In the NBA's eSports league, diversity means a new kind of athlete

“These athletes can be any shape or size, and any age, and from anywhere.”

Chesnot via Getty Images

With millions of gamers willing to watch people play League of Legends or FIFA for fun, major players in the entertainment industry see eSports as an intriguing business opportunity. Earlier this month, the NBA announced a partnership with Take-Two Interactive, developer of the renowned NBA2K franchise, to create a one-of-a-kind eSports league. This new professional gaming competition, known as "NBA 2K eLeague," will be the first owned by a major US sports organization when it starts in 2018. That's assuming the NFL, MLB or MLS don't make any sudden moves before then.

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.

And in terms of deals with networks, is the league going to be streamed on Twitch, YouTube or elsewhere?

Holt: I think the first step is we got to get some of these details locked down, and then I think media, schedule, timing, those things will start to fall into place.

What else intrigues the NBA and 2K most about this?

Holt: The main thing is, we're starting a fourth league. It's kind of like a fourth pillar of the game of basketball; it's a totally different world. You know, some of the things about the different types of players that can potentially participate in the league, the fact that it could be global. You can imagine down the road, where, yeah, we have a bunch of franchises in North America, but there is no reason why you couldn't have a franchise in London, or in Shanghai, or in some other international city, so that's really cool.

Argent: ESports in Asia, and certainly internationally, are a little bit ahead of the United States. We've learned quite a bit about that, so that's hugely exciting to us. The idea of utilizing that and being able to be on the front lines of doing what they're doing, or replicating what the international markets are doing on our level, it's very cool to be leading that charge in North America. But, you know, a lot of it is expanding. The NBA has done such a fantastic job growing internationally, and the video game business is obviously a big international business, so the ability for us to partner together to do that and to expand globally is super exciting for us.

Is the idea to treat the 2K eLeague the same way as your other three leagues? Will you include it in a future All-Star Weekend or maybe awards season?

Holt: We're starting at a smaller level, and it's in the beginning stages right now. But that's the vision: That it runs in parallel with the NBA season and it's a fourth league that we run and operate together.

What about for the naysayers who say eSports are not real sports?

Argent: Obviously, I don't think we believe that. Who are the naysayers? That would be my question. Like anything that's new, there's a question mark. But I think there's enough momentum, there's enough proof, and there's enough people, enough people and enough consumers who are playing and participating in eSports that it's a very viable market in our opinion.

This interview has been edited and condensed.