The rise in popularity of eSports has mainly been focused around leagues that play games like League of Legends, Dota and Counter-Strike – all games that aren’t actually sports-related.
But eSports games that are modeled after actual sports are also extremely popular – for example the Madden NFL and FIFA soccer franchises are some of the most popular games made for Xbox and Playstation.
To go along with its actual, professional basketball league, the NBA is creating a new division for players who excel at video-game basketball.
So today the NBA announced that they are teaming up with Take-Two Interactive Software to create a new eSports league centered around NBA 2K – a popular basketball game made by Take-Two.
The league will launch in 2018 and consist of teams operated by NBA franchises. While no teams have committed yet, league Commissioner Adam Silver told the WSJ that all 30 leagues have “expressed interest” in forming teams.
Each team will have five players, and play in a real league format complete with a regular season, playoffs, and a championship matchup.
This move is the first time a U.S professional sports league has created its own eSports league. It’s also interesting because it’s a move by the NBA to return the focus of eSports to actual sports. While the league and its franchises have been bullish on eSports in general (multiple NBA teams have bought or invested in eSports teams) the focus has been on games that aren’t related to actual sports.
“There’s an untapped audience on both sides of the equation,” said Matt Holt, the NBA’s vice-president of global partnerships. “On the NBA side, we have a lot of fans who don’t play the 2K game, and I’m sure there are 2K players who aren’t fans of the NBA. This is another chance to engage them.”
It’s also a chance to reach gamers more broadly. Market research firm Newzoo estimates that competitive video gaming will be a $1.3 billion industry by 2019, and basketball executives and players have been early adopters.
The owners of the Philadelphia 76ers purchased and merged two esports teams in 2016. Sacramento Kings co-owners Mark Mastrov and Andy Miller invested in a team alongside Shaquille O’Neal, and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and Golden State Warriors part-owner Peter Guber teamed up to acquire another. The Houston Rockets in December became the first major US sports franchise to hire a full-time esports executive.
In October the League of Legends World Championships sold out the Staples Center in LA – surely a bullish sign for eSports. Then only issue (especially for professional sports leagues like the NBA) is that League of Legends is an online battle game with a mythical twist – essentially the polar opposite of a sports game like Madden or NBA 2K.
So by creating their own eSports league that is solely focused on NBA 2K , the league can ensure that actual sports like basketball remain an integral part of gaming and of eSports.
The league said that games will likely be broadcast both online and on TV – with championship matches potentially being held in NBA arenas.