DAVE GEFFON, a master of the video game Counter-Strike, stepped off the bus in Xi'an, China, in the spring of 2006 during a promotional tour and was swarmed, he says, by souvenir-seeking fans trying to rip his clothes off. "The way Shaquille O'Neal or Dwyane Wade walks into the room, it was the same thing," Geffon, 24, says. Now DIRECTV is hoping it can turn Geffon and other top gamers into at least the equivalent of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ira Newble at home. Beginning in July the satellite broadcaster will present the Championship Gaming Series, a first-of-its-kind video game league with $5 million in total player payroll and TV shows featuring... endless shots of video game screens and young men pushing buttons.
Since that could be a problem, the CGS is trying to create a semblance of legitimacy by structuring itself like a traditional sports league. It will have a two-month regular season, playoffs, a draft and even a scouting combine. Six American teams—Geffon is the general manager of the as-yet-unnamed New York franchise—and 10 international teams will compete in popular titles that officials see as TV-friendly: Counter-Strike: Source (a five-on-five shooting game), Dead or Alive 4 (a two-on-two fighting game), Project Gotham Racing 3 (two-on-two racing) and FIFA 2007.
The people behind the league expect success for two reasons. One is that video gaming is similar to poker, an unathletic endeavor that nevertheless attracts young male viewers who relate because they have played the same game at home. Andy Reif, commissioner of the CGS and previously COO of the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour, is also cheered by the fact that gaming-as-spectator-sport works in Asia. Two channels in South Korea regularly combine to draw five million viewers in prime time.
Of course there are counter arguments for both those points: 1) Poker has cooled off considerably, and 2) David Hasselhoff is huge in Germany. Reif's best hope may be that men can be notoriously easy to enthrall. The CGS's draft takes place June 12 at the Playboy Mansion.