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Why the NBA Is Launching an eSports Basketball League in 2018

Variety logo Variety 2/9/2017 Todd Spangler

The National Basketball Association is taking to the virtual hardwood with NBA 2K eLeague, the first time a U.S. pro sports league will have a stake in an eSports league.

The NBA is forming the video-game league in partnership with Take-Two Interactive, the longtime publisher “NBA 2K” series, with the first competitions to take place in 2018. In diving into the sector, the NBA sees the opportunity to tap into the huge and fast-growing community of fans that have flocked to eSports — which at some point could possibly eclipse traditional sports in terms of popularity.

So the NBA is laying the groundwork in eSports not only because it sees a bona fide revenue stream, but because video games might become the No. 1 way fans interact with the game in the future. The number of eSports enthusiasts is expected to grow from 148 million this year to 345 million by 2019, according to research firm NewZoo.

Here’s how NBA commissioner Adam Silver put it: “We believe we have a unique opportunity to develop something truly special for our fans and the young and growing eSports community,” he said in a statement.

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The five-member NBA 2K eLeague teams will be operated by current NBA franchises. The initial teams of pro gamers, who will play the game as user-created avatars, will be announced in the next few months. The league will mimic the NBA’s actual season, with a regular season of team matchups followed by a bracketed playoff system and championship game.

The NBA is the latest media entity looking to exploit the popularity of eSports, which has been slowly finding a perch on TV and spreading across Facebook. (The NBA and Take-Two did not announce distribution partners for the 2K eLeague.)

Major League Baseball has some skin in the eSports game, but not as a league operator. MLB’s BAMTech streaming-video unit — backed by a $1 billion investment from Disney — entered into a multiyear deal with Riot Games to produce and deliver “League of Legends” eSports programming globally. Meanwhile, Turner and WME-IMG teamed up to form ELeague, geared around Valve’s “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” with competitions airing on TBS and streamed on Twitch. And Activision Blizzard bought Major League Gaming a year ago.

Take-Two actually in the middle of its second tournament for “NBA 2K.” In December, the company’s 2K label launched the NBA 2K17 All-Star Tournament for Xbox and PlayStation consoles. The tournament features a $250,000 grand prize and will conclude with the finals Feb. 17 in New Orleans.

NBA and Take-Two have been working together since 1999. The game publisher’s “NBA 2K” series has sold more than 68 million copies to date, including 7 million for the current “2K17” edition.

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