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Volume 21 No. 6
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Central studio locations will host NBA 2K competitions during first season of new esports league

Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

The first season of the NBA 2K esports league will be played entirely at one or two central studios, not the teams’ local venues, a top league official said.

The 17 participating teams will still have ways of generating local revenue and building a fan base, said Brendan Donohue, managing director of the league, a joint venture of the NBA and 2K publisher Take-Two Interactive. But a neutral-site studio is the simplest way to ensure high-quality gameplay in the startup years, he said.

“We plan on having the local teams being able to create their own grassroots audience, and they’ll be streaming their practices and things of that nature from their houses,” Donohue said. “We’ll have local opportunities. And then, we want the league matches to be held at a central studio.”

A source familiar with the league’s planning believes Atlanta, home of Turner Studios’ ELeague set, is a probable site, but Donohue said the search for studio space is still in the beginning phases.

The long-term vision still calls for teams traveling to compete in each others’ markets a la the NBA, Donohue said. Donohue disclosed the venue plans as part of a wide-ranging update on progress toward the league, scheduled to begin play in May 2018.

The NBA 2K league has settled on the following league-level protected sponsorship categories: athletic apparel, basketball manufacturer, insurance, salty snacks and confections, and carbonated/energy drinks. Local teams will only be able to sell to league-selected partners in those categories.

Notably, sponsorship assets will span the virtual and real worlds. By customizing the game itself, teams will be able to sell naming rights to a virtual court, “courtside” signage within the game, and jersey sponsor patches that would appear on both the virtual player avatars and in real-life replicas. Team training facilities also could be branded.

Media rights are a major factor yet to be settled, Donohue said. The startup is not bound by existing NBA media contracts. He thinks a basketball simulation may do better on linear television than many esports, which usually have far larger audiences online.

“We have a unique advantage that we may be able to attract casual audiences,” Donohue said. “That’s where linear is interesting. Having said that, I would expect us to have potentially a linear and a streaming option.”

Under current plans, league play would start in May, extend into the summer months and culminate with the finals in August. That schedule could maximize crossover marketing at the beginning of the season and have a relatively non-competitive sports landscape by the end.

“We have a couple key days on the calendar for both 2K and us,” Donohue said. “Christmas Day is a huge day for both of us, and in addition to that, you have the launch of the game in September. The way the league is likely to sit now, it’s nicely nestled between those two dates.”

In February, the game will launch its online qualification ranking system and the league will conduct a player combine. Then, teams will draft players in March. The drafted players will relocate to their team markets in April before league play begins the next month. “We have a 12-month engagement calendar, even outside of the season we’re talking about,” Donohue said. “Even from the release of the game in September all the way through February, we’re hosting grassroots engagement activities.”

None of the 17 teams have launched a name or brand, but team names will include the core NBA team brand, such as possible “Knicks Esports” or “Bucks Gaming.”