esports and NBA 2K Sponsors: Don’t Wait, Innovate


esports and NBA 2K Sponsors: Don’t Wait, Innovate (Photo: Morris Strategic)

esports and NBA 2K Sponsors: Don’t Wait, Innovate (Photo: Morris Strategic)

Industry Guest Post 011: Brett Morris is the former President/COO of esports innovator Super League Gaming ( former senior executive for Mark Cuban ( He can be reached at

Yesterday, on a call with the CMO of a top 50 brand, I realized how important the launch of the NBA 2K League is. Regarding all of his company’s esports sponsorship plans, he said: “We’re going to wait and see what happens with the NBA League?”

I politely mused to myself, “Wait for what?” and responded to him with all the impressive projections, demographics, audience numbers, etc. that all of us in the esports industry have been stuffing our PowerPoint decks with for years.

Naming Rights to the NBA 2K League’s Trophy (Photo: Morris Strategic)

Naming Rights to the NBA 2K League’s Trophy (Photo: Morris Strategic)

But looking back a day later, I completely understand the value of his comment in several ways. While the NBA 2K League is a different game type and audience than League of Legends’ NA LCS and Overwatch League (both of which have larger existing audiences as well), the entire “esports” category is being considered as one — for better or worse.

And it’s the NBA 2K League that’s easiest to explain to the neophyte. While many of us are in the daily trenches of the industry, most executives of major brands still “just don’t get esports” (as partly evidenced by former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s comments this week).

Bedroom Wall Space Is Up For Grabs (Photo: Morris Strategic)

Bedroom Wall Space Is Up For Grabs (Photo: Morris Strategic)

But they do know the game of basketball, and a CMO explaining a 5v5 digital version of it to the CEO or board of a public company is infinitely much easier than trying to explain Soldier 76, Super Minions and Summoner’s Rift.

Additionally, I also questioned “why wait?” The opportunity to be a leader in the space — with the three, franchise-based leagues launching in the coming months — is now. What I realized is, that’s our responsibility. As embedded in esports as we are, we need to show uneasy, unfamiliar sponsors how to get involved and how to innovate — especially in a meaningful and 100 percent authentic way.

Take the NBA 2K League launch, for example. My head spins thinking about all the amazing sponsor activations the League could do to launch it.

Obviously there’s a ton to consider regarding existing NBA sponsors, budgets, timelines, etc., but just throwing out a few top-of-mind ideas — purely for fun, brainstorming and discussion sake (so please add to the discussion):

Players Could Earn Sponsored “Prospect” Badges (Photo: Morris Strategic)

Players Could Earn Sponsored “Prospect” Badges (Photo: Morris Strategic)

1. BEING “SCOUTED” BADGE: Unless you follow NBA 2K players and content creators, you have no idea that the most chatter regarding the upcoming league is about who the first 85 players (17 teams, 5 players each) will be. While scouting (and the upcoming in-game tryout mode) will be a big task for NBA 2K teams, what if they added a layer of transparency and started identifying those being scouted — and sold that sponsorship? Instant authenticity for that sponsor, but also some risk, because not everyone will be prospects.

Will There Be A Female NBA 2K Pro (Photo: Morris Strategic)

Will There Be A Female NBA 2K Pro (Photo: Morris Strategic)

2. FEMALE NBA 2K PLAYER: While there may or may not be a female player in the initial top 85, identify the best female prospects now. The marketability and PR opportunities of that person and the brand associated with her would be off the charts, especially in a demo looking for more female participation.


"Home" Game Season Ticket Holders (Photo: Morris Strategic)

"Home" Game Season Ticket Holders (Photo: Morris Strategic)

3. SEASON TICKETS: The first season of the NBA 2K League will be played in studios (locations TBD), not in respective team cities or arenas, but I still think there’s an opportunity to identify the most hardcore fans in each city — now. And nothing says hardcore fan like a limited-number season ticket package with its share of exclusive offers, tchotchkes, etc.

4. POSTERS: While not innovative, the kid’s bedroom wall poster (as illustrated above) may be the most valuable tool in the early days of marketing the new leagues, teams and players. Get them out now. Don’t forget the many opportunities to connect the digital world with the real world.

City Based Guerrilla Marketing (Photo: Morris Strategic)

City Based Guerrilla Marketing (Photo: Morris Strategic)

5. ANYTHING GUERRILLA, VIRAL,CITY-BASED: Paste up the graffiti. Create an “Army.” Have the mayor introduce the city to its first gaming team. Now with city-based teams there are a million possibilities here.

6. CHAMPIONSHIP TROPHY SPONSOR, DESIGN (see illustration above): There’s nothing more exciting to an NBA fan than the Larry O’Brien trophy. The time is now to introduce what the players and teams are fighting for in the NBA 2K League. Heck, Dr. Pepper is reportedly paying $35 Million, per season, for the naming rights of the College Football National Championship trophy.

