The official NBA draft lottery is two months away, but ping-pong balls with colorful little logos played a familiar role on Tuesday for 17 NBA teams, including the Philadelphia 76ers.
Their focus wasn’t on playing real basketball. It was on competitive gaming online.
The NBA 2K League, an esports venture between the National Basketball Association and video game publisher 2K Games, held a lottery Tuesday for its draft, which will take place April 4 at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden’s Lobby. The 76ers Gaming Club won the right to pick 14th, while Mark Cuban’s Mavs Gaming will get the first overall pick. Picks reverse in the next round.
The 17 inaugural teams will pick from a pool of 102 players, who have yet to be announced officially. That number was whittled down from 70,000 eligible players from around the world who tried their luck at an application process and online combine.
The 2K League is the latest competitive gaming, or esports, venture to get investment from established Philadelphia-area firms.
The Sixers’ ownership group, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, already owns Team Dignitas, which has competed in several popular games such as League of Legends and Counter-Strike since it was founded in 2003. Blitzer acquired Dignitas for an undisclosed sum in September 2016, and ESPN reported that top esports brands at the time were valued from $5 million to $15 million.
What is driving those valuations? More and more young adults are cutting their cable cord, pulling down sports and entertainment directly from the internet, and playing and watching a growing list of video games. As the average sports fan continues to age, advertisers are taking notice. Esports viewership continues to grow, according to the latest report from the marketing analytics firm Newzoo.
The global esports audience hit 335 million people in 2017 and will hit 380.2 million this year, Newzoo predicts. With so many eyes on top gamers globally, the firm says revenue should rise from $655.3 million in 2017 to $905.6 million in 2018, mostly from sponsorships, advertising, media rights, merchandise, ticket sales, and game publisher fees.
Newzoo cited sports leagues, such as NBA 2K League, as potential accelerators of growth. These games “are easy to understand” and “have huge player bases,” the report stated.
Comcast Spectacor, which owns the Flyers and the Wells Fargo Center, purchased a slot in Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League and signed players under its newly minted Philadelphia Fusion banner. That spot was reportedly worth $20 million, which doesn’t include signing 12 players in a league with a $50,000 minimum base salary, with the biggest names commanding far more.
“I think more than anything, the timing was right,” said the Fusion’s president, Tucker Roberts. “I think the market, the demand has been growing. And it’s gotten more and more attractive, I think, especially due to the league structure and format, that the time was right to jump in.”
More than 10 million viewers tuned in to the Overwatch League’s week one broadcast, which averaged 280,000 viewers a minute, according to Blizzard.
In a Feb. 8 earnings call, the president and CEO of Blizzard Entertainment, Michael Morhaime, said he’s “very excited with the reaction and the interest in expansion teams and pretty confident to say that price is going to go up.”
The 76ers Gaming Club is hoping to tap into similar success with the NBA 2K League. It’s unclear who they’ll take with their 14th pick, but Kris Dellarciprete, known online as a top NBA 2K18 player called iiNsaniTTy, hopes he’s part of “the process.”
“That would be the greatest honor ever,” said Dellarciprete, who is pursuing gaming full time. “I would love to stay home in Philly, but if that doesn’t work out, I’d be happy to go to whatever city drafts me. I’d work hard and try to do my best.”