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2018 NBA 2K League Draft - photo of full 102-member draft class
The NBA 2K League’s inaugural draft class of 102 men at the draft on April 4, 2018.
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

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2K Sports ‘would fully expect’ women to make NBA 2K League in 2019

Esports organization making efforts to improve diversity of gender and national origin

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Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

The NBA 2K League has already set out on the road to its sophomore season. Qualifiers for the esports organization’s 2019 campaign ended Tuesday night, with NBA 2K19 players competing in online games for the chance to move on to the next round: the NBA 2K League Combine in December.

About 72,000 people qualified for the inaugural season’s combine, which was held in February; this time around, the requirements were a bit more stringent. But there’s presumably a greater level of awareness of the league after its first campaign, which may lead to a larger pool of qualifying applicants for the upcoming season despite the increased challenge.

Either way, there’s a big question in the minds of esports fans, industry observers and NBA 2K League officials: When the qualifying players are winnowed down to the 2019 draft class, will the group include any women? And what can the NBA 2K League’s organizers do to ensure that the answer to that question is a yes?

Mz_LJ playing in NBA 2K League Showcase
Mz_LJ, a female NBA 2K streamer, partaking in the NBA 2K League Showcase tournament in July 2018.
Michelle Farsi/NBAE/Getty Images via NBA 2K League/Twitter

Last December, Brendan Donohue, the managing director of the NBA 2K League, held a conference call with the media to discuss the nascent esports organization’s newly unveiled logo and impending tryout process.

The NBA 2K League’s logo resembles that of the NBA, which features the silhouette of Hall-of-Famer Jerry West, but it stands on its own. It incorporates both the NBA and the NBA 2K video game, with the typeface used in NBA 2K’s branding as well as a red/white/blue color scheme and “pill” shape that evoke the NBA’s iconic look.

That was intentional, according to the NBA and Rare Design, the branding firm that the league hired to craft the NBA 2K League marks. The parties also touted something more subtle that they wanted the design to communicate: the idea that esports is open to anyone and everyone. There’s no human silhouette in the logo because there’s “no prototypical NBA 2K player,” Donohue said during the conference call. “It’s inclusive of everyone.”

The logos for the NBA 2K League and the NBA.

In a high-touch behind-the-scenes look at the design process, Rare Design founder Rodney Richardson echoed those sentiments. “It’s not defined by sex; it’s not male or female,” he said of the logo. “This league is open to any gamer that has the ability to go out there and earn their spot.”

Yet on the day before the first-ever NBA 2K League draft in early April, when the league revealed its inaugural draft class of 102 esports athletes, all of them were men.

During a press conference on the day of the draft, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver described the absence of women in the first NBA 2K League draft class as “a disappointment for all of us so far.”

“I’m not concerned that there was something wrong with the process necessarily,” Silver added, sitting alongside Donohue of the NBA 2K League and Strauss Zelnick, CEO of NBA 2K owner Take-Two Interactive. “What I’m concerned about — and this is a much larger issue in the gaming community that Strauss and Brendan and I have talked a lot about — is that something is going on in the gaming community that either is not attracting women or is repelling women from wanting to be part of it.”

As for the process, Silver said that NBA 2K League officials whittled down the field of potential draftees in a “blind” fashion, going from the top 1,000 players of the combine to a short list of 250 “by avatars, in essence.”

That pool of 250 draft hopefuls included one woman.

Donohue said that league officials would go back to “review and evaluate all components of the tryout process” — relying on game statistics, applications and “virtual live interviews” — to trim the short list down to the final 102. For whatever reason, the lone female player didn’t make the cut.

We don’t know how many female NBA 2K players qualified for the initial combine, or how many of the combine’s top 1,000 finishers were women. And it’s hard to say for sure where the issues were: potential barriers to entry for female players or problems with the league’s selection process, or the possibility that — as you might hear from people who didn’t think there were problems at all — no woman was more deserving of a spot in the draft class than the 102 men who made it.

What was clear, though, was that the organizers of the NBA 2K League were not happy about its lack of gender diversity. They say they’ve been working to address the issue for the future.

NBA 2K19 - Paul George celebrating
Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder in NBA 2K19.
Visual Concepts/2K Sports

“Along with the launch of this league, we are making a concerted effort, led by Oris Stuart, who is the head of diversity and inclusion at the NBA, to create a task force designed so that next year when we’re sitting here for the draft, we will have a pool of women who are participating as well,” said Silver on draft day.

In addition to setting up the task force, the league’s diversity initiative involved efforts to figure out how to reach women in the NBA 2K community, according to a spokesperson. Officials talked to people in and around the gaming industry, and invested in data-driven reports including a survey of gamers, in an effort to understand gaming’s barriers to entry for women. They also identified and met with some of the top women in the NBA 2K player base, and invited four of them to play in a high-profile tournament in late July.

Finally, the league made a small but hopefully meaningful addition to its application: a clause in which players must promise to uphold a “fair and safe competitive environment” and “treat fellow competitors fairly and respectfully.” As Silver suggested, the gaming world — and esports in particular — often makes women feel unwelcome, necessitating behavioral guidelines like this. A representative said that league administrators will back up the policy with enforcement actions that may go as far as eliminating a player from the qualification process.

“I think everything was being reviewed and scrutinized,” Ronnie Singh, digital marketing director for the NBA 2K franchise at 2K Sports, said of NBA 2K League officials’ preparations for the second season.

Speaking to Polygon earlier this month for Foot Locker’s Week of Greatness, Singh pointed to the July tournament as a way for the league to put talented female players on the map. “I would fully expect there to be women in [the 2019 draft class], purely based on skill,” he said, adding that he believes multiple female players will be drafted for the upcoming season. “It’s a major initiative across the league, and for us [at 2K].”

participants of NBA 2K League Showcase
The women and men who played in July’s NBA 2K League Showcase. Could this be a preview of the gender balance for competitive play in the league next year?
NBA 2K League/Twitter

Asked for further comment, an NBA 2K League representative provided Polygon with a statement from Brendan Donohue, the head of the league.

“The values of diversity, inclusion and respect are central to the NBA 2K League,” said Donohue. “We believe a more diverse player pool will be a stronger player pool and ultimately inspire more players to strive to make the league.”

If anything, one element that may give women — and players outside North America, who are another target of the league’s diversity efforts — a higher chance of being drafted in 2019 is the increased size of the field. In the second season, there will be at least 150 spots in the draft pool reserved for new entrants, up from 102 in 2018.

That’s partly because the league has expanded with four additional teams (affiliates for the Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves), bringing the total to 21 clubs from 17. Then again, there’s a mitigating factor: This time around, not everyone in the pool will actually be drafted — the same way that drafts for traditional athletic sports work.

“As the NBA 2K League continues to grow with teams and players around the world, our hope is that more women will make the league and play an important role in shaping the future of esports,” Donohue added. With the second combine scheduled for December, everyone is in wait-and-see mode to find out whether that hope ends up being fulfilled in 2019.