Esports for NBA set to launch in January 2018
Esports Betting Report

The NBA 2K League: What We Know So Far, And Can It Succeed As An Esport?

NBA 2K eLeague teams
How far is the NBA willing to go with esports?

Many companies are looking to invest on the ground floor of the esports industry, and the NBA is no different. In February of this year, the league stepped into the ring by announcing an esports competition of its own.

The NBA is working with partners and game developers of NBA 2K — Take-Two Interactive — to launch the NBA 2K League. The league will be a part of a newly structured and competitive season built around the NBA 2K game. Here’s some of what we know so far about the league:

  • The NBA 2K League will feature teams representing actual NBA organizations.
  • Each team comprises five human players; these digital athletes will be treated similarly to the sport’s actual competitors. Intriguing benefits such as contracts, salaries and even endorsement deals will be up for grabs for the game’s top players.
  • The league will not operate and compete in exact concurrency with actual NBA games, but there will be overlap. That should pique the interest of competitors and fans alike.

Plenty of questions remain, though, from logistics to whether the league can actually gain traction.

NBA 2K League: A first of its kind

The NBA will be the first major US sports league to own and operate a professional gaming league.

Take-Two and NBA have high-hopes for the league, anticipating that all 30 teams will eventually have their own esport squad. So far, there are 17 teams participating in the debut season:

  • Boston Celtics
  • Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Dallas Mavericks
  • Detroit Pistons
  • Golden State Warriors
  • Indiana Pacers
  • Memphis Grizzlies
  • Miami Heat
  • Milwaukee Bucks
  • New York Knicks
  • Orlando Magic
  • Philadelphia 76ers
  • Portland Trail Blazers
  • Sacramento Kings
  • Toronto Raptors
  • Utah Jazz

With the league still in its developmental stages, the NBA and Take-Two still must address several details, such as:

  • How to draft players for teams
  • The setup for broadcasting/streaming matches
  • New salary caps
  • Practice schedules

All of these issues are all still up in the air.

Player emphasis in the NBA esports endeavor

Players will have their own custom avatars built to use in-game. Although not much else has been confirmed, rumors are spreading across the fanbase that the 2K League may be hosting a combine to gauge each player’s skill and ability. This could be potentially followed by a draft to ensure an even playing field across the league.

The idea is to have the league function as closely to the NBA as possible, with players practicing and treating the season as a full-time job.

Although details about salaries and drafting are still being worked out, diversity within the league appears to be a priority. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has eagerness in creating and encouraging a new type of digital athlete.

“Physical prowess, at least the way it’s necessary on an NBA court, will no longer be necessary.”

Silver believes that the virtual league will invite a wealth of diversity. Following this year’s All-Star Weekend in New Orleans — where NBA players participated in a 2K event — Silver stated:

“These athletes can be any shape or size, and any age, and from anywhere.”

Esports + traditional sports = ?

The NBA and Take-Two are taking a massive leap in attempting to mesh traditional sports with the competitive gaming world. In the long run, Jason Argent, a senior vice-president at Take-Two, hopes the popularity of esports and the NBA will feed off of each other:

“For us, it expands our video game audience, and I’m assuming that with the NBA it expands their audience as well, so that’s one of the biggest, exciting parts of it for us.”

Since the NBA 2K is a simulation game, the league aims to emulate how the actual NBA operates, hopefully facilitating and mirroring the same engagement from fans. However, when analyzing the current competitive landscape for NBA 2K, there are several factors in question.

NBA 2K lacking in viewership

With viewership for games such as League of Legends and Dota 2 in the millions, it’s hard not to see the esports market as an enticing business opportunity. However, the Twitch viewership on NBA 2K places the game in the shadows to other established sport-games. For now, communities such as FIFA and Madden sit higher in the rankings.

Averaging in the thousands for viewership, it’s difficult to see how the league would be able to ramp up to warrant the resources devoted to it. There is skepticism of whether the NBA and Take Two are writing a check their mouths can’t cash.

Transitioning casual to esport

NBA 2K certainly thrives on a casual level. Although lacking in formal tournaments and majors, local community-hosted tournaments draw many casual and semi-pro players alike.

The current 2K YouTube content appears to be the most prominent in the scene; tapping into those viewers and shifting them towards the new competitive era could be the path to sustainability.

Although Twitch is often a good metric for gauging a game’s competitive following, 2K just doesn’t attract numbers even remotely close to those we see from other games. Granted 2K is the 2nd best-selling sport-game franchise, gathering a local group to play the game is known to be relatively easy; with the proper direction and attention, the league hopes to blossom with that opportunity in itself.

As the launch of the the inaugural season in spring 2018 quickly approaches, it will be interesting to see how the league will fare.

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Cody Luongo
- ESPN eSports analyst, Master's of Science and exploring the intricacies of competitive gaming. A communication specialist driven by understanding esports as a business and helping drive it to the next level of viewership & engagement. Favorite hobbies include sniping in Halo 2 and playing paintball on Sundays.