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NBA’s 2K eSports League Grows During Pandemic with Eyes on Expansion

Not every NBA franchise is sponsoring a squad in the NBA 2K esports league, but the 22 who have enjoyed a wildly successful 2020.

During its third season in 2020, 2K League broadcasts on Twitch were up 69% from 2019 in average unique viewers per stream. The league also saw a 48% increase in average minute audience per stream and a 55% surge in average minutes watched per stream.

“We had a transformational season for us,” Brendan Donohue, managing director of the 2K league said in an interview. “As crazy as the external environment was, it was an amazing year for esports.”

The NBA 2K growth was in line with the broader esports industry, which drew in 485 million viewers in 2020, an 11.7% increase from 2019, according to Newzoo, while revenue rose 15.7% to $1.1 billion.

“The NBA teams certainly can drive local revenue, selling partnerships, selling content, and selling merchandise,” Donohue said. “The model that exists on the NBA side, for the most part, carries over to the 2K side.” In three years the 2K League has inked partnerships with AT&T, Snickers, New Era Caps, Panera Bread, and more.

When the league began nearly four years ago, Donohue and the NBA were hoping to have somewhere between eight and 12 teams; the 17 that signed on eclipsed those expectations. Since then, the league has expanded twice, getting five more teams while adding an overseas squad as well—the Shanghai-based Gen G Tigers.

Still, eight NBA clubs remain without a 2K League team. This spawns a different question: Why hasn’t every team leaped on to the 2K League trampoline?

Seven of the eight teams without a 2K League team declined to comment or did not respond. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder replied, with a team spokesperson saying, “Currently, we have no plans to pursue a 2K League team.”

Donohue said he isn’t worried. “Our 30 NBA teams, we’re comfortable with the fact that they’ll jump on board when they’re ready, but we didn’t want that to stop us from expanding across the globe,” he said. “Gen G is the first of many steps and all that does, in reality, is add more value for all the NBA teams. The important thing to know is that the success of the NBA 2K game is in the best interest of all of our teams, the 22 that are in the league and the eight that aren’t.”

The Washington Wizards were one of the organizations that bought in early, enticed by the opportunity to reach a nontraditional sports audience.

“We saw something growing five to six years ago that we wanted to be a part of,” said Zach Leonsis, senior VP of strategic initiatives for team-owner Monumental Sports and Entertainment. “We understand how important the cable and linear universe is to traditional sports [but] we really saw this as the first opportunity for a live event to be digital-first and linear second.”

The Wizards’ 2K League team, Wizards District Gaming, are the reigning NBA 2K league champions, defeating the Warriors Gaming Squad in a best-of-five series in August.

An esports team also enables corporate sponsors to reach an untapped audience. “The esports audience is incredibly difficult to reach unless you’re willing to take a really credible approach and you’re invested long term,” Leonsis said. “We want to bring that sort of diverse offering of the audience to all of our sponsors.”

The league remains optimistic about not only eventually attracting the remaining NBA teams but expanding farther overseas as well.

“The remaining team presidents, they’re my friends,” Donohue said. “I talk to them and they’re well aware of the growth we have across the league and what our future looks like. We’re so in our early years, I think there’s so much green field in front of us that people don’t realize yet.”

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