NBA 2K League Looks To Hit The Right Notes With eSports Venture


NBA 2K League (Photo: 2K Sports)

NBA 2K League (Photo: 2K Sports)

Reprinted from by John Reynolds

  • League borrows heavily from traditional NBA format
  • Seventeen NBA teams have signed up, but three are missing
  • Commercial opportunities include in-game branding, e-commerce and sponsorship of teams and individual players

The technology wunderkinds at the NBA likely subscribed to one mantra when dreaming up the new esports NBA 2K League: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

The NBA 2K League, which begins next year, borrows so heavily from the traditional NBA League that it’s an almost replica video game version, yet this has not stopped it being hyped as a game changer for the esports industry, particularly as it marks the first time that esports teams have been owned by professional teams.

“We believe we have a unique opportunity to develop something truly special for our fans and the young and growing esports community,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver, at the announcement of the launch of the league.

For the sponsorship industry, the new league, which has been created with Take-Two Interactive, the developer of the popular NBA 2K video game, presents a raft of opportunities, from in-game branding, e-commerce opportunities to sponsorship of teams and individual players alike. More crucially, the league will target the sought-after millennial audience.

It is inarguable that esports is hot right now, particularly in the US, with a slew of investment from sports luminaries into the sector.

At the same time, fans have been packing out some of the world’s most iconic sporting arenas, to watch high-profile video gamers, who are stars in their own right, battle it out for success. 

The NBA is leading the esports charge, spearheaded by Silver, who believes it to be a magnet to capture younger fans, particularly in China.

Not only that, he also argues that Amazon-owned Twitch, the platform used to watch NBA 2K, which features a flurry of stats and chatter, represents the future of how the traditional NBA game should be aired.

Silver says: “If you go on Twitch, for example, and see what it’s like to follow those competitions, it’s sort of constant chatter of fans. There’s all kinds of other information appearing on the screen. 

“I think to older consumers used to looking at sports it might look incredibly cluttered, but as Facebook and other services experiment with live sports rights, and I’m sure Amazon’s going to be doing the same thing, I think they don’t have the same limitations cable and satellite historically have had.”

Amid the fanfare heralding the arrival of the league, however, questions remain about whether it will be an out-and-out success: sceptics point out that less than 1% of gaming is in professional esports and fans could be turned off by one or two differences to the traditional NBA game.

17 teams sign up

Seventeen teams – including stellar names like the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics – have signed up to the inaugural season, each reportedly paying around $750,000 (€640,000) for a three-year deal to participate in the league.

Missing from the list, though, are the Chicago Bulls, LA Lakers and San Antonio Spurs, three of the most celebrated teams in the league, though it is unclear why they are not participating.

“I think anything where you have brands that big who aren’t partaking, that is going to have an impact on the league to an extent, says Malph Minns, managing director at Strive Sponsorship.

Not so, says Chad Biggs, senior vice president of marketing partnerships at Philadelphia 76ers – one of the teams that is participating – who remarks: “I don’t believe it undermines the league. We have some very strong teams. It will make a very competitive league and more teams will follow.”

Celtics vs. Cavaliers (Photo: Getty Images)

Celtics vs. Cavaliers (Photo: Getty Images)

The players, who can be male or female but must be over 18, will likely be existing NBA 2K gamers or top players of other esports. They will be scouted by teams and, if successful, like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, will be signed by teams and have the opportunity to ink in individual sponsorship deals.

In a presentation about the league, NBA 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue says: “We are going to find the best 85 on the planet and bring them together and get them to compete at the highest level.”

But unlike the existing NBA 2K game, players will not replicate NBA superstars but rather each create a newly developed avatar.

Manny Anekal, who runs several esports companies, says: ““This is by far the biggest question for me and I’m sure many others. With sports titles and esports, there is the inherent question of whether there is an audience that wants to watch someone play as their favourite virtual athlete.

“Now instead of watching a digital Durant, you’re watching a Don from Detroit. The stories behind the players is what the NBA and league will need to solve.”

The NBA, though, argues that these players will be able to build their own fan bases over time.

The games will be played in one or two central locations and the NBA is currently in talks to have matches televised or streamed.


Donohue says the NBA 2K League has a handful of advantages for advertisers vis a vis other video games.

He says: “League of Legends? Incredible game. But to be honest if you don’t play the game, it can be quite intimidating. The 2K game is a more globally recognised game.”

But League of Legends is more popular, with around 27m daily users, dwarfing the 1.6m daily users of the NBA 2K game. Minns also points out that Twitch does not even consider NBA 2K and other sports games as esports so small are their audiences.

Other commercial advantages that the NBA 2K League has, Donohue argues, are that fans expect to see brands, like Mountain Dew, showcasing their ads during games, like they do at traditional NBA games, unlike other video games where it appears “inorganic”.

