LOS ANGELES — Esports are a big theme at this year’s E3 video game expo, but the primary focus has been on fighting games. The NBA 2K League is trying to stand out from the crowd with its professional esports league built around Take-Two Interactive Software‘s (TTWO) popular basketball simulation game.
The NBA 2K League, a joint venture of the National Basketball Association and Take-Two, brought league officials and three top players to E3 Tuesday for a media roundtable.
Now in its inaugural season, the NBA 2K League has faced a good amount of skepticism. Critics wonder whether fans will want to follow a virtual sport when a real-world version of the game already exists.
Brendan Donohue, NBA 2K League managing director, said the league has a number of business advantages compared with other esports for games like “League of Legends” from Tencent (TCEHY)-owned Riot Games or “Overwatch” from Activision Blizzard (ATVI).
“Compared to other (esports) games, we are rated E, so partners feel comfortable putting their brand next to the NBA 2K brand,” he said. Games rated E for “everyone” by the Entertainment Software Rating Board are suitable for players of all ages.
NBA 2K League partners include Intel (INTC), Dell’s Alienware division, State Farm, Jordan Brand at Nike (NKE), New Era Cap, HyperX and Scuf Gaming.
Also, the rules of basketball are understood worldwide, so the esport version is easy to follow, Donohue said.
“With a lot of traditional esports, if you don’t play that game, it can be pretty intimidating in terms of actually understanding what’s going on,” Donohue said. “We’re lucky that our game is globally recognizable.”
Esports At E3 2018
Several companies were hosting esports competitions at E3 this week. They included Epic Games with “Fortnite: Battle Royale” and Tencent with “Arena of Valor.” Nintendo (NTDOY) held tournaments for its games “Splatoon 2” and “Super Smash Bros.”
Research firm Newzoo expects the global esports industry to grow to more than $900 million in revenue this year and $1.4 billion by 2020. By 2021, the global esports audience is forecast to exceed 550 million people.
Top NBA 2K League Players Meet Fans
NBA 2K League brought three of its top players to E3 to meet with fans, media and sponsors; Shaka Browne, known as “Yeah I Compete,” of Jazz Gaming; Artreyo Boyd, or “Dimez,” of Mavs Gaming; and Dayne Downey, or “OneWildWalnut,” of Blazer5 Gaming.
Those professional gamers are “great ambassadors for the league,” Donahue said.
The NBA 2K League features the 102 best NBA 2K players in the world, he said. The 17 teams in the league chose them following two stages of qualifying and out of 72,000 hopefuls.
Teams compete in five-on-five gameplay using unique characters, not existing NBA players. The Season 1 matches are taking place in a studio in New York City. Teams fly in weekly from their respective cities. Games are streamed on Amazon (AMZN)-owned Twitch.
The season runs for 17 weeks, beginning in May and ending in August. There are 12 weeks of weekly matchups, followed by three weeks of in-season tournaments and two weeks of postseason play.
Plans For Second Season Underway
The league is already planning for the second season, Donohue said. It is looking to add more teams, perhaps even outside the U.S., he said.
“Our NBA owners are extremely bullish on esports,” Donohue said, and not just in the NBA 2K League. Riot Games recently sold 10 franchises for a “League of Legends” professional league in North America and seven of those have NBA ownership, he said. “League of Legends” is a multiplayer battle arena game with fantasy and horror elements.
“The esports space is growing very fast and the 2K game itself has exploded,” he said.
Take-Two sold about 9 million copies of “NBA 2K17” worldwide. The current edition, “NBA 2K18,” is on pace to be the best-selling release in the history of the game franchise.
NBA 2K has 1.6 million daily active users and 5 million monthly users.
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