Virgin Gaming opens subscription-based paid eSports leagues

Competitive gaming outfit Virgin Gaming launched a subscription-based eSports service allowing players to enter into customizable leagues and compete for money, a new level atop its existing free-to-enter, fee-based service, this week.

The eSports field of the gaming industry is growing rapidly, and the world's most skilled players in games like League of Legends are now able to make a living as professional gamers. And there's more money to go around than ever before in eSports. But are players willing to pay a monthly fee, in addition to buying games, for a chance to make some money off their gaming prowess?

That's what competitive gaming outfit Virgin Gaming is hoping with its new subscription program, which it calls Virgin Gaming Premium.

Until now, Virgin Gaming has offered users the opportunity to place cash bets on themselves as they play matches in a limited slate of games — primarily sports titles from Electronic Arts — and the organization has taken a 12 percent cut of the winnings as its "management fee." Players create an account on the Virgin Gaming website and then play games through Virgin Gaming lobbies built into games that the service is compatible with, and Virgin Gaming tracks wins, losses and other statistics from those matches. The company has also teamed up with partners such as EA and Sony to run large-scale pay-to-enter tournaments like the annual $1 million EA Sports Challenge Series.

Virgin-gaming-premium-logo_677

With Virgin Gaming Premium, the company is betting on not just the most active of its 2.7 million registered users — it's hoping that players of all skill and interest levels will want to pay a subscription for a service that facilitates friendly and serious competition, according to CEO Rob Segal.

The company has done away with its management fees in favor of a subscription service that costs $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year, and offers one major new feature at launch: user-created leagues. Virgin Gaming subscribers will be able to put together leagues with as many as 32 premium members, and customize everything from the initial buy-in to the schedule of games to the final payouts; they can also set the buy-in at zero and play for fun. League management takes place on the Virgin Gaming site.

Along with that marquee feature, Premium memberships include access to daily tournaments. They're leaderboard-based affairs with a total prize pool of $100,000 per month across EA Sports' FIFA 14, Madden NFL 25 and NHL 14, and 2K Sports' NBA 2K14. Virgin Gaming pulls statistics from games played in those titles and uses them to rank players on leaderboards. These are based on skill, but not just wins — the service tracks stats like goals scored and shooting percentage.

Premium subscribers will also be able to check out Virgin's "Gamer Training Institute" to get tips and tricks from well-known pro gamers. In addition, the service will eventually provide $30-50 per month of partner offers from companies like Nos, Dr Pepper, Pizza Hut and SteelSeries — "brands that want to connect with the gamers," Segal called them in a recent interview with Polygon. Current Virgin Gaming members who don't want to subscribe will still be able to use the service in its existing form, with management fees intact.

Virgin Gaming is unusual in the competitive gaming field because of its library of games. Whereas most people think of complex Windows PC titles such as League of Legends, StarCraft and Dota 2 when they hear the term "eSports," Segal and his team have built their company on annualized console sports games. Segal told Polygon that was mostly because EA was the first publisher that believed in Virgin Gaming and decided to collaborate with the organization. But he added that sports games have a crucial advantage over typical eSports games when it comes to viewers being able to follow the action: They're comprehensible to a much wider audience.

sports video games are comprehensible to a wider audience

"As you look to eSports as something for viewership, or something that will be cross-media — whether it be television, live events, second-screen — I mean, sports games are easy to understand. They make a lot of sense," said Segal. "Even if you're not a gamer, you understand what a touchdown looks like; you understand what a goal looks like. They're a lot easier to follow in the large tournaments."

Right now, in order for Virgin Gaming to feature a particular game, the organization has to work directly with that game's publisher and developer to bake Virgin Gaming support right into the code. The process is different every time. Segal hopes that will change if Virgin Gaming Premium takes off — that not only will the company be able to simplify the steps, but also that more publishers will be willing to include Virgin Gaming support in their titles.

"It's going to get easier. We'll have a standardized [setup] — like an SDK [software development kit] — by, I would imagine, this time next year. We'll be able to give a publisher the ability to turn on the Virgin Gaming offering inside their game," said Segal. He added, "It's going to be a lot easier for us to onboard other titles as a result of this," and said the company is continually working to expand its library of supported titles beyond a focus on sports.

"It's going to be a lot easier for us to onboard other titles as a result of this"

Virgin Gaming also plans to integrate the massive mobile market, which Segal referred to as the company's "white whale." The organization is working on an SDK for mobile titles that will focus solely on asynchronous competition through leaderboards. Mobile games are key, said Segal, because "you can monetize [them in] lots of different ways." And while Segal couldn't comment specifically on next-generation consoles except to say that Virgin Gaming has had discussions with both Sony and Microsoft, he did note that it should be easier for his company to pull statistics and other data from games on both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

The way Segal sees it, the new subscription model is a better deal for the vast majority of Virgin Gaming users.

"If you look at our average customer, they spend about 13 hours a week playing, and they're playing for about $100 a month. And so that would cost [them] about $12," said Segal, explaining the previous structure. "So now we're saying to the people: Play as much as you want; play with the people that you've told us you want to play with, by being able to create your own user-generated leagues, [with] no management fee."

The people who play sports games like Madden for 13 hours a week are still relatively hardcore, yet Virgin Gaming's hope is that more casual users will still be interested in signing up for a service that makes it easier for them to compete with their friends.

Segal believes the new model is a better deal for the vast majority of Virgin Gaming users

Virgin Gaming hopes to eventually do more with livestreaming and major events, and perhaps build them up to be spectacles like the final rounds of Riot Games' annual League of Legends Championship Series. The premium membership is an initial step on that path, and if it's successful, it will help Virgin Gaming play a larger role in eSports' gradual expansion out of a niche field into a massive industry.

"I think you'll see an end-to-end solution, where there's live events, there's telecasts, there's streaming and then there's the online side of it — the playing with your friends, and getting better, dipping a toe in that," Segal told Polygon. "I think that all comes together to form the backdrop of what eSports will be in the coming years. And it's not just going to be first-person shooters, or it's not just going to be PC titles."

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