IN a revolutionary move for professional sports in the United States, the National Basketball Association has unveiled an all-new esports division to go live in 2018.
The new league is to be built around the popular NBA 2K series of video games, which was originally launched on the Sega Dreamcast in 1999.
The format will closely resemble the real thing, with gamers entering a player combine and a draft system in the hope of joining an NBA franchise.
There are 30 teams in US basketball’s top flight, around half of which are expected to compete in the inaugural 2018 2K eLeague season.
“There’s an untapped audience on both sides of the equation,” said Matt Holt, the NBA’s vice-president of global partnerships.
“On the NBA side, we have a lot of fans who don’t play the 2K game, and I’m sure there are 2K players who aren’t fans of the NBA.
“This is another chance to engage them.”
The NBA was already a trend-setter in the esports arena before this announcement.
The Philadelphia 76ers got ahead of the game last year when they purchased and merged a pair of online gaming teams.
In December 2016, the Houston Rockets became the very first US sports team to appoint an official eSports executive.
The likes of Shaquille O’Neal and franchise owners from the Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings and Washington Wizards all have significant stakes in a scene that is set to explode over the next new years.
Extensive market research indicates that professional esports gaming will blossom into a USD $1.3 billion per annum industry by 2019.
The 2K eLeague will create a host of new revenue streams for the NBA and the participating franchises, especially through broadcasting rights and viewer subscriptions.
It is expected that most games will be viewable via live online streaming, while some may even make the leap to television airwaves.
What we think of the NBA 2K eLeague
Make no mistake: this just the beginning of the next major movement in professional sports worldwide.
The eSports scene already has a significant following, with major competitions devoted to online shooter games such as Defence of the Ancients 2 (Dota 2), Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) and League of Legends (LoL).
Combine burgeoning public interest with the financial clout and mainstream reach of an organisation like the NBA, and you have a recipe for instant success.
Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, even the PGA Tour – all will follow suit, sooner or later.
On a global scale, the thriving online communities of the FIFA football series and its chief rival, Pro Evolution Soccer, make them prime candidates for such a transition.
Indeed, earlier this month ESPN struck a deal with EA Sports to broadcast live coverage of FIFA Ultimate Team online tournaments.
The esports arena has already become a cult favourite among niche punters all over the world, but this new level of exposure could make competitive video gaming the next big betting trend – especially if the USA overturns its nationwide ban on sports wagering.
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