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'It will dwarf the NFL': The NBA's going all-in on esports with the NBA 2K League

Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves participates in an October 2017 “NBA 2K” esports event in Shenzhen, China. The NBA’s big foray into esports, the NBA 2K League, is set to debut in 2018. (Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty)

WASHINGTON — Ted Leonsis likes to tell a story from the early days of the internet. Back in 1987, Quantum Computer Service launched with the goal of connecting gamers via the internet. A few years later, as the company — now called America Online — began to take off, Leonsis, its vice chairman, noticed something. At night, most of AOL’s traffic came from men playing video games; during the day, traffic was dominated by women playing casual card games.

This was the 1990s, before a generation of kids were born knowing nothing but a world where everyone is connected. This was the backdrop for what Leonsis needed a crowded room at the Monumental Sports & Entertainment (MSE) Global Summit to understand.

“Very quickly, I think esports will be the largest participatory sport with the most active participants and the most dollars compared to any sport,” Leonsis told the audience. “It will dwarf the NFL, it will dwarf the NBA, because first and foremost, it is a global phenomenon.”

Before esports has a chance to dwarf the NBA, Leonsis, who owns the Washington Wizards, has given himself 20 minutes on a Monday night to explain how he’s going to strike first, and why the business giants he’s assembled here on the Wizards’ practice court should be jumping at the chance to join him in the next phase of professional basketball.

The NBA and Take-Two Interactive Software, makers of “NBA 2K,” will launch the NBA 2K League in 2018. It’s expected to go very big, very fast, and it will try to turn two secondary markets into a cornerstone of the sport.


Seventeen NBA teams have signed up to participate in the 15-week league for three years. They’ll each draft five gamers to fill their rosters and build out avatars within “NBA 2K18” for them to control. No one will be playing as LeBron James or Kevin Durant.

While each team will be based out of the same city as its NBA counterpart, games will take place at a central location, with teams flown in each week to compete.

“We’re going to treat these players just like we would any of our other players,” said Zach Leonsis, Ted’s son and MSE’s senior vice president. “We’ll treat them as athletes. We’ll treat them with the respect that they deserve. We’ll give them access to our facilities and trainers. We want them to be comfortable, we want them to be healthy, we want them to be professionals so that they can play at the very top skill level.”

Tryouts will begin in early 2018, with the draft taking place in March. Players will be resettled in their new cities by April, with the season beginning in May. The Finals are expected to wrap up in August.

If it succeeds, the NBA will have integrated with an industry expected to be worth more than $1 billion before the end of the decade, and secured an invaluable connection to a worldwide audience — though there’s still plenty of work to complete before the 2K League Draft.

The league doesn’t yet have a broadcast partner. It doesn’t have the central gaming location set up. It doesn’t know if league games will be played on Xbox or Playstation. It doesn’t even know how many people will end up watching.

The league says, however, that it does have data that has convinced everyone involved that it will work. “NBA 2K18” sold more than 9 million copies in the United States this year, with another 35 million registered users in China, per the NBA. It also says that 1.5 million of those U.S. gamers spend an average of 90 minutes per day playing the game. It’s that hour and a half window the 2K League is looking to own, though the NBA knows there’s a distinct difference in settling in to play a video game and tuning in to watch others play.

Grant Paranjape believes the league already has tools to convert gamers to esports fans. As MSE’s director of esports business and team operations, he and Zach Leonsis are responsible for constructing Washington’s 2K team.

“One of the ways the 2K League is approaching that is with the global tryout,” Paranjape said. “Anybody with a copy of ‘2K’ can participate in the tryout. That already sparks someone’s interest. In-game activations are the low-hanging fruit. The flip side is making really great content and distributing it on social [media] and the web.”

The thought here isn’t that fans will be wowed more by the computer-generated version of basketball than the live product. Rather, the NBA and Take-Two hope that what these professional gamers can accomplish within “NBA 2K” will capture their audience.

Team GFG (right) and Team Drewkerbockers (left) compete at the “NBA 2K16” Road to the Finals championship event on June 1, 2016, in Los Angeles. Two teams of gamers went head-to-head for a shot at $250,000 and a trip to the 2015-2016 NBA Finals. (Dan Steinberg/Invision for NBA 2K/AP)

Organizers refer to the quick-twitch muscle control, reaction time and hand-eye coordination of esports players. Those are the abilities that will be on display, and it’s why the league won’t be using avatars of Stephen Curry, James Harden or Russell Westbrook. The idea is to level the playing field and let the gamers prove themselves.

“In esports, your score is your score, no matter [what division you play in],” Zach Leonsis said. “You can look at the scoreboard and see how players are stacking up and you get these global superstars rising very quickly. Similar things will happen with the 2K League.”

There’s one other reason the NBA feels so confident about the eventual success of the 2K League. Last year, it hosted an esports tournament that began with 500,000 entrants playing in five-on-five contests. The NBA’s stream of the final game netted 2 million viewers.

Small sample size or not, it gave the NBA all the incentive it needed to invest further.

“By no means is this blind optimism,” said Brendan Donohue, managing director of the 2K League. “We’ve seen it work.”

Donohue envisions a league that combines the best aspects of what already exists in esports. Certain weeks will feature 2K League matchups; other times, there will be smaller round-robin tournaments. There will be 15 weeks in the season to figure it all out, followed by a two-week postseason.

Organizers believe all of the elements needed to make the 2K League a success are already at their disposal. The 2K League is not a gimmick to the NBA brass. It’s a viable way to grow the game of basketball on a global scale.

“This will be the start of a long journey together,” Ted Leonsis told the room just before his 20 minutes were up. “Esports will probably create the biggest new opportunity in sports and gaming in our lifetime.”