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MLG's Mike Sepso on Making eSports Work and Why Pro Gamers Aren't Fat (Q&A)

"If you actually line up the top 64 Call of Duty players in the world ... you're not going to find a fat kid in there."

Courtesy DICE Summit

For the past 12 years, Major League Gaming has argued that videogames played at a competitive, professional level, a.k.a. eSports, deserve the same attention and respect as traditional sports — even MLG’s official logo looks like it would fit in next to the MLB’s and NBA’s.

Recently, though, the company has taken a more active hand in trying to shape the future of pro gaming. It’s a frequent partner and ally of game companies like Activision Blizzard, Valve and Riot Games, but it also organizes tournaments, manages top-level teams and acts as a broadcaster and commentator on their games. To borrow a phrase from the New York Times, it aims to be both the NFL and ESPN of eSports.

MLG co-founder and president Mike Sepso recently sat down with Re/code to discuss these initiatives as well as how the games can change over time and why stereotypes about obese gamers don’t apply.

MLG’s next big tournament is the pro circuit championship in June, where teams will square off in Call of Duty: Ghosts, Dota 2 and Starcraft 2, as well as other games that have yet to be announced. Sepso said publishers like Activision, which released CoD: Ghosts last year, are increasingly adding downloadable content designed specifically for eSports play.

“The next-gen systems [PlayStation 4 and Xbox One], for us, mean speed, better accuracy and a heavier focus on DLC,” he said.

MLG is in daily contact with Activision’s publishing and development teams, he added.

“We can call and say, ‘Hey guys, you know what? You gotta lose this weapon,'” Sepso said with a laugh. “It happens all the time.”

That doesn’t mean Activision has to listen. But if enough pro players complain to Major League Gaming that a game is unbalanced, the company does its own testing and acts as an advocate if it can replicate a problem. Developers often don’t want to hear it because they believe in and have devoted long hours to their games, Sepso said.

This is one of the biggest differences between eSports and traditional sports: The games can and will change over time, because publishers have a business incentive to keep releasing new titles and new updates. Maps, characters, weapons, gameplay — all could potentially change overnight. Game companies assign resources to eSports to keep the visibility of their newest content up, and gamers and fans are expected to follow franchises rather than keep playing an unchanging game in perpetuity.

Not every company wants to work with MLG, though. For instance, Nintendo fans have turned its Super Smash Bros. fighting game franchise into a hardcore eSport despite the company’s more casual ambitions.

“It’s difficult from a commercial level to engage with [Nintendo],” Sepso said. “They’re not going to promote” a Super Smash Bros. tournament.

MLG’s official tournaments are often a mix of console and PC gaming, and in a speech at last week’s DICE Summit, Sepso shed some light on why competitive gaming might not work for most casual games, including those on mobile. ESports have a “skill gap,” he noted near the end of the talk, where a steep learning curve keeps casual gamers from getting too good, too fast.

Unsurprisingly, the players who do get good are mostly young; nearly all are between the ages of 16 and 23, Sepso said. However, the stereotype that because they game for hours and hours they must be overweight is not accurate.

“If you actually line up the top 64 Call of Duty players in the world, they’re all in really good shape!” he said. “You’re not going to find a fat kid in there.”

Over time, players have found that “a dedication to nutrition and physicality” is important even in a sport where most of their body barely moves. Exercise boosts focus, endurance and reaction time, Sepso said.

MLG seems to know that its detractors are still many. Its response, in essence, is: “Whatever!”

“It doesn’t matter if the old guard considers it a sport or not,” Sepso said in his DICE talk. Later in the speech, he spelled it out: “It’s a matter of when, not if.”

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