Seventeen NBA teams have committed to the first season of the NBA 2K ELeague, a partnership between Take-Two Interactive Software and the NBA. Among the inaugural teams are all of the teams active in esports, including the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics, and Sacramento Kings. Some of the elite teams in the NBA are going virtual with five-man video game teams, including the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Other teams participating are the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz and Washington Wizards.

In September 2016 the Sixers became the first professional sports team in North America to acquire and manage an esports franchise, Team Dignitas, which fields six teams in five of esports most popular games, including League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm.

“Under the Philadelphia 76ers’ leadership and guidance, Team Dignitas has solidified its place as one of the most accessible and compelling brands in the esports space today,” Team Dignitas CEO Jonathan Kemp said in a statement. “The NBA, the Philadelphia 76ers, Team Dignitas and NBA 2K are storied, global brands with massive international fan bases eager for player access, original content, live events, and more. The Team Dignitas roster includes players spanning over 15 countries and speaking more than 10 languages. The NBA and forward-thinking franchises like the Sixers are the most innovative entities in the sports industry today. When you combine that industry experience and desire to grow the game of basketball, with the esport fan’s insatiable appetite for content and unparalleled expectation for player access, the result will be a league of epic proportions and opportunities for partnership and growth.”

Chad Biggs, Philadelphia 76ers’ senior vice president of corporate partnership and activation, added that the team’s experience with Team Dignitas over the past few months gives the Sixers an incredible advantage as they launch this new league.

“Our ability to pull esports expertise and industry acumen from our Team Dignitas executives and best practices in organizational infrastructure, branding and marketing, corporate partnerships and fan engagement from our Sixers front office will make this new league the quintessential combination of esports and sports,” Biggs said. “In only a few months we’ve created strong relationships with game developers, come to a better understanding of the training and development needs of the esports athletes today, and generated corporate partnerships that give brands a direct portal into this burgeoning market. In addition to the new livestreaming opportunities our Facebook partnership will provide fans and partners, we look forward to announcing three new corporate partnerships with dynamic activation elements in the next four months.”

“Utilizing technology to grow the game of basketball is core to our organizational mission,” Kings owner and chairman Vivek Ranadivé said in a statement. “We’re excited to join the league from the beginning, work with the NBA to reach new audiences around the globe, and provide our voice to the conversation about the future of sports.”

Team play within the league will consist of five players utilizing original avatars. Additional details on player selection, team branding and league structure will be announced over the following months. Matt Holt, vice president of global partnerships at the NBA, told AListDaily that esports came onto the league’s radar a long time ago.

“We’ve been having competitive gaming tournaments for years, but not under the esports title,” Holt explained. “2K has run a couple of competitive gaming events at last year’s Finals and this year’s All-Star, and we’ve had some learnings through those tournaments.”

Holt said the NBA 2K ELeague was a natural convergence of events, given that many current owners and players (Jonas Jerebko, Andy Miller) and teams (Sixers and Heat) and past greats (Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Rick Fox) had already invested in esports. “One of main reasons we want to launch this league is to expose basketball to the esports world and the broader gaming community,” Holt said. “Esports is standing on its own with League of Legends, Dota 2 and CS:GO. We’ll see what kind of expertise we can bring to the space with the NBA brand and 2K.”

Holt isn’t afraid of esports taking the younger audience away from traditional NBA games. He even foresees the potential to host esports competitions at NBA arenas before an NBA game to encourage new fans to experience real NBA basketball action after taking in a virtual competition. “There’s a lot of crossover between traditional sports fans and esports fans,” Holt said. “We’re selling millions of NBA games a year, so there’s a large audience out there that’s young and tech savvy and interested in our products.”

The NBA 2K ELeague will debut in 2018, and details on the league structure will be announced later. The relationship between NBA and Take-Two dates back to 1999, with the NBA 2K franchise selling over 68 million units worldwide. The most recent release, NBA 2K17, is the highest-rated annual sports game of the current console generation and the highest-rated title in the history of the series. To date, NBA 2K17 has sold-in nearly 7 million units, and is poised to become 2K’s highest-selling sports title ever.

Ralf Reichert, CEO of ESL told AListDaily that traditional sports leagues and federations getting involved esports will make the whole sport more popular and more accepted.

“It’s a new kind of content that wasn’t there in the last couple of years,” said Reichert. “The teams and the leagues with their brand power, and the games with their big fellowships, should be able to create a cool ecosystem, which then maybe ties in with what we’re doing. But mostly, it will help general esports grow.”