The NBA is currently in the midst of an unprecedented period of increasing popularity and profitability on its own, but – to inelegantly mix industry metaphors – a successful dairy farmer knows a cash cow when he sees one. With basketball business as good as it’s ever been, and the product thriving on the court, in the stands and on televisions at home, the league is diving into a new, semi-related and rapidly growing virtual arena: eSports.
The NBA 2K eLeague, launching in 2018, is the first example of an American pro sports association officially taking a stake in an eSports league. The venture is in partnership with Take-Two Interactive Software, which has for years published the "NBA 2K" video-game series, and is an opportunity for the NBA to access and embrace the enormous, expanding community of fans flocking to eSports.
While organized online and offline video game competitions are nothing new, participation in and spectatorship of such events have surged in recent years – especially thanks to mobile devices – and the sector has widely professionalized, with a proliferation of players, teams, leagues and genres, as well as an explosion in revenue. According to the gaming market research firm NewZoo, the number of eSports enthusiasts is expected to increase from 148 million this year to 345 million by 2019, and total revenue – estimated at $493 million in 2016, after 51 percent growth – is predicted to reach nearly $1.5 billion by 2020.
Clearly, the NBA, which had revenues of more than $5 billion in 2015, sees not only a good investment at present, but also a vital way to interact with millions of fans around the globe in the future – especially since eSports could soon surpass traditional sports in terms of popularity.
As commissioner Adam Silver put it in a statement: "We believe we have a unique opportunity to develop something truly special for our fans and the young and growing eSports community."
When the eLeague launches in 2018, the NBA expects about half of its franchises to field teams, with the hope that all 30 eventually will come on board. The Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards have already made independent investments in eSports, per the Sports Business Journal.
The NBA 2K eLeague squads will comprise five players – pro gamers who are recruited via tryouts, paid salaries and play the game as user-created avatars – and be operated by current NBA franchises. The eLeague will mirror the NBA’s actual basketball campaign, with an 82-game regular season followed by a playoff system that leads to a championship.
The NBA is the latest entity seeking to take advantage of the fast-rising popularity of eSports, which is starting to be shown more on TV and becoming increasingly prevalent on Facebook and YouTube. Distribution partners for the 2K eLeague have not yet been revealed, but coverage of the competitions is expected to take place both online and on TV broadcasts. NewZoo anticipates nearly 430 million viewers of eSports by 2019.
Though the NBA is the virtual trailblazer of the four major professional sports leagues, Major League Baseball has put toes in the eSports water, too. Last year, its BAMTech streaming-video unit, co-owned by Disney, partnered with Riot Games to produce and deliver global "League of Legends" programming, aiming to stream and monetize the company’s popular multiplayer online battle arena game.
In addition, Turner and WME-IMG collaborated to form ELeague, a professional "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive" league that, starting last summer, aired on TBS and was streamed on Twitch. In 2015, video game developers Activision and Electronic Arts launched competitive gaming divisions – beating Take-Two to the punch – with the former buying Major League Gaming, and the latter recently announcing a deal with ESPN to broadcast FIFA eSports tournaments on the majority of the network’s channels.
The NBA and Take-Two have been partners since 1999, with the "NBA 2K" video game series selling approximately 70 million copies to date, including 7 million for the current 2017 edition.
On a local level, you can read about Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Wes Edens' investment in eSports here.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.