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Not just a game: NBA 2K League quickly becoming a serious business for all

Players, team owners and fans of 2K itself have big expectations for league

David Aldridge

David Aldridge TNT Analyst

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Apr 9, 2018 12:06 PM ET

Adam Silver recently referred to the NBA 2K League as the NBA's "fourth league."

Dimez’s Draft Day suit was better than Jalen Rose’s, at least.

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A day I'll Never forget! #1Pick #MavsGG

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Dimez, aka DatBoyDimez, aka Artreyo Boyd, was ready for his moment in the sun last week, coming to New York City and Madison Square Garden for a handshake with Adam Silver and all the trimmings a franchise-level player gets when he’s the first overall pick.

* Complete NBA 2K League draft results

Dimez was taken first overall by Mavs Gaming, the Mark Cuban-owned entry in the NBA’s 2K League, a group of 17 franchises affiliated with actual NBA teams, but whose stars can’t break opponents down off the dribble or fight through screens to stay in front of their man. Well, they can, but they don’t do it on a basketball court; they do it on their couches and in their man caves.

But the 2K League is real -- to the NBA, to the owners, to the players and to those who watch those players religiously on YouTube, Twitch and other venues. Tens of millions of people around the world are gamers, and if you have a child or a nephew who sits in front of a console for hours at a time, playing with people around the corner or around the globe, you know what the future is -- it’s leagues like NBA 2K, which hopes to get a share of the eSports market with its signature video game providing the gateway.

From the NBA's standpoint, this is our fourth league,” Silver said last week at the pre-Draft news conference. “Of course we have the NBA, the WNBA and the [NBA] G League, and now this is the fourth league in our family, and that's exactly as we're treating it: one more professional league. And I think what's so exciting today in particular is that we'll be welcoming a new generation of athletes, of NBA players, into this fourth league, and I think that -- always that sense of renewal, that sense of the birthing of the whole process is what makes us particularly excited … it's a similar process that we go through with the NBA or the WNBA for that matter.”

 
Adam Silver addresses the media before the first NBA 2K League draft.

Each of the 17 franchises will have six gamers, one of whom will man each of the traditional basketball positions on the team -- point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center -- with the sixth player serving as (naturally) the team’s sixth man. The teams will play in custom built gaming houses – state-of-the-art studios, complete with personal chefs and training tables. The Kings’ 2K team will play in a studio that was built inside Golden 1 Center.

They won’t be “playing” with high-tech versions of actual NBA players, as they do when they’re playing the actual NBA 2K video game; they’ll control avatars of themselves.

They were the survivors of a year-long process of whittling down hundreds of thousands of gamers who wanted to be considered for the 2K Draft to a 72,000-person “combine” that the league ran in February. Each of those 72,000 people had to have won at least 50 2K games in January just to qualify for the combine.

That group was cut down to 250 finalists who had to pass background checks and be vetted by the league before being made eligible for the 2K Draft.

“What I would say is the reason we think we have a chance with all demographics is our game, more than any other game in eSports, is globally recognizable,” said Brendan Donahue, the NBA’s Managing Director of the NBA 2K League, last Friday. “Whether you’re in Texas or in Africa, you know the NBA. It’s not intimidating; it’s accessible. And that’s where we think we have a big advantage.”

The NBA 2K League regular season starts in May, with 12 weeks of head-to-head matchups on Fridays and Saturdays, followed by three weeks of tournaments. Teams will play 14 regular season games and three tournaments during the year (including the Tip-Off Tournament that will have a $100,000 prize pool); the tournaments will serve as tiebreakers for the playoffs.

 
Take a look back at the inaugural NBA 2K League draft.

The playoffs will start Aug. 17 and feature the top seven teams, along with the winner of the final tournament. The quarterfinals will be single-elimination, followed by best-of-three series in the semifinals and finals. The league champion will get $300,000 -- half of the playoff pool.

