When the NBA 2K League tipped off May 1, the league earned establishment acceptance and awareness that eludes more popular esports properties for one reason: The brand power of the NBA and 17 teams, which instantly convey legitimacy and clarity to a world still learning about competitive gaming.
But the 2K League now faces the hard work of growing a fan base without the NBA’s biggest marketing asset, its superstars. The Cavs Legion Gaming Club has no LeBron James and the Warriors Gaming Squad has no Kevin Durant or Steph Curry.
Instead the league is populated by gamers who play as themselves, and while some of them have dedicated followings within 2K enthusiast circles online, none of them come anywhere near the mass-market awareness levels of even modest real-life basketball personalities.
In interviews prior to the tipoff tournament, the 2K players acknowledged their crucial role in helping the league grow. Because of the online nature of elite gaming, where fans can talk to their favorite players as they practice, many of the 2K League charter players have given careful thought to how they can build their personal brand, other than simply winning.
“With my success, the league has success, and if the league has success, I have success,” said Mitchell “Mootyy” Franklin, the (Sacramento) Kings Guard Gaming’s first-round draft pick. “So I’m looking at it like a two-way avenue there.”
The 2K League’s top exec, Managing Director Brendan Donohue, said he believes the NBA’s tactic for making stars of its traditional athletes will work for gamers, too: tell compelling stories about successful athletes with interesting histories and outsized personalities. The league has sent the players through rookie transition training and some teams have provided media training to help them build and protect their personal brands, he said.
“It’s a cool feeling, knowing that we can make this whole business grow ourselves, as gamers,” said Austin “Shump” Painter, a second-round pick by Wizards District Gaming. “There’s going to be people who don’t know what the 2K League is on Twitch or Twitter, and we’ve got to be the voice to show them what it is.”
The 2K gamers differ from traditional athletes because their celebrity is more intrinsically tied to social media, said Scott Debson, executive vice president of strategy at the marketing agency Engine Shop. For traditional athletes, social media prowess is still an extension of a brand that mostly still exists offline.
Gamers, on the other hand, are expected to stream their practices daily and be always-on presences in social media.
“It’s become the norm, but if all of a sudden LeBron James or Steph Curry wasn’t on Twitter or Instagram, I don’t think that’s as big a deal as if these gamers left,” Debson said. “They need to be involved in the social community, which is really the lifeblood of gaming.”
Adam “iamadamthe1st” Kudeimati, a point guard for Knicks Gaming, is planning his own YouTube series giving fans a look at his own experience. In the 2K League, players are encouraged to stream their practices and don’t have to share any income from those sessions with the team. Kudeimati said he wants to give special effort toward inspiring kids and to “paint an image kids can look up to, and see this as something they can do, too.”
“I’m hoping to document the entire experience on YouTube, and live streams on Twitch, and show people what it’s like from the inside, versus the outside looking in,” he said.
Esports fans have shown an insatiable demand for their favorite players’ content, and the biggest 2K stars might be the ones who are online the most, not necessarily the best players, Debson said. “[New York Red Bulls esports player] Mike LaBelle didn’t win, but he’s the largest, most well-known personality in the MLS base due to the amount of content he puts out,” Debson said.
The teams also are working to promote their players. MSG Networks will launch “Knicks Gaming,” a series documenting the lives of the team and “Entourage” actor Jerry Ferrara, who the team hired as head scout and creative consultant.
The players are generally not represented yet, but Kudeimati and others said they hope to commercialize their online followings. Players are free to sign individual endorsement contracts, Donohue said, but demand is meager — players in the biggest esports only command five-figure deals on their own, one marketing expert said.
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