Why The NBA's eSports League May Fail


NBA and 2K Sports eSports League (Photo: NBA/2K Sports)

TNL TAKE: Europe has clearly driven Pro Teams and eSports investment as reflected in close to 30 deals done in 2016 alone and 5 in 2017 to date.

In the US, the NBA has taken the biggest lead amongst the Pro Sports Leagues in terms of eSports involvement, former and current players starting teams to full team acquisitions.

NBA eSports Investment (Source: The Next Level/ Graphic: Jordan Fagen)

Looks like the US is finally starting to catch up to our friends across the pond this year.

After France's national FIFA e-League 1 and the Netherlands 18 team e-Divisie, last week the NBA and 2K Sports announced the formation of the NBA 2K eLeague - not to be confused with Turner's ELEAGUE.

Few details were revealed in terms of total investment and overall launch plans but here's what we know so far:

  • NBA 2K eLeague to premiere in 2018
  • Each NBA 2K eLeague team will be owned by the respective NBA Franchise
  • There will eventually be 30 NBA 2K franchises however 2018 will feature 8-12 Teams
  • Each team will have five human players each receiving salaries
  • Online and TV Distribution deals TBD - I'd be surprised if Turner doesn't play a role here
  • NBA 2K eLeague will have a five-month season that follows the NBA schedule along with playoffs and a championship
  • "The financial consequences could be substantial" Take 2 CEO Strauss Zelnick said

However there are a two things the NBA 2K eLeague is doing that could be a mistake.



Kevin Durant in NBA2K17 (Photo: 2K)

Kevin Durant in NBA2K17 (Photo: 2K)

This is the biggest one. The 5 players per each NBA team won't be playing as the team's current starters but rather avatars of the players themselves.

Essentially unknown players for now.

You could make the same case that the players in EA's Madden Championship Series or FIFA Ultimate team are not close to the top eSports players across League of Legends, Counter-Strike or Call of Duty in terms of brand recognition.

But there's a big difference as both Madden and FIFA have real Pro Athletes in the game.

Watching the Madden Bowl and seeing ex-NFL athletes like Randy Moss or Ricky Williams "playing" again was fun to see. The same goes for FIFA and seeing superstars like Ronaldo being used in the game. Further, Madden Bowl was only 20% lower in TV Viewership than ELEAGUE's monstrous Counter-Strike Major.

In one of the earliest articles I wrote back in May 2016, I looked at "The Challenge of Sports Games as eSports". There's the inherent difficulty of "watching the real Tom Brady" vs. "watch someone play a virtual Tom Brady" - but that's infinitely better than watching Tom from Tennessee.


While details have been scant and with conflicting news online, it's hard to tell how the players and teams will be organized. A few open questions:

  • Each season will start with a player combine and draft - so every season will feature different players per NBA team?
  • How are the players in game ratings determined?
  • Will teams be able to trade players?
  • What about the bench or reserve players?
  • Do teams have to recruit locally only? If not, how will the team practice or gel as a unit if everyone is in different locations?

While there are a lot of questions, this is ultimately another sign of legitimacy for eSports with the largest investment by a Pro Sports league. While the NBA 2K eLeague has potential, I believe it needs to overcome the biggest obstacle of lack of real Athletes to be big.

When EA helped PSV Eindhoven last year recruit players via a FIFA 17 tournament, this was a hint of things to come.

I give the NFL and Madden two years to start the same thing....but with real Athletes in game.