The league will serve many different masters and agendas. Yes, the kids who are gamers today could well wind up being even bigger NBA consumers -- season ticket and suite holders, advertisers, and the like -- in the future. But that’s just part of the audience the league and its owners are hoping to attract:

• There are an estimated 1.6 million people, who play NBA 2K every day, at an average of 90 minutes per day;

• There are the 1.4 billion people worldwide who are NBA fans, with whom the league engages daily through its various platforms. The NBA 2K League is indeed hoped to provide a new way to engage with them;

• But there are another 200 million people who are eSports enthusiasts and play regularly. They may be fans of other games and other titles, like the mega-hits “League of Legends”, “Dota 2”, the “Call of Duty” series and the like. But the NBA thinks it league can engage them as well. (Another 200 million people play occasionally.) These are the folks who sell out NBA arenas like Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center with competitive gaming tournaments, drawing crowds of fiercely loyal and dedicated fans who follow the sports’ stars religiously on social media.

“We do have evidence of crossover,” Donohue said. “With NBA2K, often times, players who own consoles, an Xbox or PlayStation, if they play NBA2K, often times they cross over and play a game like Call of Duty. We think we can cross over as well.”

So do the owners of existing NBA teams who have jumped in with both feet into gaming.

“There is a ton of overlap,” Cuban said last week via e-mail. “I can't tell you how many fans know and love the Mavs because they play 2K. They know every player on the roster and want to come to the games to see them play in real life. It's a great tool for building a fan base among younger demos.”

Initially, Cuban balked at buying a team, saying last year that it was a “confused market” and that too many players burned out too young by playing so much. But, he changed his mind.

“The NBA is taking the lead. That's the difference,” he said in the e-mail.

Other owners have also taken notice. Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber and Los Angeles Lakers president Magic Johnson all invested in Team Liquid, an eSports franchise that competes in games like League of Legends. Team Liquid won the International Dota 2 title last summer, taking the $11 million first place prize. It continued winning this past weekend.

Leonsis sees the NBA as a platform, like Facebook -- “the good Facebook,” he said Monday morning. And he expects 2K teams will become part of that platform, both as a revenue-generator and a content-provider, along with an owners’ NBA, WNBA and G League teams.

“In the short term, it will help us in marketing and help us be more relevant to a younger audience,” Leonsis said. “It will also help us globally. The Twitches and YouTubes are unwired, and available to people around the world.”

We see great asset appreciation quickly, in a two to three year period. To put it in perspective, when Peter Guber and I bought Team Liquid, it was valued higher than when I bought the Washington Capitals in 1999.”

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, who is an investor in Team Liquid

Leonsis crossed the virtual Rubicon and became an eSports acolyte when he saw his son Zach, now the Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and General Manager at Monumental Sports Network, growing up with a new paradigm -- learning eSports through watching other gamers on YouTube, and continuing to play into adulthood.

“For me, it obviously watching my son, who was a good athlete, and a good student,” Leonsis said. “And he loved playing video games. He kept playing video games after he was captain of his golf team, and he still plays video games -- and he doesn’t play golf anymore. He’s gotten married, and he still plays video games.”

Leonsis points out that while gambling on sporting events is still not legal in most of the United States, it’s a fait accompli around the world. The anticipation is that eSports will make inroads domestically with bettors both in Las Vegas and other places where gambling is legal, and into other more casual venues, just as fantasy sports has exploded and driven fan interest.

ESPN already has its own subsite dedicated to eSports. Turner Sports (which runs NBA.com) has invested heavily in eSports through ventures like ELeague, broadcast on TBS, with its concurrent social, digital and mobile components.

Jamie 'Dirk' Ruiz and Swin Cash discuss the 2018 NBA 2K League Draft on April 4, 2018.

“eSports will be a boon for traditional media,” Leonsis said. “The two drivers of revenue and fan affinity will be digital sports and digital gaming and gambling. Outside of the U.S., digital gambling is accepted. You go do digital gambling like you would go to a Starbucks … if you look at things like Draft Kings, if you put a virtual team together, you watch all of the games. You’re really interested. When casual fans bet on games, like the NCAA Tournament or the Super Bowl, the viewership stays really high.”

And the advent of virtual reality will only enhance and strengthen the bonds between gamers, fans, bettors and consumers of eSports.

It’s important that our owners are so savvy that they’re attacking the eSports landscape so broadly,” Donohue said. “When League of Legends awarded 10 franchises, and seven of them were awarded to NBA owners, it speaks to how savvy they are and how bullish they are about eSports in general.”

Cuban says he hasn’t yet figured out how to weigh the short term versus the long term regarding Mavs Gaming. “It’s a learning experience,” he said. “We will get better as we go forward.”

