Video Game Changers
The New York City streets were busy on a cold night in April, and Madison Square Garden was closed for a private event. Draft prospects, friends, and family eagerly awaited as the National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Stern walked up to the central podium. Standing tall, he collected himself and announced, “With the first pick of the 2018 draft, the Dallas Mavericks select… DatBoyDimez.”
In this draft, NBA franchises selected dozens of the best sports video game players to compete in head to head exhibitions and tournaments of NBA 2K as part of a competitive gaming league. Since April 2018, the NBA has been a trailblazer in professional sports as it became the first professional sports association to build an eSports league. The novelty of this type of league, coupled with its polarizing nature, has catapulted the 2K League’s popularity to new levels.
Can average video game enthusiasts join this eSports arena? They can try, but these people would be up against players who practice 2K for over a dozen hours every day. Everyone 18 years or older who has played NBA 2K18 was allowed to partake in the most recent NBA 2K League Qualifier. Prospective recruits had to win 50 games in the game’s Pro-Am mode and fill out an application by January 31, after which they could proceed to the next round of tryouts in February. Out of the 72,000 who entered the qualifier, 102 were drafted in April to one of 17 different NBA franchises that chose to enter this market. Each team drafted six players, with five playing at the same time during games.
Once the draft picks are selected, they receive treatment comparable to that of NBA athletes, especially in terms of amenities. They each now earn a salary between $32,000 and $35,000 and housing expenses for six months, as well as access to NBA facilities, training staff and more. Some franchises even provide their gamers with dedicated eSports training facilities and content studios located inside actual pro sports venues to demonstrate their commitment to this new sport. With over $1,000,000 in prize money awarded over the course of the season that can be won during in-season tournaments and the postseason championship, the eSports players can make a solid career and lifestyle out of what was once seen as just a hobby.
Some eSports critics voice disapproval of the large sums of money that can be paid to a group of non-athletic people with seemingly no talent. In response, players would point to the deft hand-eye coordination required, the countless hours of practice, and the in-depth understanding of the NBA rules as well as the game controls that they have to learn. Not only that, but their salary is justified in the sense that the payroll of these gamers is roughly equivalent to the revenue that they are generating for the NBA, as they are essentially the fourth league of the association (joining the WNBA, NBA, and G-League).
Part of the criticism focuses on the confusion about how the NBA makes any profit from an eSports league. Given the fact that this is a fairly new concept and there is consequently not much infrastructure, little is earned from ticket sales or concession stands during live events. Instead, all of the games and tournaments can be seen through an online streaming service called Twitch, where users can pay for a package of chosen streaming channels. The 2K League garners money not only from the thousands of viewers that act as its audience, but also the exclusive partnership deal that it made with Twitch back in April.
There has been a lack of success with streaming sports gaming on Twitch in the past, and it seems that most of its audience would rather watch online battle games such as League of Legends and Fortnite. However, the NBA is banking on this new class of professional gamers and the league’s high-stakes atmosphere to invigorate new levels of viewership. Unlike other popular streamed games, such as League of Legends, the 2K League is accessible. It is fairly easily understood both domestically and internationally, as the majority of viewers already have knowledge about how to play and watch basketball.
The NBA 2K League is confident in its ability to tap into this eSports market through a consumer education campaign to expand its publicity reach in a short amount of time. In its first season, the NBA 2K League had 400,000 total views, and a peak of 6,000 concurrent viewers during tournaments or postseason play. NBA franchise owners understand the patience that it will take before the league can improve, but they remain optimistic. With the second season in the league underway, the league is trying to connect the NBA’s audience to the 2K League through a heightened social media presence as well as live viewings. The Millennial generation is the NBA’s target audience, and since the trend of watching sports simulation games is statistically more accepted by young people, youth viewership will only grow long-term
While the short-term success of the 2K League seems difficult to determine, its effects on its sister association, the NBA, appear positive. The viewers and 2K franchise players seem to have a correlation between the rise in NBA jersey and merchandise sales. Not only that, but the Association is convinced that avid fans of the 2K League will become just as fervent for the NBA in general. These people are potentially becoming future season ticket and suite holders, and advertisers through their exposure to the game.
The NBA is quite literally changing the game by tapping into the eSports market and providing jobs to those who may not otherwise have similar opportunities. While some of the draftees were employed or enrolled in college, some have only graduated from high school. The jury is still out as to whether or not the NBA 2K League will have sustained success, but its popularity is on the rise. In fact, Major League Soccer is now trying to start their own eLeague because of the auspicious prospects of the 2K League. With eSports potentially being an Olympic sport by 2024, now is the time for associations to distinguish themselves and become game changers.