If you’ve got a passing familiarity with basketball then you can show up at the NBA 2K League’s studio in New York City—or jump into its Twitch livestream—and you’ll get the basics of what’s going on.
In some ways, that might be the biggest asset afforded to the upstart esports league that just kicked-off its second season last weekend. More than one-third of all people in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Asia has an interest in basketball, second only to soccer, Nielsen data has shown. That’s a strong wave the NBA’s gaming league knows it can ride.
“I don’t think anyone in esports has the opportunity to engage a casual audience like we do. You walk in [to the studio] and see, like, family members of players or people you wouldn’t consider tradition esports enthusiasts—within two minutes you hear them say ‘Oh, this feels like I’m at a real basketball game,’” said Brendan Donohue, managing director of the NBA 2K League.
He mentioned the NBA’s social reach likely hovers around 1.5 billion fans and followers. “That’s a huge opportunity,” Donohue said.
Each team in the 21-team NBA 2K League is run by an NBA franchise (like the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers or newly added Minnesota Timberwolves) and features gamers who play as avatar versions of themselves—so you won’t see virtual Steph Curry on the virtual court. The live arena features a theatre-in-the-round set-up, fans looking down on the 5-vs-5 that’s also broadcast on massive screens. That same broadcast, featuring announcers and chat hosts, is sent out to thousands of fans online. The gamers physically face one another as they play, which leads to trash talk and yelling matches. It’s a fun watch in-person, which is a point of focus for the joint venture between the NBA and Take-Two Interactive moving into Season 2.
“I want to take our studio/arena experience and elevate it a lot,” Donohue said. “I want to make this a place where people in New York are like, ‘I want to go check that out.’ I think we’ve now got the physical set-up right. And we’re getting closer.”
The league had its kickoff Tip-Off tournament last week, won by 76ers GC for the second straight year. The regular season follows and, over the course of the season, $1.2 million in prize money will be handed out. The gamers are focused on winning that cash. Yet the business strategy for the 2K League is similar to that of a traditional sports leagues. For instance, this year it locked up Champion as the league’s outfitter.
“It’s sponsorship. It’s media rights. It’s merchandise, which helps a ton that now we have Champion on board,” Donohue said. “[The goal is] just elevating that from Season 1. We’re going to start doing events on the road, also we’ll have ticket sales. You’ve got to remember there’s the league and there’s also the teams. We have 90 sponsors across the league.”
Talking with the players, they treat it much like NBA stars might—they even sound like the NBA pros in interviews. Michael Key—a 27-year-old gamer who goes by Bear Da Beast for Minnesota’s franchise—serves as a brash, vocal leader for his team despite being a rookie. In a recent matchup against Memphis at the 2K League’s Tip-Off Tournament, he was standing and shouting trash talk, even getting a slight reprimand from league officials. But after not getting a spot in the league in Year 1, he seemed set on making his presence known.
“I wasn’t here last year, so I come here this year and everybody says, ‘It’s a stage,’” he said shortly after his debut. “I’m the stage. I don’t get scared of no lights.”
Later, speaking about his goals, he’d add: “I want everything. I want Rookie of the Year, the MVP, the championship, the Sixth Man if I can get it. I want everything.”
Bear is the sort of player who brings energy to the fun live experience—transferring that to the stream is a major objective for the 2K League moving forward. According to the league, last year’s final garnered 645,000 unique viewers and, overall, the league generated some 152 million video views throughout the season. They’re working on getting those fans (and hopefully more) engaged with the broadcast, most notably through the lively chat coinciding with the game.
“The guy on the analyst’s desk, Phil, his whole job is in the chat, engaging in the chat and bringing the chat into the broadcast, which we didn’t do last year,” Donohue said. “Last year it existed almost on the side of the broadcast. It was cool… people were engaged, but now we’re trying to connect it. That’s a big change for Season 2.”
Donohue described potential areas of growth moving forward, including 40 million fans in Asia who’ve downloaded a free version of 2K. The league hasn’t even been able to approach that audience yet. There’s a whole world of basketball fans (and gamers) out there, and the league plans to take some of its tournaments on the road in an effort to court them. Donohue also said he felt esports growth, in general, helps the NBA 2K League. They feel they have the best sports-game offering and that some of the biggest titles out there, like Overwatch and League of Legends, likely boost their viewership on Twitch.
“Esports is growing so fast that we’re nowhere near worried about this being a zero-sum game,” Donohue said. “If anything, when our games are on Twitch sometimes, I think we have people who are watching Overwatch that go on the carousel and see our game and just check us out. I think in many ways we benefit from the success of other leagues.”
Esports is still relatively new and the NBA 2K League is very new. Donohue noted that the biggest shift in the business plan for Year 2 was an investment in data—key information about its fans or how its sponsorships perform—that it could then use with partners moving forward. “We’re investing in things normally the NBA would do in its sleep,” said Donohue, who worked for the NBA for two decades.
With such a young product, in a new space that folks are still just trying to figure out, Donohue said the attitude is “keep doing the right things, the revenue will follow.”
“I just think we have so much green space in front of us,” he said.