During a gathering of league stakeholders at Capital One Arena last week, Brendan Donohue, the managing director of the NBA 2K League, provided an overview of the NBA’s foray into the booming world of eSports. From May through August, 17 NBA-affiliated teams of five players, who will be selected from among some of the best gamers in the world via a draft in March, will compete in the popular basketball video game. Gamers won’t control virtual NBA players during the five-on-five competition; rather, they’ll control custom avatars developed by NBA 2K publisher Take-Two Interactive.
The NBA 2K League player draft will follow tryouts in February, which will be limited to players who complete an online application and win 50 games in NBA 2K18’s Pro-Am mode from Jan. 1-31. Anyone 18 or older with a copy of NBA 2K18 for the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One is eligible to apply to join the league. Drafted players will relocate to live and train with their new teammates before the season.
Donohue said that “players will be paid a competitive, guaranteed salary” and will be provided housing and benefits. Many details about the league, including how fans will be able to watch games, have yet to be announced. For at least the first year of the league, games will be played in a centralized studio or two. Depending on the success of the league, teams may travel around the country and compete in dedicated eSports arenas in future years.
“As far as expansion goes, we already have interest for year two,” Donohue said. “One of my primary goals is making sure we continue to grow the global audience for this.”
ESports’ existing global audience — there were nearly 400 million eSports enthusiasts and occasional viewers in 2017, according to Newzoo — is one of the reasons Monumental Sports CEO Ted Leonsis is so bullish on the enterprise, including the NBA 2K League. Last year, Monumental Sports purchased a controlling interest in Team Liquid, an eSports franchise that competes in popular video games such as League of Legends, Overwatch and StarCraft 2. In August, Team Liquid won $11 million at the International Dota 2 championships in Seattle. With that sort of money at stake, it’s no wonder Leonsis suggests people are missing the point when they ask whether eSports will eventually take its place among the major sports leagues.
“I think very quickly eSports will be the largest participatory sport, business, industry, with the most active participants, the most dollars, compared to any sport,” he said last week. “It will dwarf the NFL. It will dwarf the NBA, because first and foremost it is a global phenomenon. China, Korea, all of the Asian nations, they are early adopters there first.”
To oversee Wizards District Gaming, Monumental Sports hired Grant Paranjape as its director of eSports in August. The 24-year-old is well qualified for the role; he played World of Warcraft professionally for several years starting in eighth grade and later earned his MBA from Tulane. Paranjape views serious gamers such as the ones he and Monumental Sports senior VP of strategic initiatives Zach Leonsis will be responsible for drafting in March as athletes in their own right.
“It’s as athletic as basketball or hockey, just in a different way,” Paranjape said last week. “The physical dexterity needed and the mental fortitude needed to play League of Legends or 2K at a competitive level is the same as playing a traditional sport.”
Which is why the future members of the Wizards District Gaming team will have access to a sports psychologist and nutritionist, and they’ll train in a state-of-the art practice facility being refurbished near Capital One Arena.
The most popular titles on the eSports circuit to date are battle, fantasy and first-person shooter games, such as League of Legends, Dota 2 and Overwatch, but the NBA 2K League could appeal to a new market of fans.
“I think that the eSports audience can definitely be segmented by title, but there is some crossover appeal,” Zach Leonsis said. “I think we’ll try to dip into that for 2K. I think we’ll try to attract traditional basketball fans into being interested in eSports as well.”
NBA 2K17 sold nine million copies and NBA 2K18, the latest version of the game, is selling at an even greater rate. There are 34 million registered users of the free version of the game in China, according to Donohue, who points to an NBA 2K tournament that drew a massive audience and had a $250,000 grand prize earlier this year among the reasons he expects the league to thrive.
“We have done this already,” Donohue said. “There were 100,000 teams and 500,000 competitors in the [NBA 2K17] tournament that culminated in New Orleans at [the All-Star Game]. We streamed that and it had two million views. It’s not like it’s blind optimism. We’ve seen there’s a serious appetite for this.”
While many NBA players are fans of the NBA 2K franchise — Wall, the Wizards’ all-star point guard, openly questioned his rating in NBA 2K18 over the summer — the league won’t be relying on the NBA’s stars to succeed.
“NBA players love the game, but we’re really looking to make our 85 players stars in their own right,” said Donohue, who grew up playing Double Dribble and NBA Jam and now spends hours at a time playing NBA 2K with his 11-year-old son. “We’re being very careful to make sure we focus on those players.”
Zach Leonsis and Paranjape plan to provide fans a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of Wizards District Gaming players on Monumental Sports Network in the coming year. The league is still finalizing an apparel deal, but Wizards DG merchandise will soon be available online and in the team store. Like most of the NBA 2K League logos that have been unveiled this week, Wizards DG, featuring Monumental’s familiar red, white and blue color scheme, is a clear extension of the parent brand. Leonsis and Paranjape said the three stars above the “W”” in the red, white and blue logo represent not only the three stars in the D.C. flag, but also the D.C., Maryland and Virginia communities.
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