It is a smart natural business progression which will create content, potentially fill some arena dates, expand brand partnership options and hopefully engage younger casual fans with a mature and thriving property; those are really the reasons why the NBA 2K eLeague announcement makes great sense for all involved, from teams to media partners.
The NBA 2K eLeague will launch in early ’18, billed as the first U.S. pro sports league to establish a virtual gaming offshoot, is a joint venture with longtime NBA licensee Take-Two Interactive Software with about half the league’s 30 franchises are expected to participate at launch. What the venture provides is a much easier entrée into a gaming environment without the massive burden, cost and learning curve that many are trying to undertake with traditional eSports.
That’s not what this is and there are many in the eSports industry who rarely consider games like FIFA or Madden or NBA 2K part of their domain. Having Monumental Sports buy into Team Liquid is a play for eSports with its one P and L and its own set of business parameters. Games that involve traditional sports are considered more on the fringe of gaming, albeit for the teams, the leagues and even the passionate fans of a sport like basketball of the NFL, they are a part of gaming nonetheless.
The “sports” eGaming concept isn’t that new. Several European soccer clubs have actively engaged in FIFA on the gaming side for several years, and have built competitive FIFA teams that are branded and engaged under the club domain. Several clubs have also seen value in using the video games as a strategy and training tool, especially when you bring in a VR experience. It gives their young players a chance to be immersed in the sport on the club and work on skills like strategy and hand eye coordination away from the soccer pitch. Whether that works for basketball or the NBA is still to be determined, but there is no doubt that anyone who has been around an NBA training facility or a lockerroom has seen the amount of video games being played, be it traditional eSports or NBA 2K or Madden, and realizes there is an untapped connection to be made with athletes and gaming.
For the teams themselves there are obvious fan engagement and branding and tech opportunities that go along with an NBA 2K League. First there is little learning curve for casual fans. They know what basketball is, who the stars are and how it is played. They don’t have to pick up any nuances that would be in a shooter game per se, so that audience is built in. Then you have the large audience of fans of sports games who play but may not follow an actual team. They love the gaming experience and now have the chance to be both engaged and potentially competitive with a game they are passionate about. Then you have a third audience, engaged traditional games who may like some aspects of sport, and can now try their hand at large scale branded events for money or notoriety. That is the sweet crossover that the NBA will crave for this engagement; new, young fans who might have stayed away from consuming the NBA but will enjoy the gaming environment. With all that new engagement also comes content for any various and sundry media properties that a team owns, along with countless licensing and merchandise sales, and if you own an arena, even a smaller venue, hosting competitions now becomes a part of your formal community strategy, just like a camp program would be. It all dovetails under the brand, and if you happen to pull in some elite gamers on to your team squad, the buzz and recognition goes up from there.
On the technology side, a 2K play can also help open doors in spaces like Virtual Reality. Think of gamers playing competitively against each other, and then suddenly a star like Steph Curry drops in to be immersed in the game and playing live, addressing and teaming with those in the competition. The buzz and added value for that type of immersion is both unique and tremendously valuable, with little time investment by the player for things like travel; virtual appearances around the game become part of the Player Program outreach, and another fan engagement platform is launched.
With all that upside, the initial launch will not be that easy. Some teams will still want to focus on the traditional and not invest…and you will have to invest time and staff into this…to make it work. Some teams may only put a token effort into this and see short term failure, while other might decide that discretionary time in their market is best suited for other endeavors. There is risk, but it is low risk for those who make the effort, and coming with a league overlay and a strong game plan from take 2 could make this pretty turnkey once it is up and running.
While there have been some efforts made by the NFL to push Madden with EA and engage a new audience; the weekly show on NFL Network is one example, Madden Bowl is another, and some teams have started looking at having their own Madden teams for the same reasons of fan engagement the NBA has now formalized, the NBA is fast and first in getting into the space on a league wide scale. There will be a great deal of education that will go into this in the coming year; one key piece is explaining the difference in what this property is in comparison to what eLeague is doing with Turner Sports for example, but as a way to aggregate some low hanging fruit with an engaged audience that has an affinity to basketball, the NBA 2K move should score some great buzz, and even more importantly, help create some new streams of engagement and revenue for a league that always thinks globally and quickly on ways to grow.