What is NBA 2K esports?

13 September 2023

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Image credit: NBA 2K League

When 2K Games started its operations back in 2005, its executives probably did not foresee just how big the company would have gotten almost 20 years later. Today, 2K is not just a studio that is popular for its sports gaming titles, but a brand name with a lot of influence in the gaming industry — and is slowly increasing that influence in the esports industry.

2K has esports partnerships with major franchises, with international federations, tech companies, and with sponsors doing business in many different industrial areas. In under 20 years, 2K Games, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, has been growing its position to start challenging leading sports simulation publishers such as Electronic Arts.

2K Games is best known for its sports simulation titles, most notably the NBA 2K franchise. However, the company also publishes other non-esports games across a variety of genres, including borderlands, XCOM and Mafia. One area 2K has not ventured into is casino games, which is dominated by big brands like Microgaming, purveyors of the Hyper Strike slot.

Nonetheless, most of 2K’s development budget naturally goes to games like NBA 2K, as the franchise generates substantial revenues through various microtransactions as well as sales of the game itself.

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How is NBA 2K esports structured?

There are dozens of sports simulation games that are developing esports ecosystems. NBA 2K is one of the more popular choices for sports sim esports in North America, as well other markets where real-life basketball has a large following.

In NBA 2K, you control characters in a virtual basketball team, much in the same way as you control a football team in FIFA. The game offers competitive modes that pit you against rival players in various game modes, such as 3v3 or 5v5 — the modes most often used in NBA 2K esports tournaments.

The most prominent NBA 2K tournament is the NBA 2K League, which was launched in 2018 as a joint venture between Take Two Interactive and the National Basketball Association (NBA). 

The league has 22 real-life NBA teams participating in it, alongside a couple independent teams not affiliated with NBA teams. The most notable of these is traditional esports organisation Gen.G (which has headquarters in the United States and South Korea).

The league aimed to create a competitive ecosystem around the NBA 2K game and garnered attention both inside and outside the esports industry. According to esports viewership data platform Esports Charts, the NBA 2K League 2023 Playoffs saw 46,000 peak viewers, 30,000 average viewers and 664,000 hours watched.

NBA 2K esports tournaments are held worldwide with significant prize pools. In 2023, the NBA 2K League is set to distribute $2.5m (~£2.0m) in prize money. This is funded in part thanks to sponsorship deals that the league strikes with major brands, which in the past have included AT&T and Coinbase, amongst others.

But 2K Games’ work also extends outside the server. 2K partnered with the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) in June 2023 in order to bolster the game’s esports ecosystem. These partnerships give 2K Games the ability to expand its area of operations, as well as offer more options to its players and to those competing in international esports tournaments.

Outside of the NBA 2K League, 2K also hosts other esports events, such as the NBA 2K Global Championship, as well as pro-am tournaments.

FIBA, NBA 2K League partnership
Image credit: Shutterstock

Why does NBA 2K have esports?

Like many publishers, esports is a valuable marketing tool for 2K; it offers a way of keeping its customers and community engaged in the game. Holding open qualifier tournaments that any player can enter, with cash on the line, gives players a goal to work towards. 

In addition, seeing dedicated professional NBA 2K players compete in the NBA 2K League proves how much skill there is in the game and how good the best players are, offering entertainment that raises the profile of the game and draws new fans in.

For NBA teams participating in the NBA 2K League, they are able to reach and promote their brand to gamers and esports fans, typically a younger demographic that is harder to reach via traditional media channels. This can help build brand loyalty and awareness amongst this valuable audience.

However, with major brand partnerships funding prize pools, the NBA 2K league offers a commercial model in itself, and as a result some players are able to play the game professionally full-time on salaries. In September 2023, the NBA 2K League even partnered with the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) to facilitate NBA players participating in marketing activations to promote the NBA 2K League.

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Supported by ISF Digital