Esports’s NBA 2K League is gradually catapulting its business into a major mainstream media-and-entertainment venture aimed at both hardcore gamers and casual viewers. Managing director Brendan Donohue says recent significant deals with TV networks, brands and a new Asia franchise are establishing the league’s ambitions to be a truly global enterprise as it manoeuvres obstacles imposed by the current Covid-19 pandemic at the same time.
The League decoded
The esports teams belonging to the NBA 2K League, a joint venture between US games publishing goliath Take-Two Interactive and the NBA, the US professional basketball operation, entertain by playing virtual basketball competitively.
The venture makes the NBA the first US-based traditional-sports association to embrace professional competitive-gaming wholly by forming an esports league.
Whatever the high-profile traditional basketball players can do on the physical basketball courts, the NBA 2K League teams can match by playing Take-Two’s NBA 2K basketball simulation video game against each other.
And their activities are supported by investors who understand their vision, states Donohue, who joined in April 2017 after several senior positions within the NBA.
Our NBA owners are very engaged in the 2K League, and they also have significant investments in esports more broadly – Donohue
Today, the league comprises 23 teams, 22 of which belong to NBA top-tier teams. Knicks Gaming, the NBA 2K League’s 2018 champions, for example, is an affiliate of NBA team New York Knicks.
Last year’s champions T-Wolves Gaming is part of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. The league’s newest NBA-linked esports member is Hornets Venom GT, which is an offshoot of Charlotte Hornets, the NBA team controlled by US basketball legend Michael Jordan.
Since its launch season in 2018, the league’s objective is to be an international brand.
Helping to cement that worldwide aspiration early this year was the Gen.G Tigers of Shanghai, which became the first NBA 2K League team to represent Asia, the first outside North America and the first not associated with an NBA franchise.
From Day One, all of us said this is a global league competing at the highest level. Even before our first draft, we saw a team in Shanghai playing Knicks Gaming – Donohue
To this end, Donohue and his cohorts have also sealed major deals with international linear TV broadcasters and non-endemic brands.
During its first two season (2018 and 2019), the league’s tournaments and other entertainment content have been staple on live-streaming video platforms Twitch and YouTube.
But if airing esports on TV as well is crucial to luring a mainstream audience to boost future growth, then the league is on its way to a slam dunk.
In May, it announced that NBA 2K League competitions will for the first time be aired on linear TV via sports-TV network ESPN2 and its digital channels (app and website) in the US, as well as on Canada-based Sportsnet’s channels.
This was followed by another linear-TV agreement in June with eGG Network, the Southeast Asian operation reaching audiences in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines.
This speaks to a whole host of other opportunities that we see in the future of the league as a global property -Donohue
With tournament names like The Ticket, The Turn and The Tipoff, NBA2K events might seem niche as brands, but their potential reach is massive.
NBA 2K League activities are marketed to the NBA and its 30 teams’ 1.8 billion social-media fans, as well as the more than 2 million social-media followers for the 2K league and its teams.
Meanwhile, Take-Two’s NBA 2K video-games series has sold about 94 million units worldwide; it is the No.1 PC online sports game in China; and the NBA 2K League has recorded 373 million-plus video views across all NBA and NBA 2K League social-media platforms.
Via linear TV, ESPN2 is available in about 80 million US TV homes alone.
During the first quarter of 2020, Twitch reported a record-breaking 3 billion-plus hours of streamed (mostly gaming) content watched, while YouTube Gaming clocked 1.1 billion hours.
We’ve been very happy with our continuing to stream on Twitch and YouTube and we’ve seen significant growth in that audience this season versus the last season. What’s great about our current set-up with ESPN 2, Sportsnet and others is that they are all incremental – Donohue
That extra audience growth is luring more non-endemic brands to the NBA 2K League’s door.
This summer, official brand partnerships were formed with GameStop, the US-based international video-games retailer; Jostens, the international memorabilia specialist; SAP, the Germany-headquartered international software business, and Tissot, the Swiss luxury watch manufacturer.
