For sports gamers across the country, Friday marked the anticipated opening whistle for NBA 2K18, the latest version of the most popular sports title in North America. But for the Sixers and NBA, it means another milestone in the progression toward the inaugural season of NBA 2K League.
“It’s huge,” said NBA 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue. “Everyone connected to this thing is wildly excited about the game coming out. It definitely throws some gas on the fire in terms of our excitement level, the teams and their respective markets. This will be another crescendo point on our calendar in the next six months.”
And there’s reason to be excited. NBA 2K League is a budding esports competition based on NBA 2K18 and future NBA 2K releases. Expected to begin in May 2018, the Sixers and 16 others NBA franchises will build a roster of professional gamers to battle it out on the NBA 2K18 court in fully staffed 5-on-5 games.
“Since the league was announced in February, we’ve seen a growing excitement around the game and it keeps getting higher and higher,” Donohue said. “For us, we’re excited the game is well received and that the community is excited about it.”
While the idea of a competitive league based around a video game may seem foreign to many, joining the NBA 2K League wasn’t a shortsighted investment for the Sixers, who are extremely active in the esports space.
“The potential is endless,” said Sixers Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Chris Heck.
Newzoo, a market research firm dedicated to digital gaming, predicts general esports revenues will more than double to upwards of $1.5 billion by 2020. Jumping on that wave of momentum in September 2016, the Sixers purchased Team Dignitas as their first foray into esports.
“We had a very fast and hard dose of reality when we were investigating the purchase of Team Dignitas, our esports franchise,” Heck said. “What we found out was maybe half the world is watching traditional stick and ball sports, and we feel really good about that. But there’s the other half of the world and they are into esports. It was a no-brainer for us to jump into this space and we’re seeing the results with compelling numbers from our sponsors both locally and internationally.”
According to Forbes, each NBA 2K League organization paid $750,000 to buy-in for a three-year commitment, with more NBA teams lined up to join in for the second season.
“It’s not for the faint of heart but we’re not in this business to just get through the day,” Heck said. “We want to do something that changes the future landscape. It’s a big commitment because we believe in it and we believe in esports in general, we obviously believe in the NBA and we think that being one of the original franchises is a gift.”
Being an original franchise in an original league also means building a team from scratch. Before organizations like the Sixers enter the competition, they need to identify, analyze and draft players. The first league draft will take place in March with tryouts held in February.
There could even be a NBA-style lottery to determine pick seeding.
“We want all 17 teams to be successful and have a chance at being successful, so yes, you will see a draft from us,” Donohue said. “All of the teams will be able to draft their players, and we’ll create a system where they can identify those players.”
Unlike many other esports clubs, once drafted, the 2K pros, who will be salaried, will move to their host city, live in a team-supplied gaming house and practice together. With the Sixers' infrastructure and connection to Dignitas, Donohue believes the Philadelphia team has an opportunity to stand out.
“The Sixers are already using their practice facility for crossover opportunities with Dignitas, so that’s really where it's amazing to see potential,” he said. “The player experience, whether that's access to education around nutrition, sleep, psychology and doctors. They have state of the art medical operations and facilities, it will be a pretty cool advantage.”
Heck noted that the Sixers will rely heavily on their already established esports connections.
“We’re following their lead more on the esports side than on the basketball side,” Heck said of Dignitas. “We have a view of the world that is maybe different than everybody else.
“We’re as well suited for this opportunity as any franchise in the world.“
Taking a page from both the NBA schedule and popular esports tournaments, NBA 2K League could feature a regular season and side tournaments, similar to NCAA basketball conference tournaments and NCAA Men’s Division I basketball tournament, or March Madness. Details are still being worked out.
“We love how esports generates tournaments that create incredible drama and create incredible stories,” Donohue said. “It brings the players to life.”
Teams will be flown to the central location, which has yet to be determined, where all games will take place on either console, Sony PlayStation or Microsoft Xbox, or PC. This will likely be a small venue to host fans and provide infrastructure for a successful broadcast, which is also to be determined.
“They are working on that right now, we are weighing in with our own thoughts about what’s best for the league,” Heck said. “We have full faith that the NBA will make the right decision on how the fans and viewers receive the content.”
With details constantly emerging, the league is hurdling toward relevancy and its 2018 launch. Esports, with all its potential, is the next evolution in big-money sports, and the NBA has claimed its spot.
“We believe that the NBA and league office has more of a global look and view in the world of sports and beyond than anyone else,” Heck said. “They see this as a new frontier.”