The 2018 NBA season will mark a milestone for the brand and the online gaming industry as a whole as it will be the first professional eSports league in the USA to operate with official backing from a major sporting organisation.
The NBA 2K eLeague was announced last week as part of a link-up between the National Basketball Association and Take-Two Interactive Software, which publishes the NBA series of video games and whose technical expertise will drive the tournament.
The anticipation for the world’s first eSports competition operated in conjunction with a recognised sporting organisation is already palpable. Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two, fuelled the fire yet further by saying:
"With this new venture, Take-Two and the NBA aim to fuel the accelerating growth of eSports and take the thrill of competition to exciting new heights."
The league itself will be managed just like an NBA campaign. Gamers will be asked to draft their five-player roster and battle it out with their fellow managers for points. There will be a regular season league ladder, before the top teams will proceed into a play-off bracket and eventually a finals series, should they qualify.
The five-month season will kick off in conjunction with the NBA campaign of 2018. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has confirmed that while none of the 30 NBA franchises have yet to fully commit to the league as yet, he does anticipate that 'around half' will participate. A statement on the NBA 2K Facebook page confirmed the link-up’s aspirations:
"This partnership provides an excellent opportunity to further engage the eSports community, leveraging the NBA's team ecosystem and the worldwide success of the NBA 2K simulation basketball platform. We are creating the world’s next true 'elite' sport – virtual basketball."
The numbers truly stack up for eSports gaming, which is fast becoming one of the most popular forms of online entertainment around. Even the best part of two years ago, the number of viewers watching eSports worldwide was in excess of 130 million. It was only a matter of time before the industry increased both in value and participation numbers.
Now, with a number of major sponsors on board – and a slew of bookmakers including bet365 offering odds and betting markets – eSports is expected to continue to grow through 2017 and beyond. That's a phenomenon that the NBA and Silver were only too happy to tap into:
"The popularity of NBA 2K with the young and growing eSports community provides a unique opportunity to develop something truly special for our fans and the gaming community. There’s a global pool of gamers – they come in all ages and sizes and ethnicities and sexes. [In the NBA 2K eLeague] we will at some point have a draft that will look somewhat similar to an NBA draft, in which the teams will select their players, and presumably on top of that they’ll have the ability to spot some great talent on their own: players who aren’t identified through sort of a league system. And that’s how we’ll form our teams. Fans and players of these games, who aren’t as expert as these professionals, want to come into an arena and watch the very best play. So you can imagine a scenario where, say, the new arena in Milwaukee, where there’s five-on-five competition, just like NBA basketball, is being projected on a huge, large high-definition screen, and fans are watching all the moves. There’s quarters, there’s halftimes, and everything that goes with it."
The NBA 2K League will naturally appeal to those who enjoy a flutter on traditional basketball betting markets and those who partake in eSports betting consistently. With this link-up with the National Basketball Association just the first in what is believed to be a long line of hook-ups between major sporting bodies and eSports providers, the opportunities for punters look set to increase in the coming months.
The NBA has warmly embraced eSports gaming and that is evident in the activities of some of their leading franchises. The Philadelphia 76ers, for example, have already purchased their own eSports outfits in Team Dignitas and Apex Gaming, while the owners of the Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies have all invested their own funds into eSports.
Then there are the legends of basketball who have also made their own investments into this fast-rising industry. Shaquille O’Neal, an NBA Hall of Famer, has ploughed significant funds into NRG eSports, while the incomparable Magic Johnson holds a majority stake in Team Liquid, another eSports firm.
It’s little wonder then that eSports has enjoyed a particular boom in basketball, with a $250,000 guaranteed top prize contest - the NBA 2K17 All-Star Tournament - scheduled in for February and the second official competition launched by 2K. These new eSports leagues feature a 'spectator mode', so punters can live stream the action from the comfort of their own homes and bet accordingly with any of the affiliated online bookmakers.
Other non-sporting titles like League of Legends, Counterstrike and DOTA 2 are already hugely popular with eGamers and punters alike, with eSports betting opportunities available on an almost daily basis. Some online betting sites, such as Betway, even offer in-play betting on the action, so if you know your stuff then this could be another profitable string to your bow!