Basketball, ESports & Digital Sport, North America

‘There is an appetite for this’: What to expect from the NBA 2K League

Speaking to the media on Friday, Brendan Donohue, the managing director of the forthcoming NBA 2K League, added more meat to the NBA's rapidly developing esports bones.

by Michael Long
‘There is an appetite for this’: What to expect from the NBA 2K League

With the NBA 2K League, the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) all-new esports competition, continuing to take shape ahead of the start of its inaugural season in May, managing director Brendan Donohue provided an update on preparations so far during a media conference call on Friday.

What is the NBA 2K League?

Launched this February in collaboration with Take-Two Interactive Software, the developer of the popular NBA 2K video game series, the NBA 2K League is the first esports league operated by a US professional sports league.

For the inaugural season, which kicks off in May, 17 of the NBA’s 30 franchises will be represented: the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors, Dallas Mavericks, Philadelphia 76ers, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards, Portland Trail Blazers and the Golden State Warriors.

Each team will have a roster of five players over the age of 18, who will be paid ‘competitive’ salaries to compete in NBA2K18, the latest edition of the game. Players will enter a draft pool in March, provided they advance from a qualifying process that will require them winning 50 games in the Pro-Am mode of NBA2K18 throughout January, fill out an online application, and impress team talent scouts during digital tryouts in February.

Each 2K League player will be represented by their own unique avatar - not that of an NBA player - in five-on-five play, with teams competing against one another in a mix of regular-season games, tournaments and playoffs. It has not yet been revealed where the competitions will take place, but Donohue, who was appointed in April to run the league, confirmed previously reported plans to stage games in "one or two" physical studios, with all 17 teams and their players flown in to the neutral location each week.

“We are now looking at studios all over and the majority of them have room for some sort of studio audience - anywhere from 100 [people] to 500,” he said, adding that the long-term goal is to have teams play in their home arenas. “It’s really not a huge factor in our decision of which one to choose, but it is nice to have.”

While many details are yet to be finalised, the picture of how the league will look did become a lot clearer this week. On Monday, the league unveiled its logo and identity, with each of the 17 teams subsequently revealing their respective names and logos, which have been developed by Rare Design, a branding agency with existing links to NBA teams.

How will the league be monetised?

Participating teams have the ability to sell both real and virtual commercial inventory, including jersey patches, on-court signage, and naming rights to their virtual home arena. The NBA must approve all deals, however.

Some teams will sport the logos of their NBA jersey patch sponsors, while others will have partners exclusive to the 2K League. The Cavaliers, whose esports representative is known as Cavs Legion Gaming, became the first team to sign a virtual jersey sponsor when they partnered with Hot Pockets earlier this week, while the Bucks are also said to be in the market for an exclusive 2K League partner.

Other team sponsorship opportunities on offer include the rights to equipment - the Mavericks, for instance, have signed HyperX as their official headset partner - and integration in community events or locally produced content. The league will sell its own set of assets centrally such as tournament branding or broadcast integration, and has retained certain sponsorship categories including insurance, apparel and energy drinks.

“We benefit from the fact that we’re used to selling sponsorship assets in basketball games already, so a lot of the inventory is pretty well defined from what you’d see watching any NBA game,” said Donohue, who added that feedback from potential partners has been positive, particularly since this week’s reveal of the league and team identities.

“We already had a lot of interest and our conversations have been progressing great,” he said. “This week their interest has maybe spiked a little bit more because they’re starting to see the league come to life. It’s only enhanced our conversations.”

Players will also have opportunities to develop their personal profiles, although their individual commercial rights have yet to be defined. All of the selected players will live together in team housing, and there will be provisions for each of them to create and stream their own content to their respective online followings.

“Streaming is part of the community culture so we would fully expect players to stream throughout the season,” said Donohue. “But in terms of how they’re streaming, really that’s between them and the teams they’re playing for. We’ll have player guidelines but some of that will actually be left up to the teams.”

Where will action be shown?

The answer to that question remains a mystery given no media rights agreements have yet been signed, but Donohue said talks with potential distribution partners are progressing well. He also added that the NBA’s recent streaming agreement with Twitch, the online gaming content company that will now carry NBA G League games, is “not at all” an indication that a 2K League deal will be signed with the Amazon-owned platform.

“We’re having great conversations on the media rights front, but the G League is a totally separate operation,” he said. “We’re excited about that partnership but it’s totally separate - it really has no bearing on what we’re doing.”

While the identities of the interested parties are unknown, the NBA has no shortage of options when it comes to distributing 2K League content. The new venture remains unrestricted by existing NBA media contracts, meaning linear broadcasters, social media platforms, new streaming players, tech companies and the league’s own digital and cable channels could all factor into a final distribution strategy that will likely span both traditional TV and online.

Will the league be a success?

The NBA 2K series has sold more than 70 million units worldwide, and NBA 2K18 is poised to become its highest-selling sports title ever, according to the league. In China, there are 34 million registered users of the free version of the game, while recent Newzoo research suggests there are nearly 400 million eSports enthusiasts and occasional viewers worldwide.

Still, it remains to be seen whether the NBA 2K League will resonate within the gaming community. Sports titles tend to be less popular than battle, fantasy or first-person shooter games such as League of Legends, Dota 2 and Overwatch. Meanwhile recent months have seen competition for eyeballs increase thanks to the launch of several new competitions, including Activision Blizzard’s franchise-based Overwatch League and the North American League of Legends Championship Series (NA LCS).

“In other titles, there are several leagues that are launching and the games are wildly successful - they’re fantastic games,” noted Donohue, who added that the NBA 2K League will target a slightly different audience - namely traditional basketball fans as well as those already interested in esports.

As well as the 2K League, many NBA team owners are invested in the success of other competitions, having bought operating rights to new franchises or taken ownership of existing teams - in the NA LCS, for example, at least seven teams are owned by NBA owners. Some owners have also recently appointed esports directors to oversee their new gaming ventures.

Those investments illustrate the extent to which the owners are taking esports seriously, said Donohue. “It just suggests our owners’ broader view on esports and how bullish they are about it,” he argued. “In terms of the 2K game and league specifically, what I would say while the idea of this league is new, the notion of us doing competitive gaming through the 2K game is not new.”

With one eye on expanding the 2K League in year two, Donohue went on to note the success of this year’s Road to the Finals gaming competition, which started out in the new year with around half a million competitors and 100,000 teams and ended with a final tournament during February’s NBA All-Star Week in New Orleans.

“We streamed that and we had two million views,” he said. “This isn't blind optimism. We have some pretty good indications that there is an appetite for this.”