Last weekend, 20,000 participants and spectators crammed into the Rhode Island convention center as Major League Gaming awarded four national championships over three days.

MLG co-founder and CEO Sundance DiGiovanni says the e-sport fan base, young and vocal with a disposable income, has become accustomed to seeing a good show.

“It’s all in the presentation,” DiGiovanni explained. “That’s what we’ve spent a lot of time really mastering is making this something that people can gather together to watch and enjoy as a spectator, not just as a participant.”

From one of four broadcast booths behind the main gaming floor, Corey Dunn and Golden Boy, snazzily dressed and sitting behind a shiny black desk, looked like any other pair of sportscasters on ESPN. Only this feed was being beamed, by satellite truck, to the internet and one million viewers in 175 countries, the same number that broadcast the NFL.

“You’ve got high definition cameras, you’ve got sportscasters. You’ve got the game feeds,” DiGiovanni said. “It’s a pretty big production.”

Out on the floor, every chair and much of the standing room was filled as Eon Envy took on Quantic Next Threat in the grand final of Call of Duty: Black Ops.

For much of the game, the spectators sat in intense concentration as the two teams of four frantically pushed buttons on their controllers and shouted out orders at the front of the room. The room erupted with excitement when a guy called Virus sealed the victory for his team, Quantic Next Threat.

A few minutes later, MLG CEO Sundance DiGiovanni placed a large presentation check for $50,000 into the eager hands of 17-year-old Doug Martin, a.k.a. Censor, who promised to put the money toward college.

Joe Deluca, known as Merk in Call of Duty circles, is a communication major at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He’s had a little success of his own.

“These tournaments, they have good money,” Deluca explained. “But a few months ago we won the million dollar tournament and that was $400,000 for first. So, I personally made $100,000 just off one tournament.”

An hour after he was handed a check almost as tall as he is, Doug Martin was still carrying it around.

“Feels nice, walking around with this thing,” Martin said, thumping on the stiff cardboard check. “Everyone’s stopping and saying congratulations to us. It’s just the best feeling I’ve ever had so far.”

Next Threat captain Blake Campbell’s been playing seriously since Junior High. Martin insists his passion began when he was just eight years old. But, neither of them ever thought they’d be hoisting around checks for $50,000…and more.

Campbell and Martin play for a team that’s sponsored, which helps with everything from transportation to hotel rooms at competitions. Professional League of Legends players supplement their incomes with ad money from live video streams of their practice sessions, some of which can attract as many as 6,000 viewers at a time.

All of this is nothing compared to the passion of fans of StarCraft 2, a game so dominated by Koreans that everyone else is simply called a “foreigner”.

The StarCraft 2 gallery included two shirtless guys with their favorite team logo painted on their chests and numbers of fans, mostly women, holding up homemade signs for their favorite players.

StarCraft 2 is an individual game, but players form teams that generally live together, share incomes, and train against each other. Daily programs on Twitch TV, an online video source for gamers, keep fans on top of the latest strategies.

Though game maker Blizzard recently made StarCraft 2 more spectator friendly, sometimes the MLG “casters” sounded like they’re speaking a foreign language.

Amanda Boomer traveled to the MLG finals from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She says she’s not a very good StarCraft player herself, but her familiarity with the game makes it easier to watch.
“The casting they’re doing here probably isn’t as accessible for people just starting out,” Boomer admitted. “I think it’s better if you’re watching it with someone who already knows and can explain things to you.”

At the far end of the hall, the Halo national championship was being contested. As a relatively straightforward first person shooter, Halo was a little easier to understand. But, Marie Markowski, who brought her 18-year-old son Steve, was still confused.

“I came for the whole weekend,” Markowski said with a tired smile. “It’s interesting what a mother will do for her children.”

Marie says she’s useless with a game controller in her hands, but she’s solidly supportive of her son’s goal of working in the video game industry after college.

“This is going to be one of the biggest industries in the next five years,” Markowski predicted. “It’s a sport for kids who wouldn’t normally do another type of sport. So, they love it.”

Major League Gaming now enters its off-season, during which new versions of games will be adopted, teams will trade players, and college students will have a little extra time to study.

Competition begins again in the spring.