The Golden State Warriors are no strangers to the NBA Finals, having made the last five straight. And this afternoon the Warriors have a team playing in what will be their sixth consecutive NBA Finals as an organization. This time though it’s their NBA 2K team, Warriors Gaming squad, who will be flying the flag after reaching the best-of-five NBA 2K Finals series against Wizards District Gaming.
Warriors Gaming has been on a journey
Kirk Lacob, the Warriors Assistant General Manager who oversees their e-sports efforts gave his reflections on the journey on a call this week, saying “it’s really great…obviously it’s not our NBA team, but it is part of our family, our organisation and this is something we’ve been building towards.”
The Warriors Gaming Squad was founded in 2017 but Lacob admits that their first season didn’t go to plan. “We just really didn’t know what was going on, what was going to happen. We obviously did not have a great season. I think people were a little dismayed in the organisation because they were so used to us winning everything. And I said, you know, the Golden State Warriors didn’t start at the top either. We had to work our way up.”
And work their way up, Warriors Gaming rapidly did. During their second season as one of the 23 teams competing in the NBA 2K League (founded by the NBA itself in 2018), the team made history as the first to win multiple tournaments in the same season. This season, led by NBA 2K League MVP finalist Charlie “CB13” Bostwick, a student at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University, they finished with a franchise-best regular season record of 13-3, clinching the third seed in the NBA 2K playoffs.
Lacob is quick to dole out the credit for the growth in the Warriors e-sports business, and the success of the NBA 2K team, stressing that he gets “too much credit to be honest,” before adding that “the people who really deserve credit here are Hunter Leigh our Head of e-sports who’s been with me on this journey for three years, Rustin [Lee] who we hired as our team manager three years ago, and is just kind of the emotional centre of the Warriors gaming squad, and then our players, one of whom has been here since year one, and a number of whom were on the team last year. And then we have a new coach this year, but he comes through our Santa Cruz system.”
E-sports moving into the mainstream
Still, Lacob did champion e-sports early on within the Warriors, which led to the organization getting in at the ground level. Already Lacob is seeing rapid progress in a business former Warrior player and leading tech investor Andre Iguodala once referred to as the Wild West. “It’s frankly great to see the 2k League growing,” Lacob says. “Viewership is way up. I feel like the business side of things is really picking up and they’re making a real impact.”
While Lacob says e-sports “absolutely starting to mature” he’s at pains to point out that “e-sports is in so many ways such a new concept to people. These leagues are really completely new and don’t have the foundation that traditional sports leagues do.”
But there’s no doubt it is becoming more mainstream. The NBA 2K Finals will air live on ESPN2, ESPN’s digital platforms, and the NBA 2K League’s Twitch and YouTube channels. Meanwhile, the 2020 NBA 2K League Playoffs has a total prize pool of $920,000 with the winning team receiving $420,000. Not bad for something that Lacob says started out as something that was “for the most part, built on online communities.”
“The conversation around it has changed a lot. This used to be considered a fringe thing that people somewhat disregarded or kind of knew about.” Lacob explains. “When you look at the brands involved in e-sports before, many, many brands wouldn’t touch it, or were very hesitant to dive in. So you saw mostly endemic brands involved. And now across various e-sports, but especially the 2k League, you’re seeing a lot of really large familiar brands that you see in traditional sports.”
Lacob is understandably pleased at the progress the Warriors’ e-sports arm has made over recent years. “It’s really, really cool to see a plan come together and to see us build a little mini organisation within the organisation over three years, and get to a point where I think we’re a really well oiled machine”.
E-sports as a learning ground for the Warriors
The Warriors’ involvement in e-sports isn’t just about embracing new ideas and breaking into emerging new markets. It’s also a testbed for innovation and learning for the rest of the organization.
With the popularity of e-sports among younger demographics, there’s plenty the Warriors can take from their success. “Especially where we are in the world, with the pandemic, and how hard it is for traditional sports teams to reach customers and fans, I think absolutely we’re learning so much about the way people want to consume sports, about the way players and fans can connect, about messaging,” Lacob explains.
Then there’s the challenge that every business is facing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which is what does the new normal look like? “It’s terrible what we’re going through. But I think in the sports world we should find a way to take a positive out of this,” Lacob outlines, before warning “If we don’t start learning those lessons we could be in trouble going forward.”
Lacob believes that e-sports may well offer some of the answers. “We’re learning really valuable stuff that I think can be taken and in some way, used in the traditional sports model. Whether again it’s partnerships, or fan service or anything like that, or frankly even operations, we’re learning a lot about how to operate in somewhat remote environments.”
For now though, despite a down year on the court and uncertainty about the future, the Warriors organization can at least enjoy that familiar feeling of competing for a championship yet again.