Why you should care
Because esports paydays will draw big names.
Last August at the NBA 2K League studios in Long Island City, when Knicks Gaming defeated Heat Check Gaming to win the inaugural NBA 2K League championship, the six adrenaline-filled gamers celebrated like they were hoisting an NBA Finals trophy. And rightly so. After thousands of hours spent gaming and traveling, the season that began with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver calling their name on draft night culminated with an 11-point fourth-quarter championship comeback. So, yes, they donned championship shirts and hats, posed for photos with their trophy and drank Champagne.
Better believe they cashed professional checks too. The end-of-season championship tournament was worth $300,000 — or $50,000 per player. Heading into the Season 2 draft on March 5, both salaries and tournament prize pools have increased, putting NBA 2K League gamers on par with the real-action prospects employed by the NBA.
NBA 2K League players now make the same base salary as G League athletes, with the potential to make hundreds of thousands more.
This season, which tips off April 2, will feature a $1.2 million prize pool (a $200,000 increase from last year) to be distributed across four tournaments. That’s on top of six-month base salaries ranging from $37,000 for returning players to $33,000 for lower-tier rookies. March’s first-round draft picks will earn $35,000 — aka the average salary in the G League, the NBA’s minor league. The pay bump serves as further proof that the NBA’s newest appendage might just have profitable legs. If projections of the expected global esports market ($1 billion revenue by 2020) are to be believed, the 2K League could blossom into a bona fide NBA revenue builder.
“We’re focused on growing our fan base and building a strong league,” says NBA 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue. “We expect all 30 NBA teams to be involved soon. If we build a great product and reach new markets, revenue will follow.”
After 17 teams participated last year, four more are joining for Season 2 — Hawks Talon GC, Lakers Gaming, Nets GC and T-Wolves Gaming — as the regular season grows from 14–16 weekly games, plus three tournaments and the eight-team playoffs. Players compete in 5-on-5 game play using their own unique characters, rather than existing NBA players.
The tangible results: The league and teams have more than 1.8 million combined followers on social media platforms. NBA 2K League content has generated more than 152 million video views across all NBA and NBA 2K League platforms like Instagram, Twitch and YouTube — roughly the same as the G League in 2017–18. But the audience remains small compared to most big-time sports: About 645,000 watched the 2K league championship match on Twitch, with a peak of 61,000 at any one time, and another 150 attending the studio in-person. It remains to be seen whether those viewers can be converted to repeat, paying customers.
Additionally, the 17 NBA 2K League teams formed more than 90 corporate and marketing partnerships. Individually, players may sign endorsement deals just like any professional athlete — though no major player endorsements have been announced. Perhaps those deals come once league-leading stars emerge after another season or two, but it’s difficult to envision typical sports brands being enthusiastic until they see massive growth. For now, brands like Intel, Coca-Cola and Red Bull are leading in the space, with Nike signing its first esports player — League of Legends star Jian Zihao — last October.
Still, about half the players might not be back this year. “After Season 1, there was a common belief among players and coaches that the best 102 players were not in the original player pool,” says NBA 2K League analyst Jeff Eisenband, explaining that 52 of the original NBA 2K League players were retained ahead of this season’s expansion draft. The 50 players not retained by the league enter back into the draft and likely will be cut in favor of new talent. “It will take some time to figure out if the grass really is greener,” Eisenband says.
The odds of making it to this level are long. Of the 72,000 gamers who qualified for entry in the Season 1 draft, only 102 were selected (0.14 percent). Compare that to the 1.2 percent of NCAA basketball players who are drafted by the NBA.
But unlike NBA and G League athletes who’ve spent their lives training for a professional chance, most gamers could have never envisioned this opportunity. “They never believed there would be a league,” says Eisenband. “They were in college, working other jobs or just trying to figure out their lives when the league popped up. This is all icing on the cake already.”
Read more: The LeBron James of esports has his stage at last.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of people who watched the 2K league championship. There was a peak of 61,000 at any one time, not a total of 61,000.