The NBA and Take-Two Interactive Software will launch the inaugural NBA 2K eLeague in 2018. The new professional competitive gaming league will bring together the best basketball gamers in the world. Matt Holt, vice president of global partnerships at the NBA, told [a]listdaily that approximately half of the current NBA teams will participate in the first season of this video game league.

“We’d been having a lot of conversations with our gaming partners and our owners have been interested in the [eSports] space, so when 2K began exploring this, all of those conversations converged,” Holt said. “It’s a basketball video game, which is core to the NBA brand, and we felt it was perfect timing to team up with 2K and launch this league.”

This marks the first official eSports league operated by a US professional sports league. The new league will consist of teams operated by actual NBA franchises and the founding teams (each composed of five professional eSports players with custom-created avatars) will be announced in the coming months. Additionally, 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.

“You can expect our eSports league season to run in tandem with the NBA season and have some tie-ins with regular season games and other events like All-Star and the Finals,” Holt said. “We’ll have live events in our first season, some of those may be in NBA arenas and some may be in smaller studios or different venues better suited for this type of experience.”

While the overall eSports industry has seen significant activity in recent years, Holt said the sports game genre is still in its infancy when it comes to competitive gaming. “We felt this was a good place to dip our toe in the water,” Holt said. “We’re trying to become intelligent in this space by talking to all of those publishers involved in eSports and we’re bringing our knowledge of professional sports.”

Holt concedes that the eSports landscape currently has a lot of fracturing of governing bodies. “We bring pro league expertise and infrastructure to the table, along with our teams, which is another support element,” Holt said.

Of course, at the core of the NBA are its players. 2K recently held an exhibition video game match between Still Trill, the winners of the $250,000 NBA 2K17 All-Star Challenge, and NBA stars Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, CJ McCollum, and Aaron Gordon in New Orleans. Still Trill beat the NBA stars 95-52.

“We know our players are big fans of the NBA 2K game and many of them work closely with the development,” Holt said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how we can connect our players with this eSports league.”

The NBA and 2K are looking at the long game as they develop NBA 2K eLeague, which means fans won’t see outrageous prize pools like the one Valve offers for The International with $18 million up for grabs for Dota 2 teams. “As we build out the structure for this eSports league, we’re looking more at developing and sustaining a real league through salaried positions for the pro gamers and some prize pools,” Holt said.

Gaming houses, which are common with traditional eSports games like League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2, could be part of the NBA 2K eLeague. “We’re thinking about that concept and having teams located in local markets,” Holt said. “We’ll probably go that direction.”

The NBA and 2K are still figuring out details like what jerseys pro gamers will wear, and how traditional NBA logos will be featured. “We’re locking down team participation and then logically out of that we’ll take a deeper dive on branding,” Holt said.

Furthermore, the NBA is offering a sponsorship patch on real team jerseys beginning next season and the eSports world has followed the path of NASCAR with sponsors emblazoned across pro gamers’ jerseys and gear.

Holt said the NBA has received a ton of interest from both new and existing sponsors in the business community to have some form of jersey sponsorship for the pro gamers. In addition to reaching a potentially new (and younger) audience through eSports, eLeague will also open up sponsorship opportunities for each NBA team.

“Our teams have done a great job of working with local sponsors in their arenas and markets and this eSports league will mirror that as well,” Holt said.

Since eSports is a truly global digital sport, the NBA and 2K are open to expansion beyond North America. “We’re going to have teams in North America initially, but as we get into years 2 and 3 of this we’ll look to expand internationally,” Holt said. “It’s going to be a lot easier to expand into areas like Europe, China and Japan through this eSports league.”