Said Leonsis: “We see great asset appreciation quickly, in a two to three year period. To put it in perspective, when Peter Guber and I bought Team Liquid, it was valued higher than when I bought the Washington Capitals in 1999. At that time, the Caps were 30 years old, and the NHL was 70 years old. These were established brands.”

Most sports leagues, Leonsis noted, start with local teams that they hope will be able to then be successful nationally, in leagues. And then, after many years, if those leagues remain solvent and expand, they can have global reach.

By contrast, “eSports start global, and work their way to national, and then local,” he said. “The best players are global right from the get-go. The best players are young. There’s no one-and-dones. There’s no ‘experience makes you better.’ We don’t know (how long eSports gaming careers will last), because we don’t have enough data yet, but we know the best players are in their 20s … and, there’s diversity right out of the gate. The first pick for our team was an African-American. It’s not ‘we’ll develop into it.’ It starts young and global.”

We had a college player get injured, and this is his way to stay in the game … I think people embrace a kid who gets drafted and goes up there and says ‘my mom was going to kick me out of the house if I didn’t get a job.’ "

Brendan Donahue, NBA’s Managing Director of NBA 2K League

One thing that Silver volunteered as a problem at the outset of the league is that all 102 people drafted for the initial season of the NBA 2K League are men. The “Gamergate” controversy of just a couple of years ago -- a systematic pattern of online abuse, threats and harassment against female gamers, programmers and other members of the community -- has brought the issue of misogyny in the gaming community front and center.

In the case of the 2k Draft, Silver said, the selection process was “blind;” the league was processing the players’ avatars and didn’t know the gender of the potential draftees. Nonetheless, he was disappointed there were no women gamers in the inaugural season.

“What I'm concerned about, and this is a much larger issue in the gaming community that Strauss (Zelnick, the chair and CEO of TakeTwo Interactive, the creator of the NBA 2K video game) and Brendan and I have talked a lot about, is that something is going on in the gaming community that either is not attracting women or is repelling women from wanting to be part of it,” Silver said. “And given what the NBA's track record has been, especially in the areas of diversity and inclusion, along with the launch of this league, we are making a concerted effort, led by Oris Stuart, who is the head of diversity and inclusion at the NBA, to create a task force designed so that next year when we're sitting here for the draft, we will have a pool of women who are participating, as well.”

The NBA will rawcast all league competition and is talking with Twitch, the streaming video platform owned by Amazon that shows video game live streaming. Impressions and time spent watching will certainly be a major method of determining whether the NBA 2K League is taking off, but there is a bigger picture. In a world where the demand for content has never been greater or more incessant, the 102 people in this new league are going to become even more famous.

“Certainly we will help amplify our teams through the game competition,” Donohue said, “but in addition, we think where the teams are going to have a huge advantage is growing a large grass roots audience as well. We think there’s a huge opportunity, and we’ve seen it in eSports, growing content around the practice house, where they’re living, how they came to be great players. The NBA’s ability to story tell and make them stars globally, we put that formula to this league and we think that’s a dangerous combination.”

That must be why Silver, in introducing Donohue at the press conference last week, referred to him tongue in cheek as “the guy whose job is on the line” to deliver eyeballs and clicks to the new venture.

“No pressure, right?,” Donohue chuckled over the phone Friday.

There is, of course. But on the other hand, the audience has revealed itself already. Anyone who has a child or a relative knows the befuddlement of old people -- like me -- watching kids watching other kids play video games on their computers. It’s how they learn now. And that makes sense. The NBA is better those consumers will be ready to watch some more, and that others may watch its newest employees’ stories.

“One of our players was driving a truck, and this is his chance at a new career,” Donohue said. “We had a college player get injured, and this is his way to stay in the game … I think people embrace a kid who gets drafted and goes up there and says ‘my mom was going to kick me out of the house if I didn’t get a job.’ ”

And with some of the biggest companies in the world all seeing a future with eSports and gaming front and center in their portfolios, guys like Dimez will continue to become mainstream sports celebrities, more accessible in some ways than Stephen Curry. After all, you can watch all the video of Curry behind the arc that you want, but very few people can then walk out on the court and approximate anything close to the production he achieves nightly.

“Everyone in media says, when they talk about eSports, ‘it’s coming,’ ” Leonsis said. “But when you’re in it, and you see the crowds … write less tonally about ‘it’s coming.’ In many quarters, it’s already arrived.”

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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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