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The success and failure of NBA 2k Mobile League

The NBA 2K League is a basketball esports competition that is played using the officially-licensed NBA 2K Mobile video game. It was founded in early 2017 and had its inaugural season just over a year later in May 2018. It involved 17 teams, all associated with official NBA teams, each of which played 14 regular-season games. This was followed by a postseason playoff tournament that ran in a similar format to the real-life NBA playoffs. Eight teams qualified for the quarter-finals, before being narrowed down to four for the semis, and just two for the finals. 

That first year, the NBA 2K League was won by Knicks Gaming, the official esports team of the NBA’s New York Knicks. The team also won one of the three special tournaments that were held that season; the others saw Blazer5 Gaming and 76ers GC emerge victoriously.  May 2021 saw the fourth running of the NBA 2K League, with the now 24 teams battling it out for a share of $1.5 million. But why was the NBA 2K Mobile League founded and has it been a success?

Future-Proofing the NBA seasons in the 2K esports league

The NBA is an incredibly successful sporting competition; it is a commercial juggernaut and a marketing powerhouse. It is the world’s third-richest sports league when measured by revenue, behind only the National Football League and Major League Baseball. In 2019, the NBA generated $7.92 billion in revenue, enough to rank it within the United States’ 400 highest-earning companies. 

Income for the NBA comes from several sources. The biggest by far is television broadcast rights deals where TV networks pay the league large sums to be able to show games on their channels. The current nine-year deal, which started in the 2016-17 season, nets the NBA $2.6 billion from TNT and ESPN. 

NBA 2K Mobile Esports League Court
Image via NBA 2k Mobile League

On top of this, the rights for around 1,000 regular-season games are bought by local TV broadcasters, earning each of the teams between $9 million and $150 million a year. Further revenues are generated by sponsorship deals, tickets for games, and selling merchandise. Sports betting is also a huge industry, with almost every US sportsbook offering NBA betting odds on both regular season and playoff games as well as futures markets such as which team will win the championship. 

While things are going great now, the concern for league bosses is that the current NBA fans are growing older and a younger generation isn’t replacing them. In the 18-34 age group, the number of people that describe themselves as “avid NBA fans” is six percentage points lower than in 35-44-year-olds. Should the league’s viewership shrink, it won’t be able to command the same huge sums from broadcasters and sponsors. 

The NBA, therefore, needs to find ways to encourage younger adults to get excited about basketball. One attempt at this was to create the NBA 2K League to use esports as a channel for building a relationship with a new generation of fans. 

The future of NBA 2K Mobile esports league and how it works

Esports competitions that are based on real-life sports have struggled in comparison to some of the most successful titles like League of Legends and Dota 2. The main reason for this is the fact that it’s easier for fans and critics to draw comparisons between the two, something you can’t do with a fantasy battle arena video game. 

By almost every metric though, the NBA 2K league has been a success. After starting with 17 teams in its inaugural season, it is now up to 24. In 2020, the league’s broadcasts on the streaming service Twitch saw their average unique viewer counts increase by 69%, while the average audience per stream metric rose by 48%, and the average number of minutes watched per stream went up by 55%. 

NBA 2k Mobile gameplay
Image via 2k Games

As a commercial exercise, the NBA 2K League can also stand on its own two feet, with partnership deals with brands like AT&T, Panera Bread, and Snickers. However, the jury is still out on whether the NBA 2K League has helped the main NBA league increase its fanbase. TV viewership was down in most of 2020, though 2021 figures appear to have improved. 

It will take some time to know whether this main aim of the league has worked or not as it is very much a long-term project for the NBA. That said, based on every other possible metric, things do look to be going to plan. 

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