NEW YORK — In many ways Wednesday’s production at Madison Square Garden had the look and feel of the many drafts the NBA has previously held at this arena. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was in attendance, as were officials from the league office in numbers typical of one of the league’s major events. There was a podium and a dynamic backdrop behind the stage. In front sat a live audience, while commentators provided analysis of every selection from a nearby set.
And in true NBA draft fashion, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, widely known for his NBA scoops, broke the news of the first pick — Artreyo Boyd, also known as “Dimez” — on Twitter before Silver could make the announcement.
But the players selected Wednesday will never lace up their sneakers and handle a basketball in competition on hardwood. Instead they’ll settle into new cities, take their video game controllers in hand and begin play in what will be the first official esports league operated by a United States-based professional sports league.
This was the launch day for the NBA’s newest venture, the NBA 2K League, which will pit 17 teams of six gamers against one another in a season’s worth of competition in its popular NBA 2K video game. And while the profiles of these draftees may not match those of the prospects who will gather here for the NBA’s annual amateur draft in June, the spectacle demonstrated the venture’s importance to its parent league.
“From the NBA’s standpoint, this is our fourth league,” Silver said at a news conference before the draft took place. “We have the NBA, the WNBA and the G League. Now, this is the fourth league in our family, and that’s exactly as we’re treating it: one more professional league.”
Along those lines, the NBA views this as an expansion league. And, as with any expansion league, details are still coming together. Even at this stage — with the league set to launch next month — basic details about the league’s setup were not defined Wednesday afternoon.
There will be a 12-week regular season — but no one could confirm exactly how many regular season games were going to be played. The structure of three in-season tournaments was similarly vague, as was the number of teams that would qualify for the league’s two-week postseason finale.
League officials, both publicly and privately, said Wednesday that the focus was on the long term and the obvious growth potential of the NBA’s foray in the lucrative world of esports, a field projected to approach $1 billion in revenue this year, according to market research firm Newzoo.
“Things aren’t going to be perfect in the beginning, but we’ve just got to get out there,” Silver said. “We’ve got to begin operating, and we’ll learn as we’ll go.”
The league may be learning, but it does have high expectations for the 2K League. Wednesday’s draft was broadcast live on NBA TV and Twitch, and Silver said the league is “deep in discussion” with the streaming service — which already airs G League games — to broadcast 2K League games, as well.
And while only 17 of the NBA’s 30 teams are currently slated to be part of the NBA 2K League’s inaugural season, Silver said the NBA projects to have all 30 teams participating by the 2K League’s third season. He also said expanding beyond those 30 teams and moving into international markets are viable long-term options.
Boyd, the first of the 102 players selected Wednesday afternoon, found out he was being drafted when Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called to deliver the news he’d been selected by Mavs Gaming with the top overall pick. Boyd then took the stage and shook hands with Silver — all while decked out in a blue suit, black shirt and blue bow tie he wore in the expectation of being the top pick.
“It was unreal,” Boyd said. “That really best describes it. Surreal, unreal. I know I keep saying it, but that’s really how I feel, man.”
Cuban, who made his initial fortune in the tech world, said in an email to The Washington Post that he’s excited about the potential of the league.
“2k is different from traditional sports because there aren’t many barriers to entry,” Cuban said. “It’s incredibly Darwinian. You don’t have to be the biggest, fastest or jump the highest. To be successful requires effort, practice and the ability to process and act on information faster than the competition.”
Those drafted Wednesday were selected at the end of a three-month process that began in January, when 72,000 people won at least 50 “pro-am” games to qualify for the next phase — exploding past the league’s projection of roughly 10,000-15,000 qualifiers.
Those 72,000 then spent the entire month of February in what the league dubbed a combine, consisting of a specially configured version of the game that closely tracked player metrics. From that group 250 players were selected after their data was analyzed by the 2K League’s staff and a third-party analytics firm. The finalists then went through interviews, filled out an application and had to pass a background check to be among the 102 players taken Wednesday.
Of those 102 players, eight came from outside the United States — five from Canada, two from the United Kingdom and one from Germany. None of them, however, were women, and there was only one woman among the 250 finalists. In response, Silver said Wednesday the league would be launching an initiative focused on training and developing female players and would try to determine why more weren’t part of this initial grouping.
“I’m not concerned that there was something wrong with the process necessarily,” Silver said. “What I’m concerned 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.”
Players who were selected Wednesday had set salaries over the course of six-month contracts (set to last the duration of the initial season): $35,000 for the 17 players taken in the first round, $32,000 for those drafted afterward. Housing and standard health benefits will also be provided. The league — not the individual teams — will be paying the players.
Just as if they were drafted by one of the NBA’s 30 teams, the players will begin moving to the cities of their new teams as soon as Thursday. Players will live there with their teammates but will be flown to a centralized location for each week’s games — though that location is still being determined.
Unlike in the NBA, however, players will not be able to be traded. And that is one of only a handful of ways this failed to resemble a traditional NBA event. The league is hopeful that, rather than the novelty it exuded Wednesday, the NBA 2K League will become synonymous with the parent league, and the sport, over time.
“We view this in the same way as those other leagues, as something that we’re going to develop over a very long time,” Silver said. “We’re building this as a league that’s going to be around forever.”
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