NBA out to bring worlds of traditional, electronic sports together

NBA 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue explains to Steve Loung why Esports is the next logical step for NBA.

Are you one of those people who doesn’t think sports and video games belong together? If so, the NBA is out to change your mind.

Back in February, the NBA and video game publisher Take Two Interactive announced the launch of a competitive esports league slated for 2018 called the NBA 2K League.

Taking advantage of the immense popularity of the “NBA 2K” video game franchise and the burgeoning esports space, the NBA is hoping to attract a new audience with the launch of this video game league.

“Our owners, the NBA office and I imagine 2K also, we’ve been looking at esports, this space in general, for quite some time now,” Brendan Donohue, managing director of the NBA 2K League, said in an interview Monday. “… We have this great game, it’s wildly popular, it’s viewed by players as the best game, and then the NBA has been running a league for 75 years. So running a league is in its wheelhouse. It just seemed like a logical next step to dive into esports.”

The esports industry has been on the rise for the last five years, with the business taking significant steps this year and last as competitions have found their way onto cable television and mainstream media outlets have begun covering events.

Major professional North American sports have taken notice as well and are now involving themselves in esports. The NBA is at the forefront of this movement, as some teams have already partnered with esports organizations: the Philadelphia 76ers have united with Team Dignitas while the Miami Heat have teamed with Misfits.

Now the NBA is looking to take the bold step of becoming the first major league to dive fully into esports.

The NBA 2K League is scheduled to start on May 1, 2018 with the 17 teams that were first announced. The Toronto Raptors are among the inaugural squads that will be part of the launch, which comes as no surprise to Donohue.

“For them, they’re a perfect fit. They’re an extremely well-run organization, they’re extremely digitally savvy, they’re incredibly innovative naturally and just Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment is considered one of the best organizations in professional sports.”

And while there are “definitely more teams interested,” according to Donohue, 17 is the number the league will go forward with for the first year.

The regular season will be 15 weeks long, with two weeks of playoffs. How many games will be played per week hasn’t yet been determined, but Donohue says they’re looking into a combination of both tournaments and normal league games.

Additionally, the games will reportedly be played on a neutral site in a studio yet to be named, meaning teams will fly in from their home bases to play and games likely won’t be spread out through the week.

Roster construction is more interesting, and you really see the traditional sports side of things involved here.

There will be an open tryout in February — with exact details of how it’ll work still being figured out — during which the 85 best players who emerge from the trial will then be put into a pool for a draft in March. Because the audition will pare down the number of players to 85, it appears each team will be made up of five players with no bench for the time being.

Each player will control their own individual character in the game — basically your MyPlayer in the game — so the rosters won’t reflect what the real NBA roster looks like at all.

There are two reasons the NBA 2K League is constructing rosters like this. One is in an effort to create stars out of its players.

“We think we are going to turn the players and their avatars into their own celebrities,” Donohue said.

The other is to avoid the imbalance of real NBA teams.

“It’s for the integrity of the game in order to have a balanced player experience,” said Donohue. “For example, you can’t have LeBron [James] competing against the sixth man from some other team. You have to have a balanced environment where the only thing differentiating the players is their true skill.”

Yeah, we understand, the Dubs are kinda OP.

Finally, this will be a professional league meaning if you make it, you will be paid. Specifics on what salaries will look like haven’t been unveiled yet but Donohue says it will be “competitive” with health benefits and a gaming house provided for players to practice in every respective market with a team.

Of all the professional sports leagues in North America, the NBA has made the most strides in trying to attract a younger, millennial audience. The NBA 2K League is just the latest example of this.

Will it work? No one can say for sure right now, but one thing’s for sure: the NBA seems determined to try.