NBA 2K League managing director on how it’ll find success

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  •  The NBA 2K League begins May 2018 after hopeful players get drafted in March
  • Donohue believes there’s desire for NBA esports and potential for new audience
  • 17 team real world NBA teams will sign the best NBA 2K players for the League
  • NBA could be successful as an esport as it is more understandable than others

Matt Porter For Mailonline

The NBA 2K series is the second best selling sport game series in the world behind FIFA. FIFA has an ever growing esports scene, and starting in May 2018, NBA 2K will have one of its own.

The NBA 2K League’s managing director Brendan Donohue has been working in the NBA for 21 years, with a focus on the business side of things. Now he’s making the switch to esports, and is excited what the future holds.

He spoke about the league’s direction at the Esports Live event recently, as well as how gaming is changing the way we live our lives and the ways families interact. 

Brendan Donohue spoke at a recent esports event about how the NBA 2K League will work

17 real world NBA teams will each also have esports teams competing in the NBA 2K League

17 real world NBA teams will each also have esports teams competing in the NBA 2K League

17 real world NBA teams will each also have esports teams competing in the NBA 2K League

Donohue and his son can often be found at home on the weekends playing NBA 2K together. ‘Just like my father took me to baseball games when I was a kid, this is where we bond. This is how I find out what’s really going on at school, what girl he likes… we’re doing that in our gaming chairs.’

Games are also changing the way we view the world. ‘My son’s knowledge of the NBA, like stats, and understanding the skill sets of the players actually comes through [NBA] 2K. He really encapsulates why we’re excited about this league, because it opens doors to new audiences.’ 

Bringing in the viewers is the main challenge for a game hoping to break into the esports scene. Luckily for the 2K League, Donohue believes the desire for NBA esports is already there. The finals of the NBA 2K all-star event in February brought in 2 million viewers.

‘We get the question constantly asking do you really think people are going to want to watch people play video games against other people? I like to challenge them a bit about their own viewing habits. Think about 10 years ago. Would people have thought you’d be watching someone else buy up a house, or a cooking show? Yet these are some of the most popular shows on TV right now.’

‘We think expertise, and watching the best of anyone compete at something is a very attractive proposition, and it’s exponentially better when you add a layer of competition to it.’

Donohue says the regular NBA fan should make the crossover to watching the 2K League naturally. ‘I think the success the 2K game has had in recent years coincides with the success the NBA has had. So I don’t think we’re taking from Peter to pay Paul. They will end up scaling together, and I think we may be providing something [to NBA fans] that they already want.’ 

The NBA 2K League begins in May, but the players themselves will need to walk a longer road. Starting in February there will be tryouts, and in March there will be a draft in a similar fashion to many North American sports. The best 85 players will be drafted to the 17 teams which will be participating in the league, all of which are existing basketball teams in the NBA. 

NBA 2K18 is the latest game in the franchise, the series has been gaining popularity recently

NBA 2K18 is the latest game in the franchise, the series has been gaining popularity recently

NBA 2K18 is the latest game in the franchise, the series has been gaining popularity recently

Hopeful players will go through tryouts and then into a draft where teams select the best ones

Hopeful players will go through tryouts and then into a draft where teams select the best ones

Hopeful players will go through tryouts and then into a draft where teams select the best ones

‘We have our 1.6 million daily active users. They’re playing 90 minutes a day. That’s our core audience, they’re all in on the league. Beyond that we have 155 million NBA fans, and we have great data on all these people. We know that NBA fans are more likely to play video games and more likely to esports than any other sport out there.’

‘Then we look at the 200 million esports enthusiasts. Are we going to convert all of them? Certainly not, but we do think there’s an opportunity, because 73 percent of 2K players are playing another game that would be considered a traditional esport.’

Unlike with a game like FIFA where a single player controls an entire team, in the NBA 2K League, all 10 players on the court will be controlled by a human. Donohue says having no artificial intelligence impacting the game will make it more of a pure esport. 

The players will be controlling their own avatar, rather than using real world players. This cuts out the strongest players automatically being better than the weaker players in the league, and also rules out the boring possibility of all teams using the same players in every game.

The season will be 17 weeks long, 15 weeks of regular season and 2 weeks of playoffs to determine the winner. In addition, tournaments will be inserted throughout the season, combining the structures of the regular NBA and regular esport schedules.

But will there be opportunities of bringing ideas from other esports to a game based heavily on the real world thing? League of Legends has the champion picks and bans phase, while Counter-Strike has the map bans before matches.

‘We are thinking that way, and we’re trying to figure out what that is for us. Are there strategies from game to game that we can make unique? And we’re talking to 2K about that. We are going to create that layer of strategy so that there is that similar engagement opportunity.’ 

The league will take place over 17 weeks, with 15 weeks of regular season and two of playoffs

The league will take place over 17 weeks, with 15 weeks of regular season and two of playoffs

The league will take place over 17 weeks, with 15 weeks of regular season and two of playoffs

One advantage NBA 2K has over other newer esports is that the game is instantly recognisable. League of Legends can be intimidating to the casual viewer, while anyone who knows what basketball is will know what’s happening in NBA 2K straight away.

It’s a benefit to potential advertisers too, especially since the game’s presentation is close to the real world sport. ‘It would feel very inorganic to see brands embedded into a traditional esport,’ said Donohue. ‘But if you look at the 2K game and see Mountain Dew on the court side signage… it would feel more weird to not have that. We think those digital signage opportunities are an easy way to activate partners in the game itself.’

The game is also rated E for everyone, while many of the popular esports aren’t quite as family friendly. They’re colourful and vibrant for the most part, but the majority do involve killing your opponents. NBA 2K is just throwing a ball through a hoop. 

2K is clearly confident in the League, but only time will tell if esports fans will embrace the game, and if it will be able to bring in a new audience when it comes onto the scene next year. 

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