SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Kristian Segerstrale, chief operating officer of Super Evil Megacorp, the company behind the mobile game "Vainglory," believes freeing competitive gaming from old-school inputs — namely, all those keyboards and controllers — is key to expanding e-sports, the genre of gaming that attracts millions of spectators online and in person, but has yet to achieve mainstream cultural awareness.
"If you want to play soccer, all you need is a ball," said Segerstrale during a break at the company's first-ever North American tournament. "If you want to play 'Vainglory,' all you need is a touch-screen device. We're at the very early stages. We only introduced a spectator mode in the game six months ago, but we believe 'Vainglory' can be the most accessible e-sport."
Unlike most e-sports titles, which are played using souped-up computers or game consoles, the multiplayer online battle arena game plays out exclusively on smartphones and tablets. Instead of looking at a monitor and clicking a mouse or controller, "Vainglory" players tap touch screens to control characters during matches, which generally last about 20 minutes.
As with other MOBAs, such as "League of Legends" and "Dota 2," it's simple to play, but difficult to master. The game's fiery bouts between pairs of three-person squads offer a competitive experience that cannot be found in other mobile titles, such as "Angry Birds" or "Kim Kardashian: Hollywood." It also means everything e-athletes require is in their hands.
"The biggest difference is that our competitors aren't hidden behind monitors," said Segerstrale. "You can actually see them. It makes for more of a human connection. They're playing on the same commercially available touch-screen devices we have in our pockets. If you go behind the scenes of most e-sports tournaments, everyone is playing on $8,000 computers."
After launching last year, "Vainglory" is attracting millions of players and spectators. An invitational held in Seoul, South Korea, earlier this year was watched by more than 1 million viewers, and Segerstrale said 1 million watched "Vainglory" bouts in November on Twitch. When the game launched in China, it shot to the top of the most-downloaded apps for Apple devices.
Segerstrale noted that because the only gear needed to play "Vainglory" is a smartphone or tablet, the player pool is often more diverse than other e-sports, which are predominantly dominated by young Asian men. He said the captain of the second highest-ranked team is a female from China, and that several successful squads are comprised of unknown amateurs.
"We love the qualifying tournament format," said Segerstrale. "We had more than 650 teams enter this tournament in North America and Europe. You can come from nowhere and win. This group that just crushed the highest-ranked team was formed right before the tournament. We had never heard of them."
The contest was held Friday to Sunday at the eSports Arena, a new venue dedicated to competitive gaming in downtown Santa Ana, California. The 15,000-square-foot space inside a brick-lined building constructed in 1922 was recently transformed into a three-level hub for hosting and streaming competitive games — no matter the platform.
Paul Ward, co-founder of eSports Arena, said he decided to create the high-tech space after being frustrated by the limitations of organizing e-sports competitions at convention centers and rental venues. In the past two months, the eSports Arena has hosted ongoing weekly events and contests for such games as "Hearthstone" and "Counter-Strike."
"We hope other game makers follow suit so we can host similar events," Ward said. Whether it's with 'Vainglory,' 'League of Legends' or another game, people out there are really starved for this type of in-person experience."
While e-sports venues are prevalent in Asia, few public facilities are dedicated to competitive gaming in North America. In recent years, as e-sports viewers have swelled online, "League of Legends" developer Riot Games has rented out venues for events, and Major League Gaming opened its own arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Derrik J. Lang on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/derrikjlang .