NBA’s Brendan Donohue on how the 2K League is doing esports right

NBA’s Brendan Donohue on how the 2K League is doing esports right
Jake Tucker

For Brendan Donohue, the managing director of NBA’s 2K Sports League, NBA’s entry to the esports world is the collision of his two big passions.

“I’ve spent the last 20 years working in the NBA, on the business side primarily, and I’m very passionate about it. I’ve also been a video game man my entire life. I got more into games with my son though, who doesn’t get the chance to compete on the athletic field as much, so we’ll lock in our gaming chairs at home and sit for hours on the weekends playing games together to connect.”

Donohue says that it’s this feeling, of connecting with other people through the medium of games as well as sport, that’s driving a lot of what he’s doing with the forthcoming NBA 2K Sports League.

The league, the first year of which has 17 NBA teams locked in to compete, will be a five on five tournament with every digital player on the court controlled by a separate player in a central studio (or maybe two – Donohue says the team are still working out the finer logistical points)  by some of the top NBA 2K franchise players in the world.

“The exciting thing is that there are four or five more teams that want to get in, that we’ll probably introduce in year two. It’s already growing and we haven’t even started yet.”

The NBA has been one of the first big sports organisations to really leap into esports. The NFL has also invested big in the world of digital sports, but it’s struck a chord with NBA veterans. Several endemic organisations are owned in whole or in part by NBA players, while many more have invested in esports businesses across the board. Even Shaquille O'Neal, the man-mountain patron saint of Basketball, co-owns an esports organisation, NRG.

Donohue explains that the NBA 2K franchise is the best-selling game of any North American sports league, and the second most popular worldwide, with 1.6m players on average playing every single day.

The move to embrace NBA 2K as an esport, Donohue says, is driven largely by a desire to engage with fans, and to create a new channel for newcomers and the existing audience to interact with.

“We have a giant fan base that, quite honestly, doesn’t have the chance to go to games in the US much.” Donohue says, mentioning that two-thirds of the NBA’s audience on social media is based outside of the US. “So this is a great opportunity to engage with them and with our product. Esports is exploding, and we at the NBA saw the success League of Legends and Dota were having and, based on the success of the 2K games, we thought there was a spot for us in the esports space.”

For the NBA, this has offered “almost endless” commercial opportunities for the NBA, Donohue notes. “We have a media rights opportunity to show our content on linear TV or streaming on multiple different platforms, whether that’s Twitch, Facebook, YouTube Gaming, Twitter or anywhere else.

“But it goes deeper than that. We've been approached by a number of sponsors, both NBA 2K sponsors currently but also new sponsors that have been kind of endemic to esports or that really want to test the esports waters. And I think they may view us at the NBA as a safer transition.

“Those are the immediate ones. And then in addition to that, in the years following we want to be playing in the arenas all over the world. So we see ourselves growing to that. And that's just a couple of opportunities.”

But the NBA isn’t planning a simple cash grab. At the most basic level, the NBA has a serious chunk of cash at its disposal and backs that up with over 75 years of experience in writing player contracts, organising tournaments, and selling sponsorship. As esports goes through adolescence, the NBA’s stabilising influence could help keep the league level, with financial security for players and a professional level of production for fans. In addition, the NBA’s commitment to getting the best players for the NBA for Donohue includes both men and women from around the world, and will go as far as getting work visas for players they want to bring in.

“That’s a real stresser in the current climate” Donohue says with a dry chuckle. “But it’s important to us, and we’re going to work it out with our HR guys.” Competing in the NBA has its benefits, and that includes salaries Donohue has described as “competitive” in addition to a full health benefits package, the weight of NBA’s marketing team behind you, and the use of all of the facilities at the NBA franchise that a player might sign with. Players will be found through an in-game system that can identify the strongest 85 competitors for their draft. “We’re hoping for a really diverse group of people,” Donohue says.

Players will be embedded with their home teams, and the NBA is hoping to show clearly that they have respect for their future athletes, with a focus on player health and wellness.

“The players with Sacramento will live in Sacramento during the week. We'll fly the team in and put them up in hotels near the studio. So we expect there to be interaction amongst the players in studio, but also interaction between players and the on-the-court NBA stars at each franchise.”  

However, Donohue is keen to stress that despite all this talk of future plans, he likes esports as it is, and both Donohue and the NBA are sensitive to the issue of being authentic to existing fans of esports, and not being too structured.

“We still want to keep it light and have fun and really be able to be a little edgier of a brand. I mean I think we understand that that's important. And we want to let our community lead us a little bit too in terms of what is cool and what we should be doing next.”

Donohue says the buy-in from the NBA teams was surprising, even knowing the NBA’s predilection for everything esports.

“We needed eight to have a league.” Donohue says “We kind of thought twelve would be the right number. And we intentionally didn’t try to sell the teams on joining us, because we wanted only the most passionate to get involved.

“It was a ‘hey sign up by this date if you're interested’ thing, and we had seventeen teams jump on board. So we were ecstatic when we had that many jump on board, and the fact that we already had more than a couple that are interested into year two. A couple actually wanted to still join year one. But I think we'll have no issue getting the full thirty teams. I think you're going to see it grow quickly.”

For the future, Donohue hints at other games, and other leagues. “We’re obviously very careful with the NBA and 2K game, but I think we could see ourselves leveraging our expertise and our ability to run a league and taking on other titles in the future.”

“Yes, right now we’re super focused on the 2K league, but in the future we could definitely see other games in our portfolio. Thing is, we’ve gotten a pretty clear-headed view here and we want to be respectful to this community and not just treat it like any other esports contest. We also can’t just take the NBA model and place this over the top of it, which would be a big mistake.

“We’re in a unique spot where everyone knows what basketball is, which means it’s easy to watch and appreciate. I love League of Legends and Overwatch, and they’re awesome games, but what works for them isn’t going to work for us, and if we decide to take a swing on titles like this later, we’ll have to mix up our approach again.”

Donohue’s knowledge and enthusiasm for competitive gaming should go a long way to calm esports fans nervous that the NBA is going in half-cocked. There are several themes that he keeps returning to: a focus on players, a focus on the clear commercial prospects of an NBA league that could be good both for the NBA and esports in general, and the confession that the basketball league doesn’t have all of the answers, but plan to do their very best to provide the best experience to existing fans and the new casual audience that Donohue hopes will be drawn in.

While it’s hard to believe the NBA’s 2K League could ever rival say, The International, there’s room for plenty of different esports and there’s a clarity to the NBA’s vision for digital basketball has substance and depth, and it’s not hard to see it growing to run in tandem with the physical NBA, something that’s great for the profile of esports even if it’s not personally interesting to all of its fans.

Tryouts kick off for NBA’s 2K League in February, with a draft in March and the season itself kicking off in May.

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