Traditionalists will tell you gaming doesn’t qualify as a sport. They’ll tell you it will never catch on like football or baseball has on an international level. Then someone you look up to gets behind the esports movement—then another and another. Soon, the movement goes from a trifle you belittled to something you no longer can dismiss.
These people of influence aren’t who you’d think. They aren’t just your tech billionaires and nerdy entrepreneurs (although some would qualify as such). They are professional basketball players and executives. And they aren’t just putting their word behind it; they’re backing it with their own wallets.
Three NBA players own their own esports teams:
- Rick Fox, former NBA player and current actor
- Shaquille O’Neal, future NBA Hall of Famer and current NBA analyst
- Jonas Jerebko, current member of Boston Celtics
Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank star, has invested in esports, though not in a franchise itself.
The NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers recently became the first North American professional sports team to purchase an esports team, while aXiomatic, a new investment group led by Washington Wizards owner, Ted Leonsis, Golden State Warriors co-owner, Peter Gruber, and NBA legend, Magic Johnson followed suit with their purchase of Team Liquid.
There’s no higher form of validation than the backing of one of the most successful sports leagues in the world. Esports has officially arrived, and it’s on the fast-track to mainstream visibility. Let’s see what the presence of NBA athletes and figureheads means for the future of the sport.
Traditional sports and esports will merge
When you think of esports, you think of games like League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offense, and Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. Mainstream sports (football, basketball, etc.) have never had a place at the table. FIFA has its own following, and there are occasional Madden tournaments, but sports video games have never had the support necessary to take it mainstream.
That is about to change, as just a couple months ago, 2K Sports held its inaugural esports tournament to promote the cover reveal of their upcoming NBA 2K17. It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill tournament, either, but a 16-team “Road to the Finals” where the winners earned a $250,000 grand prize in addition to a trip to the 2017 NBA Finals.
That’s a substantial commitment to eSports by 2K Sports and one they have been carefully planning for years. However, this publisher alone can’t push its games into the greater esports picture. It will have to lean on those professional athletes and teams who have made a commitment to eSports themselves.
Current NBA stars Jeremy Lin (Brooklyn Nets) and Gordon Hayward (Utah Jazz) are openly supportive of esports and have spoken out about their passion for it in very public forums.
That public stamp of approval has created a wave of momentum that sports game developers are sure to ride.
NBA fans move to esports
Though not by their own design, esports has organically grown fan bases through one of the hottest marketing trends of today: influencer marketing. Traditionally, influencers are viewed as brand partners who promote the brands from their personal accounts—often for money or benefits.
In this instance, there’s nothing changing hands. Rather than paid influencers, we have outright advocates for the sport. When you have guys like Cuban and Lin touting esports to their millions of Twitter followers, it’s bound to connect with some of them.
One supporter may be an anomaly, but several of them starts to gain some traction.
As an NBA fan, I take notice when several of my favorite players endorse something. If people like them are willing to invest their time (and money) into a unique passion or hobby, maybe that’s something I want to look into myself.
NBA strengthens international esports impact
The beauty of esports is that despite its diminutive size compared to behemoths like the NBA and NFL, it already has a strong international presence. Gaming brings in significant revenue from China, Japan and South Korea, while several European countries have begun to establish a foundation for the sport. In fact, 44 percent of the esports audience in 2016 is expected to come from the Asia-Pacific region.
The influence of NBA athletes can only serve to benefit this expansion. What was once a relatively domestic league is now a melting pot with 100 international players spanning 37 different countries. The league has built and sustained a presence overseas with these players.
Now, whether it’s a player with no international ties like Gordon Hayward or someone who came stateside to play like Jonas Jerebko, fans from across the globe tune into the NBA on a regular basis.
The opinions and actions of those athletes have no limit to how far they are heard. So imagine the impact in Sweden when one of their revered players in Jerebko purchases his own team. Moves like this will further cement eSports in the countries around the world.
Esports achieves mainstream credibility
No matter what your opinion is on a topic, the instant you hear another viewpoint from someone you respect, you begin to open your mind. What may have disinterested you before now has some extra allure.
Two years ago, I never would have thought twice about esports as a legitimate sport. Then I saw a statistic about the viewership of the League of Legends championship rivaling that of the NCAA basketball national championship—that can’t be right, can it?
Soon, Rick Fox and Shaquille O’Neal had purchased their own teams. Then Mark Cuban invested in Unikrn, an esports betting site. Now it’s the Philadelphia 76ers buying teams.
If prominent athletes and sports figures are betting big money on a “fringe” sport, there has to be something here. The more athletes that continue to buy in, the sooner we can expect people of all ages to buy in too.
I’ve seen athletes get behind products and services before, but I’ve never seen them back a movement like they have eSports. It wouldn’t even shock me to see the NBA form some kind of partnership with gaming leagues and tournaments.
With the momentum NBA players and owners are creating today, you can expect eSports to stay on the fast track to greatness.
Jay Selig is a die-hard sports fan that loves to write and never goes a day without his fix of both.