These brands join other endemic and non-endemic ones, from beer maker Anheuser-Busch and confectionery favourite Snickers to the HyperX gaming products and restaurant chain Panera Bread.
They are realising the opportunities that esports bring – Donohue
The Gen.G connection
The partnership with Gen.G, the umbrella esports organisations that owns the Gen.G Tigers of Shanghai team, encapsulates the kind of international alliances Donohue is seeking.
Part of the partnership we have with them is much bigger than just a franchise. It includes them being responsible for helping us find and develop talent in China and across Asia. We’re interested in partnering with organisations that can help us scale the league – Donohue
Gen.G manages nine teams across several competitive-gaming titles and its assets include the Overwatch League team Seoul Dynasty and a youth esports academy. Additionally, it boasts Hollywood actor Will Smith among its investors.
In keeping with its mission to adopt best practices from its alliances:
What Gen.G did was open up a lot of eyes in the esports business and the sports world in general. The fact that we’re looking for additional franchises outside of our NBA teams means we’re confident in the several significant conversations that are on-going – Donohue
The Covid-19 crisis
Challenges for any business do not come greater than the current pandemic and the resulting social-distancing and quarantine that have halted all live venue-based events, including esports tournaments.
However, the NBA 2K knew where to turn to for guidance thanks to the support of the NBA’s 74 years’ experience, including medical expertise, and its 20-year relationship with Take-Two Interactive.
When we were considering how to adjust, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stressed that the companies that double down, invest and dig in on their business always come out flying ahead of the competition – Donohue
The NBA 2K League immediately communicated with the teams, players, fans and commercial partners about its lockdown solutions.
Until this season, we’ve had our players compete face-to-face. All of a sudden, that was no longer a safe option. We pivoted where we enabled our players to play from their respective home markets. That was in itself significant as we had to literally create a new version of the game to allow for that – Donohue
Although its start was postponed from March to May, Season 3, including the game play, the viewing, the esports matches and broadcast, went totally online.
To keep all stakeholders engaged while the online edition was being tested, the league launched the Three For All Showdown, a three-week tournament that for the first time invited esports fans to play in a 2K League-hosted professional competition.
Because we could play remotely, we could do it safely. And I can’t think of any other professional sports where you can play remotely – Donohue
The mainstream goal
Esports’s development has been helped by initiatives taken by the professional sector early on to educate all potential stakeholders, from media platforms to brands. And, as Donohue points out, several interested parties now have esports experts in-house.
I think esports is becoming a lot more accepted by mainstream media and entertainment sectors. And I think the idea of having to take a lot of time to explain what is esports is becoming a lot less important in meetings now than it was three years ago. In terms of our appeal, esports can attract any sports fan or any fan of entertainment. We strongly believe that people love watching the best in the world compete at anything. You turn on your TV set, you can watch American Idol or America’s Got Talent and with that people have proven they love elite competition. And we believe our players are elite athletes – Donohue
And the sports-as-entertainment legacy at the NBA has enabled the 2K League to grab the esports ball and ran with it towards a winning service for fans.
All the things the NBA has been doing for a long time, the team set-up and the local-market engagement, we think that is the big advantage we bring to the table – Donohue
NBA 2K outlook
Donohue believes that the digital tech that enabled the NBA 2K League to pivot from venue-based esports tournaments to safe online competitions during this pandemic will remain part of the media-and-entertainment world’s future:
That was a major innovation and I think we can see more of this moving forward – Donohue
Additionally, technology is enabling the esports sector to understand its audiences more comprehensively.
What we do is more informed. I think we have more data and evidence to be able to tell our partners who they are speaking to, what the reach is, and how engaged our audience is – Donohue
So is broadcast TV going to influence the NBA 2K League in the same way it has impacted traditional professional basketball?
In the future, we may see a broadcast for the hardcore esports fan and a different one with different announcers for a more casual audience. I see more of the direct-to-consumer set-up that you see across any type of content consumption. We’re still learning, but I do see more of that in the future – Donohue