Professional video gaming is set to debut on cable television later this year, potentially paving the way for the kings and queens of game controllers to become as familiar to American households as the faces of Johnny Chan or Annie Duke in televised poker.
Major League Gaming, the world's largest organized video gaming league, on Monday will announce a programming deal in which USA Network will air seven one-hour episodes in the fall, featuring the pro circuit and its players.
Though video gaming fans have been able to follow competitions on game Web sites for years already, MLG's television deal marks the first time regular TV viewers would be able track the ups and downs of a pro tournament, watching video gaming as a new kind of extreme sport.
"This is the sign that pro gaming has finally arrived to the mass market," said Matthew Bromberg, MLG's president and chief operating officer. "It's like poker was two years ago, or NASCAR 15 years ago."
The upcoming televised series will aim to engage viewers with not only with the game play itself — featuring top players of "Halo 2" on Xbox and "Super Smash Bros. Melee" on Nintendo — but also sports-like commentary and profiles of the players.
Among them: Bonnie Burton, also known as "Xena," a 15-year-old from Pennsylvania who is the only female in the pro league and one of the best "Halo 2" players in the world; and Tom Taylor, who's known as "Tsquared," an 18-year-old from Florida and budding entrepreneur whose Gaming-Lessons business has already helped hone the video-gaming skills of numerous celebrities and star athletes.
"I'm excited to compete on TV in front of an audience. This will take video gaming to the next level," Taylor said.
Taylor, who gained more fame after he was recently featured on MTV's documentary series, "True Life," takes his sport seriously — from keeping a healthy diet to daily practice sessions of three to four hours a day.
He's also ended habits that could harm his hands, such as letting his pet dog routinely nip at his hands and using a knife to pick the bread out of the toaster.
"It is an extreme sport," he said. "It's about quick reflexes and also outsmarting people."
Some top players earn winnings in the range of a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, and the tournaments by MLG usually draw thousands of spectators at its arena venues and thousands more online, said Michael Sepso, MLG's chief executive and co-founder.
But going before a mainstream television audience could raise video gaming's visibility, leading to more sponsorships and advertising.
And drawing viewers shouldn't be a stretch, since "video gaming has always had a spectator-element to it anyway," Sepso said.