Since its introduction two years ago, the e-sports arm of the National Basketball Association has struggled to attract viewers. Then, with the Americans forced to take shelter in place in early March, the NBA had a captive audience.
Within days, players in the NBA affiliate, known as the NBA 2K League, were playing live games. The league has leaned on its court counterparts, setting up online tournaments with WNBA players. The stars of the NBA even hosted their own tournament, which aired on ESPN and drew as many as 387,000 viewers. Sportsbooks took bets on the action.
Even before the pandemic, the NBA showed a penchant for exuberance, announcing the team rosters for the esports league in a flashy ceremony in New York in February that mimicked the draft for professional sports.
The strategy appears to have helped increase audiences for the NBA’s esports business, in which video game players compete in professional matchups. The NBA 2K League still only has a fraction of the viewers drawn to some other leagues, but at the end of its third season, which concluded with a championship game on Friday, there are signs of growth.
This season, the game viewing audience on Amazon-owned Twitch service grew 76% from the previous year, averaging 416,865 unique viewers per game, a league spokesperson said.
“The NBA through 2K was able to circulate content throughout the entirety of the coronavirus,” said Rod Breslau, an esports consultant known as Slasher.
Created by Take-Two Interactive, the NBA 2K video game series has sold approximately 94 million copies worldwide. Hoping to capitalize on the success of the series, the NBA started a partnership with Take-Two in 2017 to form League 2K.
The NBA has continued to grow its esports program, saying it generates sponsorship revenue and provides valuable data on the viewing habits of cord cutters. Today, 22 NBA franchises have an esports team, with an additional team in Shanghai.
“I think it’s basically a way of trying to reach Gen Z consumers,” said Jason Chung, executive director of esports at New Haven University, of the NBA’s ties to League 2K. “It’s an avenue they don’t want to miss.”
But some cast doubt on the league’s viability against more established competitors.
Sports video games generally have a harder time capturing audiences than fantasy games, Breslau said, adding that the biggest criticism of the existence of the NBA 2K League is “No one is watching.”
The NBA 2K video game series is a big hit on YouTube and Twitch, where fans post videos of themselves playing the games. Total streaming hours for NBA 2K 20, the game the league revolves around, was 10.1 million in July, according to data from Newzoo, a game analytics company.
But streaming hours for professional competitions amounted to less than a million in the same month. In comparison, League of Legends, a fighting arena game that has been around since 2009, racked up 135.2 million hours of total streaming and 30.2 million hours of esports in the same month, reported reported Newzoo.
“The larger 2K community is not totally interested in the 2K League,” Breslau said, noting that other esports leagues like the Overwatch League, based on a futuristic shooter, are having problems. similar. The game will always have a lot of players, he said, but converting them into esports fans is an uphill battle.
Esports audience metrics are notoriously fickle because they lack an industry standard method like Nielsen odds. This “leaves a lot of wiggle room for reporting numbers, especially since those numbers are largely proprietary,” said Ryan Rogers, academic coordinator of esports programs at Butler University.
No matter how many viewers watch the NBA 2K League, the NBA is notoriously devoted to its business ventures. He waited many years for his development league, the G League and the WNBA, to reach mainstream appeal.
And esports remains a potentially lucrative bet. According to Newzoo, the industry is expected to generate more than $ 1 billion next year in sponsorships, media rights and merchandise sales. Several NBA owners and players invested in other esports franchises before and after the introduction of the NBA 2K League.
“I believe they are here for the long haul,” Mr. Chung said. “I think it’s a very smart game.”
NBA 2K League general manager Brendan Donohue said he sees his league as a way to create NBA content.
“Commercially, you are able to leverage digital content or sponsorship services to help lead the league,” he said. “It is aimed at an audience that is increasingly difficult to reach.”
The attachment to the name of the NBA also has its advantages. The NBA 2K Players Tournament in April likely “opened the eyes” of ESPN executives, Donohue said. In May, with many other sports to offer, ESPN2 began broadcasting NBA 2K League games on a regular basis.
The NBA’s cachet also carries over to companies looking to advertise in esports. This season, the NBA 2K League added five new partners to its team of 20, including DoorDash, SAP and Tissot.
“When these brands are trying to figure out ‘How do you invest in esports?’ The good thing with us is that we are a trusted brand, and we can hold their hand and help them navigate esports,” Mr. Donohue said.
Sponsors can more easily identify with basketball than with a world of battle arenas filled with mythical creatures, but traditional athletic models aren’t always synonymous with success in esports.
To stay competitive, esports leagues mimicked the operations of North American sports leagues, using strategies such as standard contracts, trades, and trials. In February, the NBA 2K League held its annual draft with a lot of sizzle: red carpet, hip-hop performances, and Olympic gold medalist cameos.
Esports leagues have an obsession with legitimacy, but that’s a mistake, Rogers said.
“Having big live events, leagues, jerseys, making them look and feel as much as possible of sport, esports tries to treat itself as a ‘traditional sport’, he said. But that’s not how the public sees it at this point. ”
He added that many in the industry do not view esports this way either. “They would prefer it to be treated as separate,” he said.
The NBA 2K League was set to relocate to a new studio arena in Manhattan, with a selection of games to play in different cities, but those plans have been delayed due to the pandemic. The move to a distant season allowed the league to “take risks and try new things,” Donohue said.
This included special in-season tournaments and a structure that broke away from the regular-season / playoff model prevalent in North American sports leagues – a model that allows established leagues to sign lucrative broadcast deals and reserve arenas. .
Mr Chung compared the inclusion of more tournaments to European football, which has the added drama of multiple championship opportunities throughout the season, and might be more appealing to an upstart league.
Mr Donohue said he expected to add more tournaments next season.
“I think they’ve been very smart on the corporate side and the sales side,” Mr. Chung said, “but in terms of promoting the experience, popularity and use of influencers for to create some hype for the game, I think there is more work to be done.
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