As the drama of the NBA Playoffs unfolds in sold-out arenas this spring, an entirely different set of compelling storylines should emerge from the launch of the NBA 2K League in May. The 2K League is the first professional gaming competition owned by a major U.S. sports organization. With a total prize pool of $1 million for the inaugural season, the NBA clearly believes in the future of esports.
Seventeen of the NBA’s 30 teams established esports franchises and will take part in the league’s first-ever draft on Wednesday in New York City. When the NBA approached teams about its newest League, they estimated around eight to 12 franchises would play for the first season.
“There was a lot more interest than they expected and I think teams saw it as a great opportunity to reach a younger demographic and get their next generation of fans,” says Grant Paranjape (right), Director of Esports Business and Team Operations for Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the ownership group of the Washington Wizards.
Monumental jumped at the opportunity and started the Wizards District Gaming (WDG) team. Paranjape was hired seven months ago to oversee their foray into professional gaming. An experienced gamer himself — he played World of Warcraft professionally as an eighth grader — Paranjape left prominent esports organization Splyce to join WDG.
“I’ve always been interested in gaming, but I never thought there would be a career in esports,” says Paranjape.
The groundwork for the 2K League began in early 2017 when the NBA launched a partnership with Take-Two Interactive, the developers of NBA 2K. From there, the NBA worked with Rare Design throughout the summer to develop each participating team’s brand.
“All of that led to us launching our brands and social handles in December. It was a few months in the making, but it was exciting to finally reveal those publicly,” says Paranjape.
With team identities complete, the next step was finding the players. The NBA designed a three-step process to help identify the world’s best 2K players. The first stage of qualifying ran from Jan. 1 to Jan. 31 and was open to anyone anywhere in the world, with the only requirements being that they be 18 or older by February and have completed high school or their class have graduated by the end of 2018.
In the initial stage, players needed to win at least 50 games in NBA 2K18’s online Pro-Am mode to advance to the 2K League’s Combine in February. Almost 72,000 players advanced to the Combine, which consisted of 12 planned playing windows in February where competitors were required to play with a default character — not their custom character that they had created and played with before.
“The Combine participants had to compete with random opponents and teammates, and had all of their stats tracked,” says Paranjape. “It was really an opportunity for everyone to demonstrate why they were the best player in 2K.”
The large pool of players was narrowed down to 250 through a combination of Combine stats and an online application process that tested their basketball IQ, understanding of NBA 2K, and reasons for wanting to play in the 2K League.
“Those 250 were then interviewed by the NBA as kind of a panel interview — by a sports psychologist and a number of other NBA and 2K officials,” says Paranjape.
That process helped the NBA whittle down the pool to the 102 players who will participate in Wednesday’s draft. Each of the 17 franchises will select six players in the snake-style draft, which means that the order of picks reverses after each round. The selection order was determined by a draft lottery on March 13. WDG is picking 12th, giving them a chance to take two of the first 23 players off the board.
“I think a lot of teams are going to draft players that they’re comfortable or familiar with, or something else from that aspect,” says Patrick Crossan, the Team Manager for WDG.
Monumental brought Crossan on board in March, capping off a rollercoaster few months for him. A well-known 2K player, Crossan was in the process of qualifying for the 2K League as a player and would have likely made it. However, recognizing the opportunity to work behind the scenes to build a franchise, he jumped at the opportunity to join the Monumental team.
“We were looking for someone who had a great background in esports but would also fit in well, not only managing but also coaching the team,” says Paranjape. “Patrick has a very accomplished background in 2K and I think he’ll be a great fit.”
Crossan, meanwhile, appears to have embraced his new role as a leader.
“It’s been a whirlwind of emotions that it’s all coming together. Although I still love playing and felt like I could have been drafted as a player, I was driven by the impact I could have as a manager in making our team successful,” says Crossan.
His first managerial duties have involved scouting or interviewing all 102 players ahead of the draft. On draft day, Crossan has to ensure his team walks away with six players who mesh well on and off the court and can compete for the championship. The draft is only the beginning, as Crossan is responsible for managing practices, scouting opponents, implementing strategy, and assessing team and player performance throughout the season.
“Our players are going to be treated like athletes,” says Paranjape. “They’ll have a dedicated practice facility, nutritionists, sports psychologists, workout regimens. They’ll practice eight to 12 hours a day.”
Every player in the league will receive a six-month contract worth between $32,000 and $35,000. Players will be allowed to sign their own endorsement deals, so stars could potentially make a lot more money. The 2K League will also provide every player with housing, health insurance, and a retirement plan. There will be no trades or free agency in the immediate future.
As we are officially one week away from the first ever @NBA2KLeague draft, we wanted to give players a little taste of where they'll be living. Check it out! 🔥🔥 #WizardsDG #NBA2KLEAGUE #NBA2KLeagueDraft pic.twitter.com/J5yqm5bwyB— Wizards District Gaming (@WizardsDG) March 28, 2018
As for how the first season will be structured, many of those details are still being ironed out ahead of the May tip-off. Paranjape says WDG will have at least one game a week, there will be playoffs, and that the season will run until the end of August. There will also be a few one-off tournaments throughout the regular season for additional prize money.
Wednesday’s draft will be streamed online but the NBA is still working to negotiate TV broadcast rights for the 2K League. Fans will, however, have a digital streaming option for every game, and Paranjape hopes they tune in.
“Gaming has come such a long way, and these players are so good at 2K, it’s really going to be something to watch them come together as a team and help kick off this league. We couldn’t be more excited to get things started in a few short weeks and look forward to building a passionate fanbase here in the D.C. metro area.”
Arin is the Corporate Content Lead at Leidos. He creates and curates content across a wide range of topics -- familiar territory for someone who's worked in banking, health care, media, and the non-profit space.Follow on Twitter More Content by Arin Karimian