NBA launches own eSports league as competitive gaming explodes
Gamers are practising for hours on end with hopes of being drafted into the NBA 2K League, which could catapult players into a lucrative career that comes with some of the same perks enjoyed by real-life basketball stars
At home, in the basketball hotbed of Cleveland, Artreyo Boyd is grinding every day.
His focus is sharp. The game is all that matters. Each day, from morning through late night, he fine tunes his play making, boosts his reputation and dominates the competition, eagerly awaiting the draft in 2018.
He has lived modestly in his 23 years and said the game kept him off the streets. He's a die-hard Cavaliers fan, but he'd love to live in any NBA city, walk the halls of its team's facilities and sign autographs for fans. The wait is excruciating.
As the NBA season gets under way, another group of players prepares for a different opportunity with the league. They hope to be among 85 "athletes" drafted into the new NBA 2K league to play a basketball video game professionally, paid by actual NBA teams and awarded some of the same perks enjoyed by stars such as LeBron James and DeMar DeRozan.
"I imagine we will have something like a professional athlete's life – meeting fans, playing in front of crowds, working hard all day on our games, getting endorsement opportunities," said Boyd, better known by his player name, "Dimez," in NBA 2K and widely considered one of the world's best. "I hear the NBA's goal is to turn us into famous people. We have to be marketable and professional."
Video games have been popular for decades, but competitive gaming is now a burgeoning spectator sport. The NBA will be the first North American professional sports league to operate its own eSports league, eager to stake out territory in this exploding industry.
The season will run from May to August. NBA players' likenesses won't be used in the 2K League. Instead, the five gamers on each NBA 2K team will each create unique avatars in the remarkably life-like game, and play in pro-am mode against other clubs' fivesomes. The 2K league will have one or two central locations – production studios – to which all teams will be flown to play the games.
There will be a regular-season schedule, followed by playoffs, culminating in a championship. Adam Silver, NBA commissioner, even joked that it would be cool to see his avatar award the trophy (the NBA says that may not be exactly how it happens though. So fans will have to wait and see.)
Signalling their long-term interest in eSports ventures, many of the 17 NBA teams that will have eLeague squads in the inaugural 2K season have recently hired experts from the gaming community as directors of eSports business.
"This is going to be another way to engage with our fans," said Brendan Donohue, the NBA's manager of the 2K league. "Two-thirds of our fans on social media are outside North America, and one-quarter of 2K games are sold outside the continent. We have an online version of the game being played on Tencent in China that has 34 million registered users. It's difficult for those fans to attend an NBA game, so this is another way to reach them. It definitely has a global appetite."
Many owners of teams in the NBA, NHL and NFL have taken notice of the eSports craze and ventured into the space. Enthusiasts of wildly popular games such as Dota 2 and League of Legends are not only playing the games en masse at home, but also are packing arenas to watch the world's best compete for million-dollar prize pools. Gamers also consume the action on live streams and study the experts' tutorial content online.
According to SuperData, a leading provider of global research on the industry, revenue from eSports is projected to surpass $1-billion (U.S.) worldwide by 2018. At first glance, especially for older consumers, it can be hard to understand – there are people who will actually pay to watch someone else play a video game?
Just ask the Toronto Raptors' ownership group, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which sold out the Air Canada Centre for the North American League of Legends championship series summer finals in August, 2016. Or ask the developers of the game Overwatch, who will launch a pro league for that multiplayer battle game in 2018, including teams bought by pro sports owners, such as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Or look to a consortium of NBA and NHL owners who partnered to buy a controlling interest in a popular franchise that plays in many games called Team Liquid, including Jeff Vinik (Tampa Bay Lightning), Peter Guber (Golden State Warriors), and Ted Leonsis (Washington Capitals and Wizards).
Boyd has had a taste of eSports glory. He and four teammates, playing under the team name Still Trill, won the $250,000 grand prize at a 2K tournament run by the NBA during the 2017 all-star weekend in New Orleans, with commentators and a large, vociferous studio audience. The championship game against another popular team, Throwdown, was streamed on Periscope as 739,000 users watched. Another 243,000 have since viewed the replay on YouTube.
Boyd, who was making ends meet with smaller 2K tournament prize winnings and odd jobs before that, moved out of his parents' home and into his own apartment thanks to his share of the $250,000. The same month as Boyd's big win came the NBA's announcement that it would launch a 2K league in 2018 – Boyd's chance to make a living playing his favourite video game.
"That announcement changed my life," said Boyd, renowned for his point-guard play in 2K. "In recent years, I saw people winning big prizes playing games and making money by creating game content online, so I planned to make something for myself in gaming. But I had no idea something this perfect would come along. I'm going to play as hard as I can to create a career for myself."
