The NBA 2K League is starting to come together with the Combine taking place online. Magic Gaming will soon draft its team and the league will take shape.
The arena is pulsating with fans eagerly awaiting the next play. The ball is inbounded, the clock ticks down. The players are all in their place waiting for that final play to come down.
That tension and excitement are building with those watching just as much as they are with those playing. The competitive levels are just as high.
The only difference? The players are digital. Avatars of the players holding the controllers. And this basketball game is not playing out on a court. Instead, it is on NBA 2K.
The stakes though will just be as real. The championship they are chasing will be just as real.
It is all part of the grand experiment from the NBA to join the legions of fans and gamers who have flocked to eSports leagues for entertainment. With a partnership with one of the best-rated sports games on the market in the NBA 2K series, the league is striking its path into this growing marketplace.
"“It’s another way for our teams to engage with their fans,” NBA 2K League managing director Brendan Donahue told Orlando Magic Daily in an exclusive interview in October. “We look across the league at all the social followings for NBA team and two-thirds of them are outside the U.S. The chance to have a new way to engage with those fans, makes a lot of sense.”"
This is a competition like any other. A test of a player’s stick skills and ability to play the game.
Each player will play as his MyPlayer avatar with five players on a team controlling their individual player. Like the Pro-Am competition 2K held at last year’s All-Star Break, teams are looking for the best individual players to put together into a team. There are no computer-controlled players involved.
It is real basketball in every way but the physical game. That happens on the console screen.
Teams are still getting put together. Right now, the league has begun to scout players.
In January, players got the chance to qualify for the NBA 2K League Combine by playing in Pro-Am games in the MyPlayer mode. Those who won 50 games that month were eligible for the 2K League Combine, going on now.
There, players must play within certain windows for scouts to watch them play. You may have noticed tips on how to play and impress scouts on a recent episode of 2KTV. Players also had to fill out an application form online.
From there, the teams will draft the best players who played at least 40 games in the combine sessions against the other players in the pool. The goal is to have the 85 best 2K players in the world compete for the championship.
The draft should take place in mid-March with players arriving in their markets in April for a training camp. The season begins in May and will last through August — just in time for NBA 2K19 to release.
The season will feature a mix of tournament and regular season games played in a central studio location, playing a unique game 2K specifically built for the NBA 2K League.
To those uninitiated to the world of eSports, this all may seem a bit silly. Professional video game players is still a relatively new concept for many. But it is big business.
The Overwatch league, a multiplayer strategy and shooter game, had 437,000 viewers at its peak in its first week back in January, according to the game’s publisher.
The best players and biggest tournaments in the strategy game League of Legends routinely sell out stadiums. Call of Duty, a first-person shooter game, held its world championships at the Amway Center last year.
College athletic programs are even offering scholarships and forming their own eLeague teams — the Big Ten has a League of Legends division among its athletic offerings.
It is impossible to ignore the weight of video games in the current marketplace and culture. Creating true competitive leagues is an easy outgrowth.
"“We’ve been watching the growth of eSports more broadly for a couple years now,” Donahue said. “Some of the viewership numbers are astounding. You have that. Then you have the NBA which is very accustomed to running a league for 70 years. Then you have 2K, which is this wildly popular game. 2K is a huge partner of ours back since 1999. The game has gotten exponentially more possible over the last 10 years. We think we have a place in eSports.”"
With more than 8.5 million sales of NBA2K17 and accolades galore, it was only a matter of time before the NBA and 2K Sports sought to carve their own path. These games have grown and have a growing audience. Fans are flocking to watch the elite gamers play against each other.
Like the real sport, kids and adults of all ages are engaging in basketball through these games. And like the real sports, these gamers have a sharp basketball IQ, knowing where they need to be on the court and how to run a team on offense and defense to win games.
This partnership is completely natural.
The data for growth is there too. This is something fans want.
Beyond the sales of the console game, there are millions of players engaging with the league through the video game internationally too. The league has studied all of this in seeing the growth continue.
Last year’s Road to All-Star competition had 100,000 teams and 500,000 participants, according to Donahue. When they posted the video of the final online, it had more than two million viewers.
The appetite for eSports only seems to be growing. And far be it from the NBA to miss that opportunity to reach a new audience.
"“We have 1.6 million people playing every day for roughly 90 minutes daily,” Donahue said. “They are rapidly excited about this league starting. I think there is a lot of excitement about it from the community. Even the social chatter about the game prior to the 2K18 game going out, social chatter was up 2.5 times. It gives you an idea of the chatter in the community and how excited they are about it.”"
Team owners were among the first to jump in on eSports. Several of them — most notably Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and Golden State Warriors owner Peter Gruber — have already invested heavily in eSports teams.
The 17 teams that joined the first year of the NBA2K League was more than the league had expected. And expansion seems likely in the second year. The league is ambitious to make this competition long-lasting and global. And with the growth in the industry, who is to stop them?
Donahue said looking at the audience data, NBA fans are more likely to play video games. The place NBA2K has taken within league culture — with even NBA players as ardent gamers in 2K — has made it as much a part of the NBA experience as the regular season itself.
All the indicators are that this will be a recipe for success.
The world of eSports and gaming is coming to the NBA. There is no denying that.
And each day, this virtual competition comes closer to reality.