By Gerald Hopkins
After March 13th, 62 NBA2k professional players had a new place to call home. The draft process had it all, pregame breakdown, messages from members of the community, a trade on draft day, a lot of different people on zoom, and an actual draft! Seeing Lakers Gaming with the first pick have Lakers legend and seven time NBA champion Robert Horry announce Arshia “krazy” Karimi, and then getting to see his reaction via zoom was a special moment. But for all of the people that have a new place to call home, more people will be on the outside looking in. According to the official NBA2kLeague website, “the 2021 draft pool will consist of more than 250 players.” This means that there are 62 people who had a great night, and plenty more will have some tough questions about their future.
This is not the first time the NBA2kLeague has hosted a draft, as the NBA2kLeague models it’s NBA counterpart a lot in that respect. Back in 2018 for it’s inaugural season, the 17 teams in the league selected six players each from a pool of 102 players. The success of the first couple of seasons has led to this draft, where there are only 62 spots and over 250 people competing for it. One thing that makes the NBA2kLeague special is how it is closely formatted to the NBA, and items like the draft are one of those similarities.
Still, the NBA2k league is still pretty new and that newness highlights the lack of a support system around the game’s Esport scene. Let’s compare NBA2k’s League to a traditional Esport like League of Legends. League has many different pro teams while the 2kLeague only has 23. League of Legends has a more dedicated fan base and there is more than one way to play competitively. League’s relevance creates more avenues to play the game professionally, and while trying to pursue any Esport professionally is a risk, games like League give you more opportunities than 2k would.
One example of League creating avenues that other newer scenes struggle to follow would be streaming, as some of the most successful people in the world of gaming are streamers. While some of these professional players are streamers and content creators, most professionals are strictly focused on making teams and playing professionally. Streaming on the side adds more work to their day which can limit their opportunities at a professional level. According to Twitchtracker.com, NBA 2k21 ranks #44 in most-watched games. The average viewership of all of the NBA2k21 streamers combined is 8,256, with 1,450 channels contributing to that number. Compare this to League, which is third overall, which sees an average viewership of 209,225 per seven days, and has 5,300 channels contributing to this. While comparing League and 2k’s streaming capabilities and professional scene is not necessarily fair, for many reasons, if 2k wants to survive and grow competitively they are fighting for those viewers as much as they are to keep their own
Another thing that limits 2k’s is the fact that it’s a console game, making it harder to transition to another game. Being a professional or collegiate talent for Esports means that traits like reaction time, strategy, and communication can be transferred from game to game. One of the most prominent examples of this would be when Spencer “Hiko” Martin, a competitive CounterStrike player, moved from CounterStrike to Valorant. While making that transition isn’t impossible, it is only viable because some of those same talents mentioned earlier can translate between gameplay styles and the games are on the same platform. Hiko, when making the transition, could put whatever keybinds he wanted to learn Valorant. That is something that 2k players on Controller can’t do.
For controller players, the move to change games is limited because most Esports are computer-based. Some options to be a professional player include other sports scenes, Fortnite, and Call of Duty. While these players are extremely talented, if they are passed up in the draft, trying to go into another controller-based game is even harder because the barrier to entry is so much higher. We have heard the story of an Overwatch player moving to Valorant, but we have not heard the story of a 2k player to Call of Duty.
Yet, the newness of the league gives 2k the chance to create something special and to give more people a chance to compete. The first goal for the 2kLeague must be to expand to 30 teams, as that gives more people a chance to earn spots in the league, but that is only the start. An important step would be integration into college and minor leagues, as the growth into those new spaces would be helpful for both sides. Growth into colleges (like Mizzou!) would give these institutions and their programs another game that they could recruit and offer, one that is different from other Esports.
The community around 2k is different from Valorant, League of Legends, Overwatch, and Rocket League. This difference is not a negative, but more of an expansion into a different world of gaming. This would also give 2k a chance for more people to pursue playing the game professionally, and hedge the risk that comes with pursuing a career in Esports.
The NBA2kLeague has a chance to expand, and while the scene itself is new, the quick growth has made expansion a necessity. If the NBA2kLeague can expand to make college teams, it can not only legitimize itself as an Esport but also give more people a reason to choose 2k as they go to a game to play professionally. While March 13th, 2021 was a night 62 people remember, those who get left behind can pave a way to make the scene a place they will never forget.