Day 6

The NBA has a professional esports basketball league. Here's how it works

Shane Talbot, manager of Raptors Uprising GC, Canada's official NBA 2K esports franchise, says virtual NBA gaming could one day approach the popularity of the real thing.

Raptors Uprising GC is looking to match the success of its IRL namesake

Raptors Uprising GC is the esports arm of the Toronto Raptors. (Ryan Griffin/Raptors Uprising GC)
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As the NBA returns to arenas around North America this week, the league's esports arm is ramping up for qualifiers.

On Tuesday, professional-level NBA 2K players began duking it out on virtual courts in hopes of landing a spot of one of the video game league's 23 official teams.

That includes four spots on Raptors Uprising, the Toronto-based NBA 2K team owned by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) — the group that owns the championship-winning Toronto Raptors.

Unsure what all this hoopla about esports and NBA 2K is about? Day 6 talked to MLSE esports manager Shane Talbot to help break it down.

What is the NBA 2K League?

The NBA launched their esports league in 2018, in partnership with the company behind the NBA 2K series of video games.

The league is made up of 23 teams, each affiliated with an NBA franchise, consisting of six players. According to Talbot, the NBA 2K League is unique in the esports world in that it forms teams through an open draft.

"Our league is run by the NBA, and so there's an open try-out available through the retail version of the game. NBA 2K is the top performing sports game [franchise] in the world," he told Day 6.

Talbot adds that the game sold 12 million copies last year. During the league's first season in 2018, 72,000 prospective players were whittled down to 172.

"We have a story that I think is compelling for anybody who's intrigued by the idea of someone sort of rising to fame because of something they're amazingly good at and being plucked out of obscurity because all of a sudden the NBA has decided to form a league," Talbot said.

Regular season games are played at a studio in New York City, both in front of a live audience and streamed online. 

Kenneth Hailey, known online as Kenny Got Work, left, Frederick Mendoza, known as Doza, right, are top players in Raptors Uprising GC. (Ryan Griffin/Raptors Uprising GC)

How much skill does this take?

It's not as easy as it looks, Talbot says. He describes NBA 2K as a blend of two types of competitive video games that requires both fine mechanical skills and reflexes, as well as strategic thinking.

"NBA 2K is very much positional; it's very much strategy. So you need to know basketball in order to play 2K at a high level, and then you need to have the fine motor skills to be able to hit those reaction times in time."

Players are expected to compete casually against other players, and use those games as a training opportunity to improve their skills. Beyond that, team managers take other aspects, like professionalism, maturity, team chemistry and experience into consideration. 

What's more, just like a standard basketball team, NBA 2K players are expected to stay fit. Players for Raptors Uprising are provided personal trainers.

"We are big believers in, you know, healthy body, healthy mind is going to translate into good gameplay," Talbot said.

A teammate watches Hailey play during a tournament in the league's New York City studio. (Ryan Griffin/Raptors Uprising GC)

Who is making money doing this?

The average player salary is about $40,000 US per year for a four- to five-month season, according to Talbot.

On top of that, $1.4 million US in prize money is up for grabs in the upcoming season.

But there are a few key players at the top of the league.

"The best player in the world is a point guard named Radiant. He plays for 76ers in Philadelphia," Talbot said. "The most balanced player, I think, is out in Portland playing for Blazer5 of the Portland Trail Blazers.

"But there's five or six really elite players and there are people who specialize in specific abilities."

What's the future for this look like?

Talbot says that plenty can change in the next three to five years as the league grows, but he believes that the esport will thrive off NBA fans.

And while it will be secondary to the NBA — at least during his lifetime — he says that the appetite for esports is growing.

The genre is already big business. The World Economic Forum estimates esports has a global audience of more than 300 million fans.

"I do believe that there will be a competitive esport that rivals the NBA, the NHL, the NFL in terms of size of viewership," Talbot said.

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