The NBA 2K League Draft: Putting the Sport in Esports

I just got finished watching one of the most bizarre events in sports and eSports history, the NBA2K League Draft.

The event started with NBA commissioner Adam Silver announcing the first overall pick's gamertag "Dimez" with a straight face. At that moment, I knew this was going to be something special.

The lines between sport and video game constantly blurred as the lingo and platitudes of sports were being tossed around to describe eSports competitors. Phrases like "on and off the court" were used to describe the players' prowess in the game juxtaposed to their real life persona. Meanwhile, the commentators talked about the "builds" and character archetypes that are being used in-game. Comparisons were tossed around like "The Dirk Nowitzki of 2K" describing the German player taken by the Mavericks affiliate. The balance between sports style draft coverage and the strategy of a video game's mechanics made for such a uniquely strange event to for commentators to analyze. While a 7'0 tall NBA prospect is stuck in the body he was born with, NBA2K players can simply adjust some sliders and change the whole size, position, and attributes of the character they play.

To fully underscore how much of an oddity this event was, you must understand how eSports typically differ from professional sports in terms of format. In eSports, teams aren't pieced together by an existing organization like the Lakers or Celtics, but rather a group of existing teammates who rise through the ranks and go on to become sponsored. Traditionally these teams are formed by friends who found each other while playing, and then make roster changes from there on out. Sometimes players will leave their current team and come together with other free agents to form a "super team" of sorts. However, this idea of having an inaugural draft to form teams is the first of its kind in eSports, to my knowledge.

A common trend I saw emerge in the draft was teams piecing back together the core of pre-existing rosters to maintain already established chemistry. This might beg the question "Why do the draft if you are just going to rebuild their previous teams?" However, I think this event was a great way to introduce these players to the public; adding weight, drama and glamour to the process of being affiliated with these renown NBA franchises. There were life stories told, and tears shed during this event. I couldn't help but feel excited for all of these guys.

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Here is a list of my favorite usernames I got to hear suited white men be forced to read on stage:

Dimez, oFab, Yeah I Compete, Hood is Glitchy, Bsmoove, Sick x 973, AuthenticAfrican, Shump, Mama Im Dat Man, MrSlaughter01, Dat Boy Shotz, ReeseDaGod23, Godddof2K, vGooner-, XxSTL2LAxX, | 24k JSmoove |, FrostyTheTruth, EatSleepHoop15, SavageDoWerk, KingCamRoyalty, Stambreezy, and finally-- PalmOilPlease.

This concludes my list. You can check out the full draft board here:

It will be interesting to see how these teams shake out. What draft strategies will prove successful? Will the early, mid, or late in the round pick positions prove to be the most beneficial? We will have to keep an eye on how many roster transactions will happen during the season, and what the rules the league will have in this regard. If all these eSport eEgos flair up, teams need an eject button as these players will be living together 24/7 in league provided accommodations.

The draft tried to pigeon-hole players into a single position despite some of them specializing in more than one, so I wonder how much role and position changing teams will do throughout the season. If its allowed in the rules, I assume there will be a sort of meta-game that involves choosing your roster positions and attributes entirely based on the opponent you are versing. If the league allows the teams to embrace the "video game" aspects of NBA2K, there could be some very interesting high-level mind games and strategy in play. However, if the league tries to force the teams to mirror the real NBA and restrict player autonomy, we could see a very short-lived league that tries to be something it is not (a real sports league) and prevents it from becoming a seriously strategic eSport.

I hope 2K realizes the hidden potential in the frontier they have just carved out. While they may never regain the NFL license, this opens the door for them to create an NFL-free eSport football game that focuses entirely on competitive gameplay. If they could put this much effort into a 2K Football League, this could be the gimmick that allows them to make football games again without the need for NFL rosters. The future of entertainment is here, and Twitch.tv can elevate any eSport game to prominence if the gameplay is worthy.

Lets hope sports game developers realize this and start taking some chances to capitalize on the new era of competitive gaming. 2K could take a football league in so many directions: a 30+ team professional multiplayer franchise mode league, tournaments using NFL Street style drafts, or the NBA2K League model of forming full rosters of individual players. I think the NFL Street style draft would make sense as it fits the existing mold of MOBAs like DOTA2 and League of Legends with their pick and ban phase draft system. The use of fictional players would especially make this interesting as the developers could adjust them at will to diversify the draft pool without having to worry about tying the players’ attributes to any real world parity. However, 2K could also grab some real Hall of Fame players instead (like they did in All-Pro Football 2K8) if they think that would be more marketable to the average sports gamer.

Overall, the inaugural NBA 2K League Draft was a weirdly compelling event but wasn’t without fault. It was an absolute marathon coming in at just under 6 hours(!) and had some awkward moments sprinkled throughout. Despite this, the production was high, the commentator desk host Dirk did a great job, and 2K did about as well as you could hope in such a strange new frontier of gaming. For how awkward of an event it was, they did what they could to make it run smooth. They showed great respect to all the players, and tried to applaud the competitors rather than shame them for dedicating their life to the game they love. Lets hope this effort is profitable for 2K and allows them to return their focus to gameplay and user experience rather than the predatory microtransactions that have plagued their game as of late. Who knows, maybe this will inspire them to try future forays into eSport terrority. At the very least, sports fans will have another league to check in on during the baseball-only summer months ahead.

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