SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Past desks covered with extreme sports magazines and refrigerators stocked with energy drinks, a small isolation booth has been erected smack dab in the middle of Red Bull's airy offices in Santa Monica, Calif. It's not for hosting meetings or employee breaks. It's for playing video games - very competitive video games.
The beverage company's North American headquarters played host recently to the chummy Red Bull Training Grounds ahead of this weekend's Major League Gaming Spring Championship in Anaheim, Calif. Red Bull is betting this new take on training for competitive gaming - or e-sports, as it's known - will give its players, to borrow Red Bull's slogan, wings.
The company, which is probably better known for sponsoring action sports stars and race cars than gamers, has previously hosted other e-sporting events, but Training Grounds marked the first time it focused on schooling players.
Despite being stationed amid cubicles, the inaugural Training Grounds event had most trappings of a typical mammoth e-sports event: lights, cameras, competitors, commentators and prize money. However, there was no live audience to cheer on the eight international e-athletes, and the gamers were only competing in one title, the real-time strategy game "StarCraft II."
"The idea behind Training Grounds is to find that happy medium between competition and training," said Rob Simpson, Red Bull's e-sports program manager. "While we do have a prize pool on the line ... focus is really on analysis and growing as players. I think it's a positive thing that people want to consume this kind of information."
Simpson isn't just referring to the eight "StarCraft II" players who were gearing up for the MLG championship but also the 200,000 spectators who watched more than 20 hours of matches broadcast online by Red Bull. The inaugural event was as much of a promotional affair as it was preparation for players who will be battling in this weekend's MLG contest.
Since the e-sports genre first pressed start with arcade face-offs in the 1980s and LAN parties in the 1990s, there are more competitors than ever before, with a growing gap between seasoned pros and newbs. Those involved agree the more time gamers play in championship settings, the better they fare against the ruthless Zerg alien race in "StarCraft."
"I think the biggest issue for players is that no matter how much they practice at home, once they get up on a stage and have those lights and cameras in their faces, they get distracted," said Sean "Day(9)" Plott, a former competitor who now serves as an e-sports commentator. "They choke and start playing at a level far below what they usually do at home."
Besides providing a mock-up of a big-time competition, Red Bull applied the science it uses on other athletes to the gamers participating in Training Grounds.
"We're not just sponsoring them," said Lukas Cudrigh, Red Bull's head of digital media. "We're actually trying to make them better athletes by providing an environment where they can do things like increase their physical strength and learn about how better nutrition can impact their performance. No one is really treating these guys in that same way."
While e-sports has been around for more than 15 years, the genre is still considered niche in North America, though it's practically a national pastime in places like South Korea. That's been changing over the past few years, as technology has evolved, online spectating has skyrocketed and studies have shown professional gamers have sharper senses.
"It's not something you can necessarily practice for and measuring it tends to be gimmicky," said Michael Sepso, MLG's president and co-founder. "At the end of the day, I don't need to know Peyton Manning's visual acuity score to know he's better at seeing his receivers downfield. It's the same for pro-gamers. They see and respond to things quicker."
Sepso said he expects this weekend's MLG Spring Championship to top last year's contest, which drew more than 4.7 million online viewers and 20,000 spectators at the Anaheim Convention Center. During this year's competition, players will compete for more than $100,000 in "StarCraft II," "League of Legends" and "Call of Duty: Black Ops II" matches.