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NBA 2K League announces 2019 draft pool with diversity as the focus

‘I wouldn’t say we’re satisfied,’ says league director

2018 NBA 2K League Draft podium
Whose names will be called at the 2019 NBA 2K League draft on Tuesday?
Mike Stobe/Getty Images
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 second-year player draft for the NBA 2K League, the NBA’s growing esports organization, will feature a list of potential draftees that is more diverse than the first season’s crop in two key characteristics: gender and national origin. The draft pool, announced Monday, includes two women among 150 new entrants — a first for the league, whose inaugural draft class last year consisted of 102 men.

Winnowing down the list to this point from the approximately 7,000 NBA 2K players who qualified for the league’s combine in December was a multifaceted process, with a stated focus on improving the diversity of NBA 2K League rosters. League officials have been saying since last year’s draft that they’re working on diversifying the player pool, and those efforts appear to have paid off. But that doesn’t mean that league organizers believe their work is done.

“I wouldn’t say we’re satisfied,” Brendan Donohue, managing director of the NBA 2K League, told Polygon in a conference call with the media on Monday morning. “I mean, I think we view this as another positive step, but [there are] several more to come.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said during a predraft press conference in April that the NBA 2K League’s organizers and Oris Stuart, the NBA’s head of diversity and inclusion, were setting up a “task force” to tackle these issues in the esports league. A league spokesperson told Polygon last year that the diversity initiative included efforts to figure out how to reach women in the NBA 2K community, such as a survey conducted to understand the barriers to entry for women that exist in gaming.

That work specifically led NBA 2K League organizers to tweak their tryout process for the 2019 season, according to Donohue. The league held focus groups with top female players, who explained that when they used voice chat while playing NBA 2K — outing themselves on the mic as women — “they didn’t get passed the ball as much,” Donohue said Monday. As a result, the league made an effort to “look at some deeper statistics” to “put more emphasis on how good a player was when they got the ball in their hands.”

These kinds of changes can only come with experience. Donohue noted that last year, in an effort to keep the application process blind, the league didn’t look at gender while it was narrowing down the list. That seems like a good idea in theory, but it meant that “we didn’t know until the very end that we had no women in our draft pool,” said Donohue. “And so we’ve spent the last year diving into that, and trying to identify: Were there any real barriers?”

NBA 2K19 - Giannis Antetokounmpo about to dunk
Giannis Antetokounmpo going up for a dunk in NBA 2K19.
Visual Concepts/2K Sports

League officials asked the same question regarding international competitors. There were a few NBA 2K League players who hailed from outside the U.S. in the inaugural season’s draft class — nine, to be exact — but just as the NBA has made efforts to recruit players from around the world, such as the Greek-born Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, the esports organization wanted to ensure that it was casting a wider net.

Donohue said the league’s goal heading into its second season was to “find out who the best 126 players are in the world, period,” referring to the total number of roster spots in the NBA 2K League, which will feature 21 six-person teams this year. But he seemed to acknowledge that the league’s original process wasn’t a strict meritocracy.

In early February, the league held a tournament in Hong Kong, its first international qualifying event. Known as the APAC Invitational, the two-day tournament featured NBA 2K competitors from Australia, China, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Six of the 150 new players in the 2019 draft pool came from that event, people whom Donohue described as “players we found that maybe the combine wouldn’t have found on its own.” In all, the group of 150 includes 22 non-U.S. players.

Of course, it remains to be seen how many of those new entrants will actually be taken in the draft, which will be held Tuesday, March 5, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn at 5 p.m. ET, and will be livestreamed on Twitch. The teams will be picking from a total of 198 esports athletes eligible for the draft: In addition to the 150 potential draftees from the online tryout and APAC Invitational, the pool will feature 48 members of the 2018 draft class who were not retained or chosen in September’s expansion draft. But the 21 teams are making only 74 selections, meaning that 124 people — more than 60 percent of the group — will be left in the cold at the end of the day.

Brianna “icygrl” Novin, one of the women among the 144 people who made it through this season’s combine, wished everyone good luck in a tweet on Monday. “All I need is that one team willing to take a chance on me so I can show why I am here,” said Novin. “I have everything to prove and I will prove it by out working everyone and making sure my team is in the best position to win.”

“I’m aware that I’m 1 of 2 women in the draft pool this year, and I wish [icygrl] all the best of luck on her 2K success,” said Chiquita “Chiquitae126” Evans, the other female draft hopeful, in a statement to Polygon. “The only thing on my mind right now is being ready to work, and be the best teammate I can be if my name is called Tuesday.”

Correction: The 2018 draft class for the NBA 2K League contained nine players from outside the U.S., not seven. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.