10 years ago: MLG

Nov 27 2020 5 min read

10 years ago: MLG ⚡⚡⚡ Esports news, analytics, reviews on WePlay! The latest news on WePlay!

For most people, the acronym MLG evokes memes from the mid-2010s, with fragmovies, highlights, and just any videos being padded with freakish memes. Inserts with hitmarkers, the all-seeing pyramid, noscopes, dubstep, pixel sunglasses, caster screams, explosions, and other stuff featuring on the cover of this article bombarded us from the screen in such rapid succession that it wasn’t even always clear whatever the hell we were looking at. Incongruous humor and cuts as fast as a burst of fire from a P90 almost wiped out the Internet's memory of where the concept of MLG came from and what it stands for at all. And so today, we will be revisiting the origins of MLG.


Any reference website will tell you that Major League Gaming dates back to 2002. Gaming enthusiasts Sundance DiGiovanni and Mike Sepso used to spend time playing and watching their fave industry grow: the Internet was becoming cheaper and faster, gaming competitions were held more and more often, and on an ever-increasing scale, consoles got a network connection, which expanded opportunities to play with your friends beyond hotseat mode. All this prompted the young entrepreneurs to create a brand that would become a flagship for players across North America and get the gaming culture message out.


This is how Major League Gaming came to be — as a well-loved but troubled child. The first events, according to DiGiovanni, were quite challenging:

Sundance DiGiovanni

Our very first [tournament], [in 2002], was in a small internet cafe in the East Village of Manhattan. It was about the size of a conference room, maybe a bit larger. It was run horribly, it was a mess! There were maybe 120 people in total. For the next one we rented a ballroom at a hotel in Philadelphia. [...] Our main stage got unplugged at one point because someone tripped over a power cord. I’m shocked we got through that first year without getting more wrong.

MLG founders used all the tech available at that time for LAN tournaments, which allowed them to hold qualifiers online, but it was just not enough. It's not like DiGiovanni and Sepso cut corners or anything. It's just the tech that was underdeveloped at the time.

Sundance DiGiovanni

After that we went to Dallas, Atlanta, Boston, all over the country. [...] these things were happening in a vacuum, because there was no way for us to broadcast anything. We were recording our games and then trying to put these tiny, postage-stamp size videos (which was all most people’s connections could handle, of course) onto the internet. And of course none of it was live. People could follow what was happening on our forums, but it was a real grassroots exercise.

The turning point came in 2006 when the League enlisted the support of stable sponsors, revenue went into the eight figures, and American TV powerhouses DirecTV and News Corporation took an interest in the tournaments. This allowed MLG to break into live TV broadcasting and show the whole New World what esports championships are like. A large hall full of spectators, the strongest Halo 2 and Super Smash Bros. Melee players, professional commentators, and the coolest production that once took underground competitions to the level of major pop culture events that bring together hundreds of thousands of viewers.

But a year later, Major League Gaming went a step further. More precisely, it went back to the Internet, as, besides American television, the championship was broadcast on Justin.tv — a streaming service which would later become the well-known Twitch. For the first launch of the stream, DiGiovanni and Sepso paid the platform only $20, and what they got in return was 2000 subscribers (for one tournament!) and the ability to put themselves out there without being constrained by any limitations whatsoever. That's when they realized that “something important was about to start” for them.


And something important did start indeed. The Golden Era has begun. From that moment on, the League's popularity soared, and it became a magnet for players from all over the world. If before, foreign gamers made appearances at tournaments only by way of exception, as tournament streaming under the MLG brand developed, celebrities from other countries became a fixture. The concentration of skill per square meter of the hall was so high that the acronym MLG became synonymous with skill in computer games at large. The red-white-and-blue logo still gets routinely posted all over the comments section on Twitch if a streamer makes a particularly good highlight. Or a “particularly” “good” “highlight”.

The list of titles also expanded — players for Call of Duty, StarCraft, Dota 2, Gears of War, World of Warcraft, Mortal Kombat, League of Legends, and other lesser-known games, besides the already mentioned Halo and Smash, also joined the League. Soon, foreign TV channels started buying game broadcasting rights, and broadcast views on Justin.tv grew so fast that the number of unique MLG Pro Circuit 2012 — Anaheim viewers was 4.7 million people from 175 countries.

But what did 2010 bring MLG? After all, it is the focus of this column. By 2010, the League had gained weight and started to live up to its name. During the season, Major League Gaming held seven major tournaments, of which five were multi-sport, and the two others were dedicated to one of the best parts of Call of Duty — Modern Warfare 2 — in their entirety. Organizers traveled up and down America and launched championships in Orlando, Raleigh, Columbus, Dallas, and Washington. Titles also exhibited great variation, so everyone could find a game to their taste. Besides the already mentioned Call of Duty, pro gamers also competed in Halo 3, Tekken 6, World of Warcraft, StarCraft II, Halo: Reach, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl. A very inclusive list for a League that was once famous for its focus on shooters.

By taking the best of their TV broadcasting experience and spicing it up with their own ideas, Sundance DiGiovanni and Mike Sepso — now Managing Directors, no longer just two enterprising youths — were able to turn a marginal hobby into a fashionable mainstream phenomenon they dreamed of. That year alone, more than $1.05 million was given away in prize money. Some pretty serious money, if you remember that at the time, the average prize pool did not exceed $30,000, and only industry giants like Blizzard, World Cyber Games, and — wait for it — MLG could afford six-figure amounts. The same MLG who once had a power outage because the lighting technician forgot to remove the wire from under the viewers’ feet was now setting trends and partnering with corporations.

It's 2010, and the gaming culture is on the rise. No one had heard of MLG montage parody back then. Activision Blizzard was six years away from purchasing the MLG brand. It would fade into oblivion in eight. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, another series of tournaments was booming, which Murat “Arbalet” Zhumashevich, an entrepreneur, organizer, genius, philanthropist, and who knows what else, named after himself. And it's him that we'll talk about next.

Translation by Yaroslava Yakovenko


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