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NBA 2K League, Tencent Team up to Bring the Phenomenon of e-Sports Basketball to China

From the outside, the NBA 2K League studio looks like an unassuming warehouse in Long Island City. There's no big signage or pomp. But inside there are screens above the crowds, the players are in a circle focusing on their monitors, and fans are cheering for their favorite teams in the 2K League, the e-sports competition scene for the NBA 2K video game.

For those not interested in e-sports, it can be hard to grasp the atmosphere, with its bleachers of fans and the decked out red and blue walls, until you're actually immersed in its excitement and light trash talking.

But soon that experience will open up to even more people.

The NBA 2K League announced last week that it is coming to China, one of the world's largest e-sports markets, and it's doing so with the help of Tencent, a massive Chinese conglomerate and a leader in gaming.

Tencent already broadcasts NBA games, and similar to its deal with the league, it will begin showing 2K League events, too. The NBA 2K League is owned by the NBA and NBA 2K maker TakeTwo.

The 2K League is poised to score points with Chinese viewers, because there's already interest from gamers there. "In China, the more common way for players to engage in the game is actually 2K online, which is a free version of the game," Brendan Donohue, managing director of the 2K League tells Fortune. "Up until this point, we haven't been able to engage that audience. This deal, by partnering with Tencent, it allows us to unlock that audience and test that this season before doing more in the future."

Expanding 2K League to China also a natural move, considering the popularity of e-sports there. According to a 2017 report by IHS Markit, China is the largest global market for e-sports, streaming 57% of all matches last year. Between the popularity of 2K Online, growing Chinese interest in traditional basketball, and the massive appetite for e-sports, Donohue expects viewership for the league to see a substantial increase.

But the league is looking to do more than merely show its games in China. Currently, all of the 2K League teams are linked to ones in the traditional NBA, but 2K League players appear as digital avatars of themselves, and not as NBA players. For example, the Portland Trail Blazers' counterpart is Blazer5 Gaming, but no one plays as the NBA team's point guard Damian Lillard.

Donohue sees the league expanding, and China is one place they're looking to move into. How the non-NBA teams will be named or styled is still undecided, but the 2K League is willing to make the expansion happen.

"This is part of a much broader strategy here," Donohue said explaining that they want to continue finding potential e-sports players in China, reaching fans there through game streaming and live events, and eventually setting up Chinese-based teams.

"We are having active conversations with people who are interested in joining the league that are not NBA owners. It might too early to talk about a timeline, but we know in the near future there's going to be teams outside of NBA-owned teams in the league," Donohue said.

Even before that, Donohue envisions the NBA 2K League putting on events in China. For the current season, the league hosted an invitational qualifying event in Hong Kong in order to better attract non-U.S.-based talent.

"We think this is a great test for us to start to expose the league to the region," Donohue noted.

As the 2K League's Long Island City studio gets more popular, and the bleachers start to overflow with fans, moving seems like the best option.

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