Video games take on TV

LOS ANGELES - Four race cars barrel down a virtual track, jostling for position. Announcers shout commentary over growling engines until a winner speeds past a checkered flag.


The frenetic race televised on DirecTV wasn't a NASCAR event. It was staged as part of a new video game league that aims to turn gaming into a full-fledged sport.

The Championship Gaming Series debuted last week in the U.S. and has franchises worldwide that pay top players base salaries of $30,000 plus bonuses.

Organizers hope to attract an audience of the 18- to 24-year-olds who pushed computer and video game software sales 6 percent to $7.4 billion in 2006, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

The challenge for the league is making the on-screen action compelling enough to persuade gamers to stop playing and start watching.

"Are those guys willing to put down their controllers and pick up their remote control to watch their television?" asked Steve Lipscomb, founder and CEO of World Poker Tour Enterprises.

Mr. Lipscomb said he turned down chances to start a video game league, fearing the challenges might be too great to overcome.

DirecTV owns the league along with partners British Sky Broadcasting and Asian satellite broadcaster Star..

The two-hour matches, which began July 9, are staged twice a week on a movie sound stage in Manhattan Beach.

A studio audience of about 200 people cheers on cue while players face off in front of video screens. Team managers crouch nearby to offer encouragement.

Most games played in the league, such as Dead or Alive 4 or the soccer game FIFA 07, are one-on-one matches. Others, such as Counter-Strike Source have five-person teams squaring off in multiple rounds.

The key feature of the broadcasts are the multiple in-game cameras that follow the action, making viewers feel like they are in the game.

"It's got the elements of strategy, skill and the camaraderie of team sports that people love," said Dave "Moto" Geffon, general manager of New York 3D, one of six U.S. teams in the league.

The new league has five other U.S. franchises - Chicago Chimera, Carolina Core, San Francisco Optix, Los Angeles Complexity and Dallas Venom.

Teams have also been created in Asia, Europe and South America. Regional winners will compete in a world championship later this year.

Competitive video gaming isn't new. The Cyberathlete Professional League was formed in 1997 and holds tournaments around the world that aren't televised.

The World Series of Video Games airs matches on CBS.

League Commissioner Andy Reif is banking on his experience turning beach volleyball into a popular televised sport as former chief operating officer of the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour.

"The trick is to make something entertaining both to the hardcore gamer and also to a mainstream audience that is either a casual gamer or not a gamer at all," he said.