As the sports world has gone dark during the novel coronavirus pandemic, esports have helped pick up the slack, pulling athletes online and fans’ eyes into a world they may not have ever considered. The situation is ideal for simulation games, which previously had to compete against the real-life version of the sport. The biggest winner so far has been NASCAR; its eNASCAR series drew more than 1.3 million TV viewers to its March 29 race on Fox and Fox Sports 1, according to Nielsen. The series features famous NASCAR drivers operating virtual rigs to compete against one another as well as gamers. The production is complete with live commentary from Fox’s race broadcast team of Mike Joy and Hall of Fame driver Jeff Gordon, a rendition of the national anthem and even prerace dignitaries. Fox has committed to airing more races.
This past weekend, it was the NBA’s turn. But while NASCAR has leaned into its new esports efforts, putting the support of its real-life drivers behind it, the NBA appears to be operating on a separate, parallel track from its esports league. Rather than pairing some of its biggest stars with its NBA 2K League pros, it created a second, short-term property. The event, called the NBA 2K Players Tournament, lagged well behind NASCAR’s offering, according to Nielsen data provided to The Washington Post. The NBA’s tournament received its highest viewership during the Durant-Jones matchup April 3 with 387,000 viewers, according to Nielsen.
Around the same time, the NBA 2K League’s Three for All Showdown tournament began with a three-on-three setup and each competitor controlling one player on the court. NBA 2K League players were involved, as were athletes from the WNBA, the G League and the NFL — but not the NBA.
Asked why no NBA players appeared in the NBA 2K League tournament and no pro gamers were in the NBA players’ event, Matt Holt, the NBA’s senior vice president of global partnerships, said the leagues were “separate and distinct,” even as they “work extremely close together.”
“We’re talking about a pause in the NBA season, and a ton of NBA players who love the NBA 2K game, and who, like all of us, are sitting at home playing video games,” he said. “They have their own schedule and their own season.”
The NBA was the first major league to dedicate significant resources to a full-on esports league, an enterprise it considers to be in line with the WNBA or G League in terms of support. But at a time when the NBA could be using its stars to bring more attention to its esports league, it chose another path.
No sports simulation-based esports league needs a boost more than the NBA 2K League. A joint venture of the NBA and game publisher Take-Two Interactive, the league has struggled to gain a widespread following since its inception in 2018 — even compared with other sports games, which have historically lagged behind other genres, such as first-person shooters (“Counter-Strike: Global Offensive”; Overwatch), battle royal (Fortnite) and multiplayer online battle arena (League of Legends), in the esports landscape. The NBA 2K League’s highest peak viewer count is 61,800, compared with 244,000 for FIFA’s eWorld Cup. Both pale in comparison to the 3,986,000 peak viewer count for the League of Legends World Championship in 2019. The NBA 2K League’s Three for All Tournament reached a peak concurrent viewership of about 15,000 on Twitch during the final, according to StreamElements-provided data from SullyGnome, which both analyze online streaming metrics.
The NBA had a prime opportunity to blend its real-world and digital leagues by having players from both compete together, giving the NBA 2K League a boost by including some of the world’s most recognized and marketable athletes. Holt, who oversees gaming partnerships, said the NBA and the NBA 2K League do not have any joint events planned.
“I think there’s room for both,” he said. “There is definitely crossover in fandom but also separate and distinct [fanbases] as well. They complement each other within the NBA world.”
The NBA 2K League, which plays all of its matches in front of an audience in New York, has postponed the start of its season, which was scheduled for March 24. To fill the void, the league put together the Three for All Showdown.
“We wanted to engage our audience as quickly as we could. It really has pushed our group to be incredibly innovative out of necessity,” said Brendan Donohue, the league’s managing director. “The NBA family prides itself on being able to develop stars. We wanted to have our players become stars we can develop.”
Maurice Delaney, an NBA 2K League player for Wizards District Gaming and the league’s third-highest scorer last year, said he is happy to have a chance to build his brand by participating in the Three for All event, but he would also welcome the exposure that the NBA’s top players bring.
“I’d love to have the NBA players come over and gain followers,” he said.
The Three for All event did feature some WNBA standouts, as well as NFL players such as Washington Redskins running back Derrius Guice. And, compared with the largely relaxed games between NBA players on ESPN, the Three for All featured intensity more typical of what’s seen in an NBA 2K League matchup.
The Washington Mystics’ Aerial Powers said she was scouting other squads and looking to see who advanced so she and her teammates could start thinking about strategies.
“I’m taking it seriously, hell yeah!” she said. “I was sweating and nervous and talking with my teammates before the game.”
Guice approached the competition similarly.
“I take everything serious,” he said. “I’m screaming at my teammates. They’re screaming at me. We took it serious. It’s not going to compare to what I do in real life, but I hate losing.”
For some, the tournament meant even more: It represented an unexpected second chance.
Wendi Fleming was one of three women who attended the NBA 2K League draft in February. None of them were selected. Fleming, who had been passed over in all three NBA 2K League seasons, went home to Chattanooga, Tenn., unsure of her future in a community she had put so much of herself into, only to come away feeling alienated. A few weeks later, she got a call from the league, which asked whether she would like to participate in the tournament, which had a $25,000 prize pool.
Fleming’s team included another draft hopeful, Amber Sammons, and the league’s first female player, Chiquita Evans.
“It’s been exciting leading up to tonight, and I’m definitely grateful for the opportunity,” Fleming said ahead of her first game. “It’s crazy how things work out. … I definitely feel like this is another opportunity to prove that point, to show people what they passed up on, my skill and level of play and how I can contribute as a team player.”
Although it’s an exhibition tournament, the stakes were also high for players in the league who, like their NBA counterparts, must stay sharp to fend off the thousands who would gladly take their place.
“I take it very seriously,” Delaney said of his time in the league. “It’s a life-changing opportunity for a lot of players. I was able to step up and help take care of my family and take care of my mother.”
Powers and Guice said the NBA 2K League, and sports video games in general, would grow during this pandemic-necessitated break and become more popular in the future.
“When everything settles down and sports comes back, I think people are still going to watch esports, because now I feel that peoples’ eyes have been opened to gamers and this different league,” Powers said.
“I feel like it’s getting there now and that it’s going to really take off,” Guice said. “It’s only a matter of time, with all the money in it and how fun it is.”
Delaney encouraged NBA fans to give his league a shot.
“The only difference is that we’re not physically moving on the court,” he said. “The energy is just as high as a real basketball game.”
Noah Smith is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and staff journalist for Direct Relief, a nonprofit. Follow his work on Twitter @Vildehaya.