As the sports world has gone dark during the novel coronavirus pandemic, esports have taken up the slack, pulling athletes online and fans’ eyes into a world they may not have otherwise given a cursory glance. The situation is especially primed for sports simulation games that previously had to compete against a real life version of their game. The biggest winner in the sports simulation world so far has been NASCAR, whose eNASCAR series drew more than 1.3 million viewers to its March 29 telecast on Fox and FS1, according to Nielsen. The series features famous NASCAR drivers operating virtual rigs to compete against one another, as well as racing against gamers. The production is complete with live commentary from Fox’s race broadcast team of Mike Joy and Hall of Fame driver Jeff Gordon, a rendition of the national anthem and even prerace dignitaries. Fox has committed to airing more races.
This past weekend, it was the NBA’s turn. But while NASCAR has leaned into its new esports efforts, putting the support of its real-life drivers behind it, peculiarly the NBA appears to be operating on a separate, parallel track from its own esports league, which could benefit from more notoriety. Rather than merging its biggest stars with its top NBA 2K League pros this past weekend, it created a second short-term property entirely. That tournament, called the NBA 2K Players Tournament, lagged well behind NASCAR’s offering, according to Nielsen data provided to The Post. The NBA’s 2K tournament received its highest viewership during last Friday’s matchup between Durant and Jones with 387,000 viewers, according to the Nielsen report.
Around the same time, the NBA 2K League’s Three For All Showdown tournament began with a 3-on-3 setup and each competitor controlling one virtual player on the court. NBA 2K League players were involved, as were players from the WNBA, G League, and NFL — but not the NBA.
Asked why no NBA players appeared in the 2K League tournament, and vice versa, the NBA’s Senior Vice President of Global Partnerships, Matt Holt, said the leagues were “separate and distinct,” even as they “work extremely close together.”
“We’re talking about a pause in the NBA season, and a ton of NBA players who love the NBA 2K game, and who, like all of us, are sitting at home playing video games,” he said. “They have their own schedule and their own season.”
The NBA was the first major league to dedicate significant resources into a full-on esports league, an enterprise it considers to be in line with the WNBA or G League in terms of support. But at a time when the NBA could be using its star athletes to bring more attention to the league, it chose another path.
No sports simulation-based esports league needs a boost more than the NBA 2K League. A joint venture of the NBA and game publisher Take-Two Interactive Software, the league has struggled to gain a widespread following since its inception in 2018 — even compared to other sports games, which have historically lagged behind other genres such as first person shooters (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive; Overwatch), battle royale (Fortnite), and multiplayer online battle arena (League of Legends) in the esports landscape. For comparison, NBA 2K League’s highest peak viewer count is 61,800 compared to 244,000 for FIFA’s eWorld Cup. Both pale in comparison to the 3,986,000 peak viewer count for League of Legends World Championship in 2019. The 2K League’s Three for All Tournament reached a peak concurrent viewership of about 15,000 viewers on Twitch during the finals last Friday, according to StreamElements-provided data from SullyGnome, which both analyze online streaming metrics.
Nevertheless, the NBA had a prime opportunity to blend its real world and digital leagues by having players from both compete together, thereby giving the 2K League a promotional boost by some of the world’s most recognized and marketable athletes. Holt, who oversees gaming partnerships in his role with NBA, said the NBA and the NBA 2K League do not have any joint events planned.
“I think there’s room for both,” he said. “There is definitely crossover in fandom, but also separate and distinct [fanbases] as well. They complement each other within the NBA world.”
The 2K League, which holds all of its matches in front of a live audience in New York City, has postponed the start of its season, which was scheduled for March 24, and does not yet have an adjusted start date. To fill the void, the 2K League put together the Three For All Showdown.
“We wanted to engage our audience as quickly as we could. It really has pushed our group to be incredibly innovative out of necessity,” said Brendan Donohue, managing director of the NBA 2K League. “The NBA family prides itself in being able to develop stars. We wanted to have our [2K League] players become stars we can develop.”
Maurice Delaney, a 2K League player for Wizards District Gaming and the league’s third-highest scorer last year, said that while he is happy to have a chance to build his brand by participating in the Three For All, he would also welcome the exposure that the NBA’s top players would bring.
“I’d love to have the NBA players come over and gain followers,” Delaney said.
The Three For All did have some top WNBA players involved, as well as NFL players like Washington Redskins running back Derrius Guice. And, compared to what was a largely relaxed series of games between the NBA players on ESPN, the Three For All featured player intensity more typical of what’s usually seen from a 2K League match.
The Washington Mystics’ Aerial Powers said she was scouting other squads and checking for who made it into the next rounds so she and her teammates could start thinking about strategies to win.
“I’m taking it seriously, hell yeah!” Powers said. “I was sweating and nervous and talking with my teammates before the game.”
Guice said he approached it similarly.
“I take everything serious,” Guice said. “I’m screaming at my teammates. They’re screaming at me. We took it serious. It’s not going to compare to what I do in real life, but I hate losing.”
For some entrants, the NBA 2K League tournament meant even more, as it represented an unexpected second chance, of sorts, after a crushing blow.
Fleming, who had been passed over in all three NBA 2K League seasons, went back home to Chattanooga, Tenn., unsure of her future with the game and community she had put so much of herself into, only to come away feeling alienated. Then, only a few weeks later, she got a call from the league asking her if she would like to participate in the tournament, which carried a $25,000 prize pool.
Fleming’s team included another draft hopeful, Amber Sammons, and the NBA 2K League’s first female player, Chiquita Evans.
“It’s been exciting leading up to tonight, and I’m definitely grateful for the opportunity,” Fleming said on the eve of her first game last Wednesday. “It’s crazy how thing work out. …
“I definitely feel like this is another opportunity to prove that point, to show people what they passed up on, my skill and level of play, and how I can contribute as a team player.”
Though it’s an exhibition tournament with no regular season or playoff implications, the stakes were also high for current players in the league who, like their NBA counterparts, must stay sharp to fend off the thousands of people who would gladly take their place.
“I take it very seriously,” Delaney said about his time in the league. “It’s a life-changing opportunity for a lot of players. I was able to step up and help take care of my family and take care of my mother.”
Beyond the stakes in this particular tournament and in the league writ large, participants from traditional sports expressed a belief that the NBA 2K League, and sports video games in general, would grow during this pandemic-necessitated break and become ever more popular in the future.
“When everything settles down and sports comes back, I think people are still going to watch esports, because now I feel that peoples’ eyes have been opened to gamers and this different league, this esports league,” Powers said.
“I feel like it’s getting there now and that it’s gonna really take off. It’s only a mater of time, with all the money in it and how fun it is. It’s entertaining,” Guice said.
Delaney encouraged fans of the NBA to give him and his league a shot, speaking to the high level of competition and similar moments of excitement.
“The only difference is that we’re not physically moving on the court,” Delaney said. “The energy is just as high as a real basketball game.”
Noah Smith is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and staff journalist for Direct Relief, a nonprofit. Follow his work on Twitter @Vildehaya.