The NBA 2K League, the fast-growing gaming league from the NBA, will set off on its fourth season on Saturday evening with its fourth draft, in which 265 players from around the globe will wait anxiously for their chance to be one of the 63 rookies selected. The draft, which airs at 7 p.m. ET on Twitch and YouTube, will feature celebrity gaming fans like 2 Chainz and seven-time NBA champion Robert Horry. The pool of eligible players features a pair of records, with 33 international players and ten women eligible for selection.
“Season three was just about growth,” 2K League president Brendan Donohue told Dime. “What we’re trying to do is continue to build upon it, and the good news is we have so much low-hanging fruit in front of us.”
That low-hanging fruit includes continued global expansion, both in terms of non-NBA affiliated pro teams like Gen-G in China as well as broadcasting around the world, and continued diversity efforts that aim to put the absolute best product in front of NBA 2K fans going forward. Last year’s Finals brought in 2 million unique viewers, up from 650,000 in 2018, a signal that that league is growing and potentially becoming a new way for the NBA to connect with young audiences.
Ahead of Saturday’s draft, Donohue took some time to discuss the evening’s festivities and what fans can expect from season four of the NBA 2K League.
When you think about your fourth season, do you have any particular goals in mind? What do you want to come out of this NBA 2K League season having accomplished as a league?
There are a couple real key initiatives. One is we want to continue our global growth. You saw last year, we added more distribution. We added Loco in India, we added Egg in Southeast Asia, Sportsnet in Canada. We’re going to be adding more distribution across Europe as well as from around the world, but I would say global growth from an expansion perspective (is a priority).
The other thing I would say is adding global teams, through expansion, to our league. Last year with the expansion to add the Gen-G Tigers from Shanghai, that was our first new non-NBA owner in the league. And that really has stirred a lot of interest, so we’re having a lot of active conversation with other owners looking to potentially join the 2K League.
The last thing is continuing to evolve our broadcast. We’ve brought a really professional, well-done broadcast our first three seasons, and we were challenged this past season with the pandemic and having to create a virtual studio. But this year, we’re going to look to do more unique game and fan experiences. Imagine us doing Community Night on one night, Game of the Week another night, and kind of a rapid-fire (schedule) of games a different night, really trying to bring different experiences to our fans and begin to test new products on our broadcast.
When I hear you talk about international growth or even innovation on the broadcast and digital side of things, those could be words out of Adam Silver’s mouth. When you look at those initiatives within the 2K League, do you feel like the NBA sees your work in those spaces as a first step with potentially following suit with the broader league?
I’d say it somewhat differently. Adam Silver and Strauss Zelnick, the CEO of TakeTwo, their voices are very much a part of shaping our league, and they run two of the most innovative companies in the world. I’m on Adam’s senior leadership team and his voice shapes how we go through things. So I definitely think we’re learning a lot about how he thinks about the broader NBA through his input on the 2K League.
Where I think we’re unique and there’s maybe a lesson to be learned is that we have a very young audience, and that audience, their expectation is to consume content in a very different way than somebody else who consumes the NBA in a different way and has for decades. So whether it’s the ability to chat with other viewers in the Twitch chat during a live game or to give input and see their ideas used in a future broadcast, that type of input for a fan to have on our experience, I think that’s the future.
That’s that kind of more direct-to-consumer experience that I think is happening. We’re catering our content to an audience that consumes content and has expectations of their voice being considered more than at any other time.
I wanted to move to the Women in Gaming Initiative because we’ve interviewed people like Aerial Powers of the WNBA here, and I know she’s done some work with your league. Why is it important to you personally that you incorporate female gamers and that part of the industry or the community into what you do as a league?
What we’re most focused on, and this relates to all of our programs regarding diversity, is to just get the best players in the world in our league, hard stop. That’s what we’re trying to do. There are some obstacles for those groups to overcome. What we’ve tried to do the first several years of our player identification process is identify challenges, unique challenges to those groups, and we’re trying to help them overcome them so they have a level playing field.
The good news is you’re going to see some great players emerge out of some under-represented groups. I think they’re going to have a ton of success in the 2K League, and all we did was shine a light on them. We had to change some of our processes to do that, but I think the teams that actually lean into diversity as they shape their roster, I think they’re going to get paid handsomely.
When you think about the 33 international players, the ten women who are in the draft pool, and obviously the hope being close to all of them get drafted and have success, what does success look like for the league with regard to those players, who are having their first go in the league this year?
Success for us would be normalcy. For the expectation to be that there’s a diverse group of players from different countries, different parts of the world, women, men, and that that kind of becomes more of a normal thing and we’re not talking about this as much. That’s the goal.
We fully think that those players from these underrepresented groups, we’re going to find that they’ll have great success when they’re on the sticks and able to play.