According to the NBA, each of its 30 teams will eventually have its own eSports squad, just as they're represented in the WNBA or the lower-tier D-League. At launch, however, only eight to 12 NBA teams will participate, with the rest expected to do so later on. Every 2K eLeague team will be made up of five human players, which the NBA plans to treat the same way it does athletes who play for the San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks or any of its other NBA, WNBA or D-League clubs. There will be contracts and endorsement deals at stake, for instance. The main difference here is that there's room for more diversity, since these pro players can be of any age, gender or race to play on the same court -- even if it is a virtual one.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick
NBA and Take-Two Interactive said they'll create custom avatars for each player in the 2K eLeague, so players can see a digital version of themselves in every game. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says that eSports gives the league access to a new kind of athlete, different from what audiences are accustomed to seeing live or on TV. "Physical prowess, at least the way it's necessary on an NBA court, will no longer be necessary," said Silver during his All-Star Weekend press conference this past weekend. "It may be a different kind of physical prowess in terms of reflexes and your ability to move your thumbs very quickly, but these athletes can be any shape or size, and any age, and from anywhere."
To get a clearer picture of the NBA 2K eLeague as a whole, I sat down with NBA VP of Global Partnerships Matt Holt and 2K's SVP of Basketball Operations Jason Argent, two of the people involved with the project. Based on our conversation, there are still many details to be ironed out, like whether you'll be able to watch these games on ESPN, Twitch, Youtube or elsewhere. But with the competition not scheduled to start until early next year, we'll find out their distribution strategy soon enough, as well as which specific NBA teams are going to be part of the inaugural season.
NBA players during a 2K event at All-Star Weekend 2017 in New Orleans.
How did this partnership come about?
Matt Holt: 2K on their side had been doing their own gaming tournaments: We had "Road to the Finals" last year and then our owners have been super active in the space. We've been making investments, we've been exploring different ways that we could participate in eSports and we sort of said, "Let's stop looking around. Let's work with one of our biggest partners in 2K," and the two conversations just kind of converged.
What's next, now that the league has been announced?
Holt: The next steps are talking to our teams to find out exactly what teams are going to populate the league. We're expecting that we're going to get roughly half of our teams that are going to opt in and join up. Once we have that, we're going to put together some of the details about schedule, timing, but right now we're targeting 2018.
Jason Argent: I think the goal we all have collectively is to really create a league that's a match and consistent with what happens in the real NBA world. We're a simulation video game; obviously we would love to have a league that simulates that. So same team, same structure. You know, possibly a different season timing, but basically the same simulation of what happens in the real world in the NBA.
What sort of challenges do you think you'll face trying to accomplish that kind of structure for the eLeague?
Argent: We're creating something that has never existed, but I think everything is in our favor. We have a great momentum with eSports in general; we have a great partner with the NBA. And I think the fact that there's never been something where there's been a partnership with a professional sports league and a video game company before is all in our favor. But sure, anytime you're a vanguard or someone leading the charge, there are some challenges and some unanswered questions, but I think that's something that made both of our companies successful.
Holt: I think the other thing is, we're starting a league from scratch. So, with the NBA, we have the NBA, we have the WNBA, the D-League, and now we have an eSports league. We have some experience in doing that, but it's a big lift. You're starting a league from scratch, we have to sign a partnership, we have to sign up teams, we have to figure out a schedule, we have to figure out timing, we have to build from a development standpoint, so it's exciting, but it's a big lift.
What about in terms of diversity? How are the teams going to work in that regard? Is it going to be male only or can women play too?
Argent: I think that's one of the most exciting parts to us. You know, you have to have some very serious level of athletic prowess to compete in the NBA. There's a different level of prowess with this. So, males, females, 18-year-olds, 27-year-olds, 80-year-olds, you know, that's the cool part about this for us. Everyone can participate, assuming they have the prowess of being able to play the game at that professional level. For us, it expands our video game audience, and I'm assuming that with the NBA it expands their audience as well, so that's one of the biggest, exciting parts of it for us.