The NBA and Take-Two Interactive Software will launch the NBA 2K eLeague in 2018, a new professional competitive gaming league that will unite the best basketball gamers in the world. Although several NBA teams, including the Sixers and Heat, have purchased eSports teams, this marks the first official eSports league operated by a US professional sports league.
2K and the NBA will run the new league, which will consist of teams operated by actual NBA franchises. The founding teams will be composed of five professional eSports players who will play the game as user-created avatars. The NBA 2K eLeague will follow a professional sports league format: competing head-to-head throughout a regular season, participating in a bracketed playoff system, and concluding with a championship matchup.
Jason Argent, senior vice president of basketball operations at 2K, told [a]listdaily that this new league was born out of the company’s first two eSports events. They hosted the NBA Road to the Finals tournament last year with winners competing in Los Angeles and attending an NBA Finals game.
And this year, 2K crowned the winners of its NBA 2K17 All-Star Tournament during NBA All-Star in New Orleans. Competitive team Still Trill competed alongside hundreds of thousands of teams for the title, winning the $250,000 grand prize and tickets to the 2017 NBA All-Star Game. Nearly two million fans tuned into the livestreamed championship event via multiple digital channels, including one million on Twitter.
After the check presentation, the winning team of five competed against NBA stars Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, C.J. McCollum and Aaron Gordon in a friendly exhibition. Still Trill extended its winning streak, defeating the team of NBA players, 95-52.
“Last year in Los Angeles was our first event, and on most levels, it was a success, but there was a ton of stuff we learned from a structural, design and event standpoint for eSports and competitive gaming,” Argent said. “We walked away from that with big positives on how we recruited players and how many people were involved in the tournament. We deemed it a success and took those learnings and brought them to New Orleans. And our numbers will prove that out. My belief is with these events we laid groundwork with the NBA for the NBA 2K eLeague.
Argent said from a bigger-picture-brand-and-development standpoint, there’s a strong internal challenge to evolve the NBA 2K video game franchise, and not rest and ship the same game.
“ESports is the same in how to build out this league, and take it to the next level,” Argent said. “The NBA players and athletes we work with have embraced the game, as well as the competitive game aspect of it. The NBA players love playing at that level and these tournaments were well received by them.”
Multiple NBA teams, including the Sixers and Heat, as well as current (Jonas Jerebko) and former (Rick Fox, Shaq) NBA greats have already invested in traditional eSports teams competing in games like League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2. Now the rest of the NBA has been invited into the virtual arena.
“All 30 teams have been presented this opportunity and there’s a variety of interest in some capacity,” Argent said. “Some teams want to get in immediately and there are others that may need time. We’ve scaled and structured this league enough so we could support a great number of teams, and we guess about half will be involved.”
Argent believes the NBA 2K eLeague leverages the best of everything that 2K and the NBA do well.
“We know the development of the video game franchise and how to lay the groundwork and structure to launch an eSport, while the NBA knows how to run a league,” Argent said. “They have independent local teams and fan bases to reach and they know how to bring people into the arenas. We look at this as a marriage made in heaven.”
Sacramento Kings co-owner Andy Miller said Golden 1 Center was built for eSports. And the NBA has many state-of-the-art arenas, including Staples Center, home to two League of Legends championship games.
“NBA arenas are a great opportunity for us, the NBA, and the teams,” Argent said. “This thing could go in many ways, but the vision is to have our eSports teams play consistent with the real teams. As an example, perhaps the team has an eSports event that happens three hours prior to an NBA team event. This could drive an early, and potentially new and broader audience, into arenas, spending more time on merchandising and food and beverage—extending the time engaged with the team and the brand.”
Argent said 2K is trying to learn as much as it can from the traditional eSports world.
“We have no egos here,” Argent said. “We’re trying to learn as much as we can from that. But part of the success we’ve had with the NBA is carving our own path. We’re trying to do what’s inherent and endemic to what our brand does. This marriage between an international sports league and video game company has never been done before.”
Both the NBA and 2K cater to an international audience—although the target audience for a game like NBA 2K is likely more broad than titles from the traditional eSports landscape.
“There’s a language people see with eSports, which is an enormous business—but not what I’d call mainstream,” Argent said. “There’s a huge opportunity to connect with fans of the NBA—like my dad and my wife—to understand what eSports looks like in the context of something they follow. And that will follow with sponsors as well. Our numbers will prove the value to our partners. We’ll potentially get non-endemic sponsors now to see this NBA 2K eLeague as palatable to reach consumers.”
Argent said beyond the national and international brand and sponsorship opportunities, individual NBA teams could benefit from the new league.
“One of the biggest opportunities is for individual teams to work with great local partners to connect with these new eSports teams,” Argent said.
Just as eSports has emerged as the first truly digital-native sport, the NBA has been at the forefront of connecting with its digitally savvy audience across all emerging platforms.
“I look at eSports as consistent with all other sports in that TV has a role in sports,” Argent said. “We’ve seen the role of TV change over the years, with how much viewership happens online, and on social platforms like Twitter.”
Argent said Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick made a point that everyone played basketball, and then at some point, people started watching NBA players play the sport, too.
“People aren’t used to watching people play video games on TV, but there’s an appetite for that,” Argent said.