The NBA is the latest sports league to jump into the growing eSports arena, following the NFL and FIFA through Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL and FIFA video game franchises.
Through the NBA’s licensing partnership with game publisher 2K (a division of Take-Two Interactive (TTWO)), NBA 2K16: Road to the Finals has kicked off a cross-platform competition on Sony’s (SNE) PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox One that will run through May 8. Gamers can form NBA 2K Pro-Am teams and compete online in any of 16 events. On May 21, the 16 winners on both the PS4 and Xbox One will go head-to-head in a single-elimination tournament. The winners will then face off in the $250,000 championship in June at the NBA Finals.
“The popularity of competitive gaming continues to grow around the world, and NBA 2K16’s Road to the Finals is a great way to bring passionate gamers together,” says Matt Holt, the NBA’s vice president of licensing.
Jason Argent, senior vice president of basketball operations at 2K, believes that NBA 2K’s being tied to a real sport versus a more traditional fantasy video game such as Riot Games’ League of Legends has great potential to widen the eSports audience and take it more mainstream.
“Our game has been competitive amongst NBA players, basketball fans, and our community for well over a decade, so this is just bringing that competition element to the forefront,” Argent says. “We feel that eSports as a part of NBA 2K is a natural fit given the game’s format and the desire from our community for competitive play.”
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Game developer Visual Concepts created the new Pro Am game mode to allow gamers to design their own identity and team up with friends to move up the ranks in an NBA simulation environment.
“ESports is all about creating an even playing field where a player’s skills determine the outcome versus their opponent, and we feel Pro Am in NBA 2K16 delivers that unlike any other sports simulation game,” Argent says.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told Fortune that eSports was something the NBA was going to focus on through its partners. And 2K has loftier long-term eSports goals through its NBA partnership.
“We are taking a pragmatic approach to eSports so this is just one of the first steps, but down the road we can envision the opportunity for large-scale live spectator-filled events that not only highlight the game, but some of the NBA athletes that represent our brand alongside other pop and fashion icons,” Argent says.
“2K has a unique license on its hands that has a global appeal, so the potential is there with NBA 2K,” says Joost van Dreunen, CEO of SuperData Research. “But it will require a long-term plan, and the accompanying funds, to capture its potential.”
Electronic Arts (EA), which is heading up its new internal EA Competitive Gaming Division, integrated its Madden Live Challenge eSports competition into its Super Bowl 50 activities and Madden Bowl XXII earlier this month in San Francisco. The top four professional Madden players were flown to San Francisco to compete first at the NFL Experience and then at the actual Madden Bowl event. It marked the first time the traditional competition between the top NFL players also opened its doors to the best gamers.
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The FIFA Interactive World Cup 2016 will feature the top 32 EA Sports FIFA 16 gamers in New York City March 20 to 22 competing for $25,000 in cash and a trip to the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala. Over 2.3 million online gamers from around the world took part in this year’s annual competition.
Peter Warman, CEO of research firm Newzoo, says the number of hours gamers spent watching EA’s FIFA 16 on Twitch in January increased by more than 80% since last November, while the number of hours gamers watched NBA 2K16 videos on Twitch more than doubled in the same period.
“The increased direct viewership is a way we believe sports games will broaden the eSports audience, as it attracts a different group of gamers,” Warman says.