To go along with its actual, professional basketball league, the NBA is creating a new division for players who excel at video-game basketball.
Based on Take Two Interactive's NBA 2K series, the new esports league will mimic the structures and conventions of the NBA. Five-person teams will be supported and operated by actual NBA franchises. A first for U.S. professional sports, the NBA 2K eLeague will begin with a player combine, then a draft, with regular-season games and playoffs coming in 2018.
"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 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 U.S. sports franchise to hire a full-time esports executive.
The NBA 2K eLeague will be jointly owned by the NBA and Take Two, which has sold more than 68 million copies of NBA 2K games. Player salaries and team prizes are still to be determined, along with how — and where — fans will be able to watch. Some events will be live, with games also streaming online and possibly on television. Holt said the league has spoken to all 30 NBA teams and expects roughly half to participate in the first season.
The NBA and Take Two might also have to address gambling, which has been key to the rapid growth of competitive video gaming, and existing esports leagues generally have a more hands-off approach. Gambling on physical sports is illegal in most states, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver has recently broken with other professional league leaders, saying he would be in favor of a path toward legalization.
A league spokesman said in a statement that it was premature to speculate on potential gambling associated with the new league.
Next week, during the NBA All-Star festivities in New Orleans, Take 2 will crown a winner in its NBA 2K17 All-Star Tournament, which carries a $250,000 grand prize.