Unless you count the short-lived XFL as a serious professional league (and now it’s coming back in Pog form!), it’s likely that the NBA 2K League is the first major North American sports league that its players remember being created (perhaps some elder statesmen will remember the founding of the WNBA in 1996). The NBA 2K League is very different from the XFL. It is designed not to compete with anyone, especially its parent NBA. The NBA in fact sponsors it and is working to popularize it. There will be no scrums, no disputes about the “new” XFL acting holier than the NFL, and most certainly no folding after one season. But then again, is any other league so well primed to play host to a player with the moniker “He Hate Me,” or something similar? NBA 2K League players will use their own names and avatars. The league is about them, not the NBA.
So what will make the first season a success and enable the NBA to prolong the league far beyond the first season (let’s call that the “XFL standard”)? Here are a few ways, with some being common sense, and some a bit more radical.
Make Everything Accessible
The league is built on the strength of the 2K community, and on the NBA’s name and power. How many leagues find its players through fairly universal tryouts? The league needs to build on that accessibility in all facets of its operation. It’s a beneficial two-way street. The more fans can know about players, the more marketable (there’s a buzz word for you) those players are. The more accessible games are, live and watchable afterwards, the likelier their viewership will increase. The league has taken steps towards this by making the bulk of their season not conflict with the NBA playoffs. Accessible and transparency are different words, but the latter can — in moderation, perhaps — help bring about the former.
The NBA Must Do Its Part
The NBA-2K esports partnership is unprecedented. The partnership has gifted the league with a worldwide sports brand that far outstrips the video game brand (for the foreseeable future). Thus any relative indifference to the league by the NBA will be almost crippling in the first few years. The more the NBA can push the NBA 2K League — during games, broadcasts, online, everything — the more the NBA 2K League will benefit in the short run, and the NBA will benefit in the long run. The league has to win that support and capitalize on it as much as possible. There’s a reason the public face of the league is Marketing Director Brendan Donohue, a man with an impressive NBA development resume.
Building Independence Is Crucial
This is twofold. The league, I think, must immediately begin to build independence in two distinct areas: marketability and gameplay.
Marketability is a word that’s been tossed around a lot. It’s been called the cause of certain players not making the league, an ambiguous buzzword to be used as irrefutable proof, and much more. Here’s what it truly boils down to. Marketability is the projected scale of popularity and branding power that a player can bring to the table through his (it seems like the first 102 are all men — more about that in a later piece) in-game skill and out-of-game personality. Think of it almost as a “potential” rating and the factors affecting that. The more marketable a player is, the more fans he can bring in, the more branding he can secure, and the more public a face he can be. LeBron is eminently marketable because he’s more than an on-court talent. The NBA can afford to have great players who aren’t remotely marketable because the NBA is an established brand that already has marketable players. There is a general correlation between the best players and the most marketable ones, but it’s not a set-in-stone rule. The NBA can have both Lonzo Ball and Al Horford. The XFL couldn’t. The XFL standard came about due to the XFL promoting marketability without the gameplay to match (specifically, gameplay overshadowed by the NFL’s). The XFL had no gameplay answer to “He Hate Me” that the NFL didn’t have on a better scale.
Here’s where the gameplay comes in. The NBA 2k League cannot compete with the NBA in terms of gameplay. That is the most important difference that must be made. The best, or the most exciting NBA 2K gameplay looks nothing like NBA basketball. The NBA 2K League gameplay will be nothing like NBA basketball, even with dedicated practice and strategy. If the league tries to market itself as NBA basketball in a video game, it will inevitably draw comparisons to the NBA, and it cannot win those comparisons. The NBA 2K League must brand its gameplay as unique and separate from the NBA. That’s the independence it needs.
These Are the Keys
Take care of these three things, and the NBA 2k League will not only be an initial success but will set itself up for success in the long term. Fail on these accounts, and the league could look like a John Lucas or Greg Oden.
What do you think will make the NBA 2K League a success or failure?