Donohue also says that advertisers could tap into the “coolness” of the NBA brand, hinting that brands could perhaps tie up not only with teams and players but also celebrity fans of the NBA.

“We think there is a unique opportunity to create incredible content around the cultural piece of the game. We are not just buying signage; we want fully integrated activation,” he says.

Details of the media rights have yet to be finalised while it’s also yet to be determined whether games will be played on Xbox, PlayStation or PC.

Conceivably, the NBA could strike a deal with Twitch to showcase the league while broadcasters like ESPN or NBC, which have already shown an interest in esports, could be in the mixing pot. Alternatively, the NBA has its own TV network, NBA TV, which it could use.

Minns says: “I would be surprised if broadcasters paid for stuff now. There is such a proliferation of esports content that they might struggle to get paid for broadcast coverage in the short term.”

But Anekal says the power of the NBA brand means the NBA will be able to land a paid-for broadcast deal.

Cross-promotion opportunities

Last year, the Philadelphia 76ers became the first North American professional sports team to own an esports team, when it reportedly spent up to $15m investing in Team Dignitas, an esports team which gave it a prized slot in the League of Legends Championships and other video games, but not basketball. 

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis have also moved into the esports space.

An appealing aspect of the deal was cross-promotion opportunities between the 76ers and their esports teams, such as the mass merchandising of esports player jerseys.

Biggs believes the NBA 2K League will offer similar types of monetisation opportunities.

He says: “We will integrate our team players into much of our marketing and promotion of the team. And we will work with sponsors to integrate the players. We have already been talking to them about the 2K League.”

He also thinks the 76ers could have a headstart on the court too, pointing to a better understanding of the mindset of gamers and how esports operates.

He says: “I think our experience with Team Dignitas over the past year has provided us with some valuable insights, knowledge and tools.”


Donohue thinks the NBA is on to a winner with the new league, driven by the recognition of the NBA brand coupled with the popularity of the NBA 2K game.

“This is a massive industry and we think we have a place in it,” he tells 

“There’s a significant appetite for the game in the US, but more importantly globally. We have a free version of the game in China that has 34 million registered users. That suggests there’s a global appetite for the game; in fact, I don’t think people understand how big the 2K game is globally.

“This is a long-term play for us. We expect this to be around for decades, so the primary goal is building an audience, doing that in the right way, and creating an environment where our players can be successful. We’re confident the revenues will follow if we do that right.”  But the league will need to not only convince fans of its appeal, but also market the hell out of it to make it visible on people’s radar.

While, as previously mentioned, less than 1% of gaming is in professional esports, a YouGov poll in the US found that just 29% of those polled had watched any coverage of esports before.

Anekal says: “I’d venture that initially, the league will be attractive to and played by existing NBA and NBA2K fans. However, I can imagine the long-term goal for the NBA would be to draw in a new, younger audience via the NBA 2K League who eventually become fans of the traditional sport.”

Interest in esports in the US and the rest of the world is growing but the NBA will need to break new ground and attract legions of fans to its league, not just gamers, if it’s to be seen as a success.  

Powered by the NBA brand, and its financial muscle, it has a chance of achieving this over time.

TNL eSports Podcast 028: Monumental Sports and Entertainment, Director eSports Business


TNL eSports Podcast 028: Monumental Sports and Entertainment, Director eSports Business (Photo: The Next Level)

TNL eSports Podcast 028: Monumental Sports and Entertainment, Director eSports Business (Photo: The Next Level)

TNL Take: In this edition of The Next Level eSports Podcast 028, we speak with Grant Paranjape, Director eSports Business for Monumental Sports and Entertainment.

We chat about:

-His history in Gaming and eSports
-NBA 2K League
-Washington Wizards Involvement
-Real and eSports Games
-MSE OTT Platform
-Scouting and Teams
-Athlete Brand Building

Enjoy the conversation!


Google Play

Exclusive: eSports Travel Summit To Hold Its First NBA 2K League Panel


NBA 2K League Panel at 2017 TEAMS Conference (Photo: The Next Level)

NBA 2K League Panel at 2017 TEAMS Conference (Photo: The Next Level)

Exclusive:  The Next Level is proud to announce the first panel held by the eSports Travel Summit dedicated to the launch of the new NBA 2K League on November 1.

This educational session will examine the launch of the NBA 2K League, which the NBA and 2K see as a platform for the engagement of the next generation of sports fans. 

Confirmed presenters for the session include Aaron Ryan, senior vice-president of business operations for the NBA 2K League; Ted Dalton, senior vice-president of corporate partnerships and business development for the Boston Celtics; Alex Martins, chief executive officer for the Orlando Magic; Josh Barney, director of eSports and technology for the Utah Jazz; and veteran broad- caster Bonnie Bernstein, founder of Walk Swiftly Productions. 

The session will be presented by The Next Level and will be moderated by Manny Anekal.

Visit for further info