The 2018 edition of NBA 2K was released in September, prompting hopeful 2K league draftees to practise for hours on end. Game developers are generating analytical data on the gamers in the online environment to help identify the world's best. Tryouts for the 2K league start in February, followed by the draft in March.
Mitchell Franklin is a 23-year-old student at Radford University in Virginia who played for the runner-up team, Throwdown. He said his squad played 160 games of 2K18 in the first week it was released. He and his teammates are determined to win the $250,000 tournament this year. As likely draft picks, he said talent agents have already been contacting them.
"I've discussed it with my parents and this is a no-brainer – we think this should be my last semester on campus and I should go after the opportunity in the 2K league and finish my degree online," said Franklin, who is studying sports administration and marketing. "Agents have already been contacting us about business opportunities if we get drafted. Students I've never met on campus have approached me to say they watched me play online. Even one of my professors heard about it and talked to me, totally intrigued by what the NBA is doing."
Franklin plays under the name "Mootyy" and is often called "Big Shot Moot" within the 2K community. He is known as one of the video game's best spot-up shooters. He said that while he usually makes sure to get lots of exercise and plays pick-up basketball, he's been playing 2K for "insane hours" since the 2018 game was released, often until 5 a.m. He only takes short breaks to attend class and eat. He hopes that talk he's heard in 2K forums is true – that many NBA teams plan a structured schedule for drafted gamers, which will stress health and exercise.
He played basketball and soccer for much of his life, but said he felt most comfortable at home with a game controller in hand, socializing with people online who shared an interest in basketball video games.
"You have a lot of kids who aren't athletically gifted who can't seem to find a place within a group of friends, but they can pick up the controller and be someone else or find friends in Europe or Australia," said Franklin, whose avatar in the game often wears his boyhood No. 8 jersey. "You aren't being judged there, and you can just have fun and be good at something – maybe even have the chance to be the best at it."
The draft order and other specifics have yet to be determined. That hasn't stopped countless 2K gamers from writing to teams such as the Raptors, trying to get their names out there. MLSE is in the process of hiring an eSports manager, and will announce the name of Toronto's 2K team next month.
"There will be detractors out there sneering at eSports, saying 'they're not athletes, no one will show up for that,' and those detractors are dead wrong," said David Hopkinson, MLSE's chief commercial officer. "This generation does not consume content the same way; it has to be a participatory endeavour. This is about being where our fans are. I know we've introduced new fans to our teams in basements all over the world as they've played NBA 2K or NHL 2K games. Now we can take that passion for fans participating in our brands to new heights."
Teams in the NBA will no doubt face scrutiny about the sedentary qualities of video gaming, and how that squares with league initiatives to promote sports and exercise.
"You can have balance in your lifestyle between video games and sports," said Sumit Arora, MLSE's senior director of strategy. "We have research from the NBA that tells us a large number of our avid basketball fans are also avid gamers. We see the opportunity to tie our 2K team into camps, clinics and events, engaging with fans."
The Raptors – just like other teams in the NBA – aim to turn their 2K gamers into celebrities, promoting them on Raptors broadcasts, social media, inside the arena and at events. They envision some day hosting 2K events live at the Real Sports bar, Ricoh Coliseum or the ACC.
"Our corporate partners are lining up to be involved," Hopkinson said. "Virtually every brand we work with."
It's unlikely the 2K gamers will be represented by NBA player agents at this point, more likely signing with gaming-specific agents, if they seek representation at all. That may comprise a different demographic and intrigue businesses.
"It will be an opportunistic sale for NBA teams and 2K to pitch existing sponsors on engaging a new group of fans," said Jason Ranne, an NBA player agent and executive vice-president of team sports at Wasserman Media Group.
Some in the eSports industry are skeptical about how widely the NBA 2K league will be consumed.
"I don't share the optimism for an NBA 2K league; I'm not sure the NBA owners really get eSports," said Ryan Morrison, of law firm Morrison/Lee, which negotiates pro gamer salaries in titles such as League of Legends, Dota 2 and Overwatch. "In Dota 2, people are competing for prize pools of some $23-million. That's exciting. The NBA will put a lot of money and marketing into it, but I don't think there's a huge audience for watching others play a basketball video game. I don't think it will compete with the big eSports games."
Boyd used to play other games for fun, but now he concentrates solely on 2K, determined to be the world's best. On social networks, some project he will be the No. 1 draft pick.
"Everyone in the 2K community is very anxious, all the talk is about the eLeague, and everybody wants in," Boyd said. "This game has given me hope and direction and it opened up a lot of doors for me. I know there are a lot of great things ahead."