Esports Notebook: Can the NBA find an audience for its 2K League?

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks before the start of the NBA 2K League draft (Frank Franklin II/AP)

On Wednesday, the NBA 2K League held its first-ever player draft, solidifying the fact that it’s indeed something that is actually going to happen.

Before the 102 players were taken, however, NBA commissioner Adam Silver held court with reporters – along with 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue and Take-Two Interactive president Strauss Zelnick – and did his best to hype up the newest member of the NBA “family.”

“From the NBA’s standpoint, this is our fourth league,” Silver said. “Of course we have the NBA, WNBA and the G League, and now this is the fourth league in our family and that’s exactly how we’re treating it – one more professional league. And I think what’s so exciting today, in particular, is that we’ll be welcoming a new generation of athletes, of NBA players, into this fourth league.”

That last part turned quite a few heads.

Did Silver actually use the term athletes to describe people who play video games? And did he seriously just group these so-called athletes in with the players that play in his main league?

Yes he did – and rightfully so.

As tough as it may be to wrap your head around the notion that individuals with superior reflexes and hand dexterity can be considered athletes, this is reality. The 102 who made it out of a pool that began with over 72,000 entrants absolutely deserve to be called “athletes.”

What’s more interesting than the debate over Silver’s terminology, though, is the fact the NBA is treating the 2K League as one of its official leagues.

“We view this in the same way as those other leagues, as something that we’re going to develop over a very long time, and we’re building this as a league that’s going to be around forever,” Silver added.

The statement speaks to the level of confidence the NBA has in its own ability to operate a competitive sports league at the highest level. But is that confidence justified when it comes to running an esports league?

Operational logistics shouldn’t be a problem for the NBA, but the most important aspect involved in running a pro league could be: attracting viewership.

According to a recent study, sports games finish a distant third to games of the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) and FPS (First-person Shooter) genres in terms of total Twitch accounts. Digging a little deeper, a look at the Twitch games directory reveals that NBA 2K is very rarely the most viewed sports game on the platform, consistently losing out to the EA Sports FIFA series.

So, with evidence suggesting the audience for spectator NBA 2K esports isn’t quite there yet, can the NBA build a dedicated viewership from scratch?

There really is no precedent the NBA can look to with the 2K League. And on both the traditional sports and esports side, leagues that fail to build a dependable audience don’t tend to survive very long.

If the NBA’s going to make this work, they’ll have to find a new way to pull in eyeballs.

Some news and notes around esports heading into the weekend…

The 2K League meta

If the 2K League is to find success then it will have to take steps to educate its audience in the nuances of NBA 2K.

At a base level, this sounds kind of silly given the fact the game is a simulation of NBA basketball — a game most people are familiar with. But NBA 2K is, of course, a video game and it operates differently, with players finding the best ways to exploit the ones and zeroes of the game’s digital underbelly to find the most effective strategies.

Called the meta-game, this is an ongoing cycle seen across all competitive video games, with players always searching for the newest way to win. Sometimes the current “meta” of a game can last just a few days, while other games’ metas have remained constant for years. The meta-game is the game within the game, and NBA 2K definitely has one.

As MLSE esports manager Shane Talbot explained to Sportsnet, “the general consensus is the meta of the game is built around the point guard and the big men.”

This was evidenced by the popularity of the point-guard position in the first round of the 2K League draft, with 10 of the first 17 picks taken being lead guards, including Raptors Uprising first-rounder Kenneth “Kenny” Hailey.

As Talbot explained, the reason why point guards, power forwards and centres are so highly valued in the current meta of the game is because in the previous pro NBA 2K League, Pro-Am, these were the three most dominant positions, with point guard being seen as most crucial.

“Having that floor general, that player that can space the floor and determine the pace of the game for us was critical, and I think you saw that trend across a lot of the other teams,” Talbot said.

Odds and ends

• In tragic news, Team Liquid AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng’s older brother, Yihong, was recently arrested and charged with murder after allegedly killing their mother and seriously injuring their father.

Liquid will play in the finals of this Sunday’s NA LCS Spring Split playoffs in Miami against 100 Thieves. Liquid CEO Steve Arhancet says Peng will play. Sunday should figure to be an emotional scene at the Fillmore.

• For any Hearthstone players out there, here’s a friendly reminder that the game’s eighth expansion, “The Witchwood,” releases this coming Thursday.

• Nineties kids rejoice: mediocre but amusing beat-em-up game Shaq Fu is getting a sequel after 24 years. Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn comes out June 5.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.