The new age battle for eSports audiences and revenues between the world’s top professional leagues took a giant step forward this month with the launch of the NBA’s own eSports league.

The first NBA 2K League games featuring top basketball gamers playing as their own user-created avatars started on the first of May, in the first official eSports league operated by a US professional sport.

Less than six months after the plan was announced officially in December last year, seventeen of the NBA’s own 30 real basketball franchises now have their own virtual teams.

Each virtual team - with its own newly-created custom-made logo - consists of five professional eSports players plus one substitute, who have been drafted just like the real-life basketball stars are chosen every year.

The eTeams will play head-to-head matches in a regular season, then playoffs and, finally, a championship game next February with a total of $1million of prize money to be won.

NBA Managing Director and Senior Vice President EMEA Ben Morel was speaking about the NBA 2K League at the Daily Telegraph Business of Sport conference this month.

“We are treating the eSporters just like our normal basketball athletes,” says Morel. “The eSport players will be marketed as themselves like the NBA’s normal basketball stars because their avatars are playing in the league.”

The NBA is working with Take-Two Interactive, the New York-based video gaming company which has already sold over 68 million NBA 2K gaming units since the two formed a working relationship back in 1999. But to build a league with gaming avatars is fundamentally different from other eSports ventures. Gamers, like those playing Madden NFL teams, play each other using versions of the stars in the virtual game and use a large roster of virtual players whereas the NBA 2K eSport players are themselves inside a live 5-on-5 game.

‘eSports players will live and train in their team cities and even travel with the real NBA stars to play their games. We are treating them just like NBA athletes’ – Ben Morel, NBA

Big competition
The NFL is arguably the most innovative sports league of all time when it comes to broadcasting and the internet (and Madden NFL, developed by EA Sports, is the top-selling American football video game), yet it is trailing the NBA in this sector.

The NFL held a league-wide Madden competition during the 2017 season for casual gamers representing NFL teams, and the gamers competed for over $400,000 in prize money with the competition televised by ESPN. But while basketball teams consisting of only five players means a team of avatars is possible, an NFL roster has over 50 players, including many specialists like the kickers, and there are 11 per team on the field at all times.

NHL Gaming World Championship

NHL Gaming World Championship

Source: NHL

The NHL is perhaps the closest of the top American leagues behind the NBA in terms of eSports. In March, the ice hockey league launched NHL Gaming World Championship, a global tournament for gamers that pits players against each other in the PS4 and Xbox One versions of EA Sports NHL 18.

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball has kept a watching brief about involvement in eSports, with Major League Soccer dipping its toes into the sector with its own eSports league which runs on another EA Sports game, FIFA 18. Its first-ever event is a tournament (the eMLS Cup) being shown live on Twitch, the same network platform that hosts NBA 2K.

Outside of the US, the English Premier League, the world’s most popular football league, began its connection with eSports two years ago when Manchester City and West Ham United signed up gamers to represent them in various global soccer competitions.

Slam dunk
Yet nothing compares to the NBA’s commitment to eSports. The inaugural NBA 2K draft was held in New York’s Madison Square Garden in April to allocate the gamers to each of the inaugural eSport franchises, with accompanying live coverage on NBA TV and Twitch. Gamers were selected by teams with names such as Warriors Gaming Squad (that is, part of the Golden State Warriors) and Celtics Crossover Gaming (for the Boston Celtics).

Twenty-three-year-old Artreyo Boyd, known as Dimez in the eSports world, was the No 1 draft pick and became an instant celebrity when he signed for the Dallas Mavericks gaming team. Boyd was pictured receiving his Mavs game shirt from NBA commissioner Adam Silver just the way any normal No 1 NBA draft pick would do. The Cleveland native has even been christened ‘the LeBron James of 2K’.

Source: YouTube / NBA

The NBA 2K League Inaugural Draft | The Entire First Round

Boyd’s avatar is a 6ft 5in shotmaking point guard weighing 215lbs, but his real height, weight and basketball ability bear no resemblance to his virtual self. He is now one of 102 NBA 2K professionals who were chosen from 72,000 applicants.

“eSports players will live and train in their team cities and even travel with the real NBA stars to play their games. We are treating them just like NBA athletes,” says Morel. “This league is making the NBA more relevant to fans. It will attract new audiences and convert more fans into consumers.”

The NBA 2K League has partnered with Twitch (which is owned by Amazon) to broadcast all the eSports games and has even announced 2K sponsors including HyperX, which supplies the official gaming headset.

But some leading US sports executives are being cautious in this virtual marketplace. Earlier this year MLB Vice President of Games and VR Jamie Leece told SportTechie: “We’ve gone from a state where say three or four years ago there were two big products that were considered eSports, and now there are hundreds and hundreds of intellectual properties that are trying to become eSports. So there will definitely be a period of time starting soon where there will be bit of shaking out of who are going to be the players moving forward.”

Ampere Analysis Analyst Alexios Dimitropoulos says it makes sense for the NBA to start the eSports league because their core demographic is already 18 to 34-year-olds: “There is an overlap between the NBA television watchers and eSports fans and so the eSports league can become a new revenue stream.

“There are also lots of eSports deals taking place with broadcasters and a lot of the progress is taking place in the US because this market has been developing OTT services and technology for a number of years,” he says.

Telefonica in Spain, Sky and ITV in the UK, MTG in the Nordic countries, ProSieben in Germany and Los Angeles-based Hulu are among those broadcasters, telecom companies and platforms that are making headway in eSports.

’We’ve gone from a state where say three or four years ago there were two big products that were considered eSports, and now there are hundreds and hundreds of intellectual properties that are trying to become eSports’ – Jamie Leece, MLB

Bank shot
There have been some predictions that say eSports will be worth up to $1billion in overall value within the next two years, a sharp jump from a valuation of between $100 million and $200 million in 2016. One of the gaming operators to watch out for is ESL, an eSports event company owned by MTG and one of the first to invest heavily and make partnerships with broadcasters. Recently, ESL forged a deal with Facebook for around $90m. They now have partnerships with broadcasters all over the world, demonstrating that eSports will have a place in TV.

All the top sports leagues are finding their own paths along the eSports highway and broadcasters are likely to play a key role in this virtual future, but the sports organisations and teams all want one thing at the end of the day: revenues either from in-game purchases, game downloads, extra sponsorship or merchandising of either the new eSports brands or the real-world sporting stars and their teams. The bottom line is that eSports is only going to get bigger and better in terms of participants, viewers and revenues.