This week the NBA 2K League announced a new tryout process for their next season, set to take place in 2021. The new format will include more than 35 Pro-Am tournaments hosted by NBA 2K League teams, with the winning teams featuring as part of a League-hosted “NBA 2K League Draft Prospect Series”, and a first‑of‑its‑kind NBA 2K League Combine.
It’s the next step in the NBA 2K League’s rapid growth, which NBA 2K League Managing Director Brendan Donohue, described to me on a call recently as “transformational”.
The NBA 2K League viewership is growing rapidly
This season, the NBA 2K League’s third, saw a big jump in broadcast distribution and viewership. “Just looking apples to apples just our broadcasts on Twitch is up nearly 70% year over year,” Donohue outlines, “and then on top of that we added numerous distributors around the world, including ESPN 2.” Live games were shown on ESPN2, ESPN’s digital platforms, Sportsnet in Canada and on delay on eGG Network in Southeast Asia and Loco in India, marking the first-ever broadcasts of 2K League games on linear television.
In total ESPN2 picked up 29 nights of broadcasts over the season, and every NBA 2K League match on ESPN’s platforms also aired live in the Caribbean, Latin America, Oceania and Sub-Saharan Africa. Combining Twitch viewers with the unique viewership on ESPN2, the NBA 2K League received at least one million unique viewers each time it was shown on ESPN2.
This year’s NBA 2K League Finals, in which the Wizards Gaming squad defeated the Warriors Gaming Squad 3-1, saw 1.1 million unique viewers tune in on Twitch alone. “As you’re seeing in gaming and esports in general, just incredible growth overall, and we definitely benefited from that” Donohue explained.
More companies are getting involved with the NBA 2K League
The NBA 2K League has increasingly caught the eye of sponsors too. The 2K League reached 14 marketing partners this season, the most ever for an NBA 2K League season, including five new partnerships with GameStop, Jostens, SAP and Tissot, and DoorDash as the presenting sponsor of the NBA 2K League Playoffs and Finals.
With a rabid fan base, esports sounds like a pretty good commercial proposition. “Our fans’ level of passion is such an incredible premium for brands to be able to attach themselves to” Donohue says. “Our average fan plays 30 hours a week, video games, so this is an incredibly passionate fan base.”
Indeed Donohue puts the NBA 2K League’s growth in partners down to a combination of companies recognizing esports as a growing market and that rapid increase in fan interest. “I think that was happening anyway and really the increase in fan engagement just kind of puts gasoline on the fire. I think it was having every brand we talked to about partnerships, they all realise they need to be in esports, and they’re just trying to figure out how to do it.”
Is esports a risky business?
But for companies there is a risk in jumping into a nascent industry like esports, something former Golden State Warrior and noted tech entrepreneur Andre Iguodala once called “the Wild Wild West”.
For the NBA it was a risk worth taking. “It’s in the DNA of the NBA’s brand as well as 2K’s brand to be innovative” Donohue explains, adding that the NBA owners “realise the future – this is going to continue to grow. And so I think there might have been more risk in not doing it, then actually doing it.”
Fears that esports may have be a fringe idea, engaging hardcore gamers but perhaps with limited commercial appeal beyond that, have proven unfounded. Forbes reported last year that global revenues from esports were expected to reach $1.1bn in 2019.
“Even over the last three years, our three seasons, my conversations now are far different than what they were before the league started because it’s just more it’s become more the norm, and it’s not such a strange thing;” Donohue emphasizes. As Warriors Assistant GM Kirk Lacob recently told me esports is “absolutely starting to mature”.
Donohue highlights the advantage of having a league run out of the NBA office in bringing partners in. “The benefit of being the NBA 2K brand is that we have amazing relationships with a lot of these partners, and so we can kind of help hold their hand and navigate eSports and help them understand how to tap into eSports as a great way to amplify their brands.”
Another advantage for companies the NBA 2K League has, is that the game is familiar. “While esports can be challenging for consumers at times we’re a very friendly game where you don’t have to play to enjoy watching our games, if you understand basketball you’ll get it,” Donohue highlights.
Advertising within the game itself is also well-established. “It’s totally normal to watch a basketball game and see courtside signage and to see brands integrated into the experience like this, it would be more strange to not see that.” As Donohue points out, that allows partners “to be a part of the actual virtual experience.”
Engaging new audiences
With a passionate fan-base the NBA 2K League has established itself as a viable and successful product. But Donohue claims “we feel like we’re just scratching the surface.” He highlights the 1.9 billion followers of the NBA on social media, as a vast potential pool.
Then there’s the question of whether NBA 2K can operate as a gateway to engage new fans in basketball generally, something Washington Wizards owner and media mogul Ted Leonsis has theorized. Indeed, Donohue has his own example, rather closer to home. “My own son, when he was playing 2k, all of a sudden he’s coming to me and quoting the Warriors roster and stuff about Steph Curry and I’m like, how is he staying up ‘til 10 o’clock at night to watch these games, he’s like seven years old!? It’s all through 2k he’s learning about the game and who’s good by their ratings in 2K.”
For Donohue that highlights what he calls the “transformation that’s going on of how young people consume content, and how different it’s getting.” For brands that means esports provides “a great way for partners, for example, to talk to a younger audience that may not be on traditional channels.”
The NBA is learning too about this new demographic and what they want to see. “The biggest difference in esports that I see versus traditional sports is the voice of the fan, the power of the fan” Donohue says.
He describes that manifesting itself through elements like the Twitch chat function on their Twitch broadcasts. “The Twitch chat is constantly going and we’re monitoring that certainly to stay engaged with our fans, but it’s also a great tool to get feedback immediately, and we’re making adjustments on our broadcasts… we’re talking about “hey the fans want this camera angle and the fans want this behind the scenes content.” And then when we make the adjustments, we’re giving fans credit for it and they love it.” That taps into what Donohue says is “almost becoming a demand of the younger consumer, the expectation is that you’re actively listening.”
The NBA 2K League is not bound by traditional limitations
One major advantage the NBA 2K League has is that the game can be played anywhere by anyone. That feeds through into the newly announced draft process, but also tapping into international markets. The NBA itself has done great work to grow the NBA’s profile overseas, but so far it has been limited to playing individual games in destinations such as Paris, London and China. The long-rumored dream of international divisions are just that, a dream.
For NBA 2K League, there are no such limitations. “There’s so much greenfield in front of us, in terms of international expansion and growing the game globally” Donohue explains. This season the NBA 2K League welcomed their first international expansion team, the Gen.G Tigers of Shanghai. They also held tryouts in London, Hong Kong and Seoul. “We’re looking to continue to get international players that we know are out there.” Donohue says. “It’s absolutely a part of our plan to have a European division, and have a Asia Pacific division,” before adding “it’s really more question of when, not if.”
But it’s not just about reaching an international audience. Until the coronavirus pandemic hit, Donohue explains the NBA 2K League’s plan for this season was “getting more into our local markets, and bringing the 2k League experience to our teams and to their fans locally.”
The Warriors showed what that might look like recently in their training camp, with players relaxing by taking part in an NBA 2K game shown on Chase Center’s gigantic scoreboard.
“The beauty of esports is, imagine Magic Gaming can do it from Disney
As the NBA 2K League begins to prepare for only it’s fourth season with a growing fanbase, established partnerships, and an ambitious tryout process to find the best players wherever they are, the world certainly does appear to be their oyster.