Our primary goal for this integration was to just mainstream esports. Across the world, really, this is our core mission.”
Photo by Jared Wynne