NewsArts & Culture / July 26, 2018

Pacers, NBA Dive Into Esports | Curious Mix

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Pacers, NBA Dive Into Esports | Curious Mix

One participant playing NBA 2K in an Esport League

Lauren Chapman/WFYI

On any given night this summer, as hundreds of thousands of sports fans watch Major League Baseball and soccer games. Millions more will watch people who are paid to play popular video games. With the exploding popularity of so-called esports the NBA has put together an electronic league of its own.

Electronic sports, or esports, are where people are paid to play video games while other people watch them. Amateurs and professionals have been playing for nearly two decades now.

And they have leagues, lots of leagues. Multiplayer online competitions, all around the world, with hundreds of millions of people watching. This year, an estimated 103 million people watched the Super Bowl. By comparison, just a few months later the League of Legends midseason invitational garnered a worldwide audience of 360 million people.

That's why the NBA is getting involved.

"When 36 million people are watching League of Legends championship series, that's more people than watch the Academy Awards and Major League Baseball World Series combined. So, the numbers do the talking," says Pacers Gaming President Kelly Krauskopf.

Kelly Krauskopf is the president of the newly launched Pacers Gaming. They're one of 17 teams involved in the NBA's NBA2K League. She says esports will draw in a younger generation of fans.

"So then maybe there is some e-sports fan out there that is starting to watch Pacers Gaming, that is now interested in the Indiana Pacers," Krauskopf says.

Earlier spring this 17 NBA franchises recruited 102 gamers, from around the world. They're paid to play a video game called NBA 2K. They will play as digital versions of their real-life teams.

"I work and I do something I love every day, so... it's a dream come true, you know? It's amazing," says Bryant Colon.

Colon is Indiana Pacers Gaming's first round pick. He just moved from Brooklyn to Indianapolis and plays under the gamertag Wolf 74.

As with all the other new NBA 2K teams, he and his five teammates live in the home cities that their teams train in.

Each of the players gets a base salary, up to $35,000, with benefits and housing. There is also prize money from tournaments up for grabs.

Once a week, each team of gamers travels to a neutral studio to play NBA 2K in-person for viewers on the streaming platform Twitch - which is like YouTube, but for video games. Colon says it will look familiar to many basketball fans.

"It's basketball played in the virtual world. So, if you enjoy the game of basketball, you'll enjoy watching the 2K league," Colon says. "It's the same concept."

And for the people rolling their eyes and saying ‘this is just a video game' – Pacers Gaming coach Cody Parrent says, no these are athletes.

They practice daily, at the Pacers training facility. And like most athletes, they run drills in video games. They just do it a little bit differently: sitting in chairs, headphones on, controllers in hands.

"These guys are 4-5 hours later than after practice," Parrent says. "They live and breathe video games and just working together. So it's just special."  

But will audiences agree?

So far, the NBA 2K League's viewership is off to a rocky start. Jordan Fragen, an analyst for the online magazine E-Sports Observer, says the league garnered respectable viewership for its launch, but then tailed off. That's a problem

"It's somewhat disappointing to a lot of people, I can imagine. Especially for sponsors who are paying for those eyeballs, or the potential eyeballs," Fragen says.

And eyeballs pay the bills – since the league makes money through sponsorship deals and merchandise. Both of which require a robust audience. While gaming and tech companies sponsor many teams, Indiana Pacers Gaming is sponsored by the Indiana National Guard.

Fragen attributes that lag to bad timing. The NBA's postseason was still in full swing at the launch of the league, and the NBA's built-in audience is going to care more about the Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors going head-to-head in real life more than a simulation – even from the best video gamers in the world.

"Is that really going to be something that people are going to chose to watch over the actual NBA? Frankly I don't think so," Fragen says.

NBA 2K managing director Brendan Donohue isn't worried yet about the numbers, because esports is exploding

"It's likely expected to double again in the next couple of years," Donohue says.

Esports is now a $1.5 billion a year industry. If NBA 2K can draw a bigger audience, it can add to the boom. And then there's the potential of a new market. That's important because traditional sports viewership in the U.S. is aging – the NFL's average viewer is 50. The NBA? 42.

The average esports viewer? 28 years-old – an age highly coveted by advertisers.

"We know that the next generation sports fan isn't necessarily watching sports the same way I grew up and watched sports," says Pacers Gaming President Kelly Krauskopf.

She says that's why the Pacers joined the inaugural season, to reach that next generation of basketball fans.

"But there is enough room in the, sports-ecosystem for all of us," Krauskopf says.

While the NBA is the first to dive headfirst into esports with sanctioned league play, others are not far behind. FIFA and the NFL are in the planning phases for esports leagues of their own.

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