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MLG's founders on the past, present and future of their real sport

Here's the first thing you need to understand about Major League Gaming's co-founders Sundance DiGiovanni and Michael Sepso: There's a direct connection between their love of traditional sports and the foresight that led them to found the eSports league in 2002.

Here's the second: To MLG's founders, there is no fundamental distinction between traditional sports, ground out in lots and fields and stadiums worldwide, and eSports, where players earn bragging rights on digital battlegrounds.

When they were young, they played sports. Before they started MLG, they competed against each other by playing video games. MLG, which is at its core an entity that provides an organizational structure for competitions that take place on millions of consoles and PCs in millions of homes every day, was a natural outgrowth of that competitive spirit.

"It was something that was in our social activity early on," DiGiovanni told Polygon in a recent interview. "It was something that we grew up with. [As] competitive guys who participated in sports, it was just natural with us to try and explore how to get better and better at this."

Both were drawn to the burgeoning competitive gaming community that, even unorganized, focused on honing a craft and cerebrated the best players of the era. They were working at Gotham Broadband when the idea to combine their love of sports, their entrepreneurial acumen and video games struck.

"We were both also sports fans," Sepso told Polygon. "Looking at the professional sports model and the opportunities to create a new sport and a new professional league around it was interesting."

And so, when they founded MLG, they treated it like any other professional sport they'd ever participated in, watched and enjoyed. The difference was that, in 2002, they were founding a sport at the dawn of the broadband revolution. That meant there they could do things online from their inception that other sports couldn't.

"At the time we were thinking about it, we had just been through a whole startup experience with another internet-based company," Sepso said, "so we brought a lot of that experience into it. I think it was just matching our love of professional sports — especially baseball and basketball — and kind of bringing that understanding along with a strong background in the tech startup world and matching it with a passion for gaming."

"The demand has been tremendous."

So DiGiovanni and Sepso spent the last decade building a sport online, connecting a community of players and spectators, delivering commentary, streaming broadcasts and organizing competitive leagues that operate on regular schedules. And Sepso says the demand is rising.

"It's actually really complicated to do what we do, and we've got a decade's worth of in the trenches experience", Sepso said. "There isn't another organization out there in sports or gaming or digital media that has the level of connectedness to the community, but also a more high level view of what a more mainstream viewer wants to see, as it relates to eSports."

DiGiovanni and Sepso both believe that part of the success lies at the intersection between content and community, which means MLG can expand as growing demand for eSports allows.

"We only started doing weekday, regular, live broadcasting this year," Sepso said. "But the demand has been tremendous. We very quickly developed a fairly big audience that's now — on our bigger nights, we're rivaling kind of smaller cable networks."

As the fan base for eSports grows, they have ideas for how to serve their audience in new ways. Part of that plan goes back years, before MLG had the resources to execute on it. Beginning this August, MLG will begin broadcasting regular, weekday programming as MLG's new VP of programming Chris Puckett told Polygon recently.

"Those are the cable boxes of the future that we're going to be broadcasting through."

The inspiration for scheduled programming isn't surprising from a couple of longtime sports fans: ESPN, the cable sports network. It also provides an opportunity to flex MLG's organizational muscles, which DiGiovanni believes is important for the future of the sport. The idea is to organize seasons and broadcast games and coverage regularly, in whatever way suits each game best, so that viewers know what to expect.

"It's sort of what you'd see maybe Fox doing for the NFL, in terms of broadcasting games on Sunday," he said.

If you ask the co-founders of Major League Gaming, the future of eSports is large and bright. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both support streaming natively and are a big part of where they see MLG and players tuning in.

"Both Sony and Microsoft looking at the next-gen consoles as kind of living room 360-degree entertainment platform connected to a big television, that's really interesting too," said Sepso.

"Those are the cable boxes of the future that we're going to be broadcasting through."

But for a while, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 will have much larger install bases than their next-gen counterparts. MLG will continue to support both generations and "serve the community," as DiGiovanni said, just as some publishers will with their cross-generational games.

"It's kind of the perfect storm for us, to be honest with you," DiGiovanni said. "With PC gaming doing as well as it's been doing, with both new boxes coming out at the same time, it's going to be an exciting two, two-and-a-half years for us as this stuff starts to shake out."

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