The NBA is taking a major step into the world of virtual sports, forming its own esports organization. Known as the NBA 2K eLeague, the organization is a partnership between the NBA and Take-Two Interactive, the parent company of 2K Sports, which publishes the popular NBA 2K series of basketball video games.
Take-Two and the NBA said in a news release that the NBA 2K eLeague will be the “first official eSports league operated by a U.S. professional sports league.” The five-person esports teams in the eLeague will be run by real-life NBA clubs, although it’s unclear if each of the NBA’s 30 franchises will operate its own squad in the eLeague.
Competition in the eLeague will resemble the structure of a traditional sports schedule: head-to-head matchups over the course of a “regular season,” followed by a bracket-based playoffs setup leading to a championship showdown.
“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,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver. “We look forward to combining our best-in-class NBA team operators with Take-Two’s competitive gaming expertise to create a brand new league experience.”
Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two, said that “eSports is a growing segment of our industry, and we will aim to take the thrill of competition to exciting new heights through our partnership with the NBA.”
NBA 2K developer Visual Concepts, which is also a subsidiary of Take-Two, has gradually been establishing a foothold in the world of esports. Following the release of 2015’s NBA 2K16, the studio kicked off a tournament known as Road to the Finals last February. The competition ran for months, culminating in a championship event in June with a top prize of $250,000 on the line. Visual Concepts added a spectator mode to NBA 2K16 specifically so players could watch Road to the Finals matches in the game.
The eLeague partnership between the NBA and the makers of NBA 2K — one of the most popular sports games on the market — also makes sense from the pro basketball league’s perspective. Esports is a growth industry for NBA athletes and owners, with multiple individuals affiliated with the league buying into esports organizations over the past few years.
The list includes former Los Angeles Lakers player Rick Fox, who owns a League of Legends team; Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, who is an investor in NRG eSports; NBA legend Magic Johnson, who holds a majority stake in esports organization Team Liquid alongside Ted Leonsis and Peter Guber, both of whom own NBA teams; and the Philadelphia 76ers, who bought Team Dignitas and Apex Gaming last fall.