Raptors look to win, learn more about esports in NBA gaming league

The NBA said Thursday the total attendance exceeded 22 million. (Mark Blinch/CP)

TORONTO — The growing world of esports grabbed Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment’s attention last August when the Air Canada Centre hosted the North American "League of Legends" championship.

"We sold out two days in the dead of the summer," said David Hopkinson, MLSE’s chief commercial officer. "We sold both dates out in seconds … in less than a minute."

There has been no shortage of opportunities for MLSE in the video gaming world. Hopkinson reckons he has got at least 20 offers to get involved with teams or leagues.

"We’re evaluating those," he said. "It’s not clear to us right now if participating in something like an ‘Overwatch’ league or a "League of Legends’ league or owning a team in any of those leagues … if that’s something that makes sense for us.

"But when the NBA came and said ‘Look, we’re going to start an esports league up. It will be backed by the NBA, backed by the publisher of the world’s most successful NBA console game’ … For us that makes an awful lot of sense."

As a result, the Raptors are one of 17 NBA teams hoping to win on the virtual basketball court as well as the real one in 2018.

The NBA, which anticipated half of its 30 teams would buy into the first year of the NBA 2K esports league, hopes more teams will join as the project continues.

For Hopkinson, the esports league represents both a sound business venture and a chance to learn more about an ever-changing gaming world he calls "Darwinian."

"This is an opportunity for us to talk to a new audience and talk to our existing audience in a new way about the Raptors and about NBA basketball," he said.

"When you look at what youth are doing, they’re spending an inordinate amount of time gaming. And we’d like to have them gaming NBA basketball, have them gaming the Raptors and the Warriors and the Cavaliers and other elite brands in our league. And to grow an affinity for our game and for our teams … It checks a whole bunch of boxes strategically."

Each NBA 2K esports team will field gamers who will control their own avatar — rather than NBA players — in a five-on-five game.

The virtual season will run for about three months with the debut campaign targeted to kick off around the all-star break in February next season.

The NBA expects to attract the best basketball gamers in the world and plans to make the recruiting process part of the esports league’s draw, with talk of a draft and perhaps even a combine.

The teams will play out of a yet-to-be determined central location

The NBA has named Brendan Donohue, the league’s senior vice-president, as the esports league’s managing director.

Some NBA teams have already entered the gaming space. Last December, the Houston Rockets announced the hiring of Sebastian Park, a Yale graduate in cognitive science, as the team’s director of esports development.

MLSE plans to have a team manager for its entry into the league.

"Our job will be to take whoever’s playing on our esports team and help them become bigger and bigger celebrities and stars just like we would DeMar DeRozan or a Kyle Lowry," said Hopkinson.

And like the real Raptors, MLSE will be scouring the globe for gaming talent.

"We’re interested in fielding the best, most talented, most competitive team we can. We couldn’t care less where they come from," said Hopkinson.

The NBA esports league is still evolving, with Hopkinson acknowledging there are more questions than answers right now.

The relationship between the NBA and Take-Two Interactive Software, the parent company of California-based video game developer 2K Sports, dates back to 1999 with the "NBA 2K" series selling more than 68 million units worldwide.

The NHL may be following the NBA’s footsteps. In March, commissioner Gary Bettman said the league was exploring esports options.

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