LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Gamers may enjoy bragging to their friends about their virtual skills and high scores but now there's a way for players to literally put their money where their mouth is.
Richard Branson has stepped back into the video game space, where he was an early pioneer with Virgin Interactive, with his sights set on the emerging competitive tournament gaming space.
Virgin Gaming will be giving away over $1 million in cash over the next 12 months through video game tournaments in which players can compete from the comfort of their own homes on consoles like Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
"People have been playing competitively for a very long time, ever since a guy picked up a rock and said he could throw it further than the guy next to him," said Branson, who attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) last week.
"In the videogame space, the competitive gaming landscape has only been open to pros and the elite players. At Virgin Gaming, our mission is similar to what Sony is doing with PlayStation Move and Microsoft is doing with Kinect -- we're broadening the scope for everyone."
With the global gaming business raking in $60 billion last year, Billy Pidgeon, analyst for M2 Research, believes brands like Virgin Gaming will be able to capitalize on avid gaming audiences around the world without any legal issues.
Over the coming months, Virgin Gaming will align itself with major game publishers and mainstream sponsors to launch tournaments for thousands of players to compete.
William Levy, president of Virgin Gaming, said there are about 20 companies that currently offer gamers a chance to win real prizes for virtual play.
One of those, Galaxy4Gamers, welcomes the Virgin Brand and the awareness it has already generated for the niche gaming space.
"Millions of gamers have competed in video game tournaments over the years, but now the mainstream audience will be introduced to this competitive arena," said Michael Casazza, president of Galaxy4Gamers, which caters to 18- to 40 year-old mem with disposable incomes.
"Our members are usually playing a couple times per month for cash and prizes. We offer one-versus-one tournaments to 64-player Clan tournaments and members can challenge our top video game professionals for cash prizes through our Beat A Pro platform."
Levy and Zack Zeldin launched the beta of WorldGaming.com in April 2009 and have since grown into the largest competitive tournament gaming site with 40,000 active users.
Those numbers attracted Branson, who is now putting competitive skill-based gaming on the map.
"Beyond the cash prizes, we're going to offer unique packages that only Virgin can deliver like a trip to the bottom of sea in one of Branson's subs or exotic vacations aboard Virgin Airlines," said Levy.
But Virgin Gaming, which takes a 12 percent service fee for the amount wagered, does have its detractors.
"When you have individuals wagering their own money with Virgin taking a cut off the top, that's gambling, even if you call it skill-based gaming transactions and service fees," said Michael Pachter, video game analyst, Wedbush Morgan Securities.
Hal Halpin, president of the Entertainment Consumers Association, said competitive prize-based game companies like Virgin Gaming and BringIt! are no different than taking part in a March Madness office pool.
"You can hear the usual suspects already ramping up their usual rhetoric about violence in games, to now include gambling - their spin would likely be that it's that much more of an adults-only activity and in need of regulation as a result," said Halpin. "But the same argument could be made for fantasy football."
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith