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Live streaming the Super Bowl of eSports

While previous attempts to broadcast professional gamers have stalled, the eSports market might finally have reached its tipping point, thanks to the ability to live stream tournaments online. And its Super Bowl moment might happen this weekend, as Major League Gaming live streams the final tournament of its pro season.

This weekend, some of the best gamers in the world — as well as thousands of their fans — will converge on Providence, R.I., for the conclusion of Major League Gaming’s Pro Circuit Season. MLG will be giving away more than $600,000 in prizes during the three-day tournament to players that excel in games like StarCraft II, Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops and League of Legends. The competition wraps up a nationwide tour of MLG’s eSports league, which had previously held live competitions in Dallas; Columbus, Ohio; Anaheim, Calif.; Raleigh, N.C. and Orlando, Fla.

While there will be thousands attending the tournament in person, it will also be live streamed in 720p HD video. The weekend-long competition is expected to draw millions of viewers with peak periods likely exceeding more than 200,000 concurrent viewers tuning in. MLG CEO Sundance DiGiovanni told us in a phone interview, “Our spectator numbers are great. Streams are going up with every event, and we’re constantly breaking records in terms of the number of people showing up online.”

Together, the last four events in the tour resulted in more than 11.1 million hours of video consumed, with each registering record numbers of online streams for MLG. The last event, held in Orlando, topped 180,000 concurrent viewers at its peak, with 3.2 million hours of video consumed altogether.

Just to put that into perspective: When No. 1 and No. 2 ranked NCAA football teams LSU and Alabama met earlier this season, (s CBS) reported just 214,560 unique viewers for its live stream of the game. So getting almost as many viewers to tune in simultaneously to watch eSports as you can get to show up over the entire course of the biggest live-streamed college football game of the season is a huge accomplishment.

Part of the growth of eSports in recent years comes from the accessibility of live streams: Growth in broadband means that it’s easier than ever for viewers to tune in, when they might not have been able to before. Previous attempts to take eSports mainstream largely stalled due to the inability to get matches on TV. But leagues like MLG no longer need to go through traditional distributors to find huge audiences. They can now live stream the matches themselves, which not only brings eSports to more places than it could be seen before, it does so with video quality that wasn’t previously available.

Growth is also due in part to the massive success of games like StarCraft II, which has quickly established itself as one of the most popular eSports titles. Dustin Browder, game director for StarCraft II, attributes that popularity to building the game with eSports in mind from the very beginning.

“Almost every decision we made for StarCraft II was around what it would be like for eSports,” Browder said. That includes limiting the number of game pieces that can be used, while making it easy to highlight difference in player skill during eSports broadcasts. There’s also an element of not trying to do too much: Browder gave an example of muting graphic effects so as not to overwhelm gameplay as it’s being watched.

All of which is adding up to eSports becoming a huge market, as more players compete and more viewers tune in to watch them. We expect that trend to continue, and eSports leagues like MLG, to benefit hugely by bringing the gaming community together.

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