By Solomon Wariso
LONDON (Reuters) - The inexorable advance of esports will break new ground next month when the NBA becomes the first American professional sports organization to operate an esports league.
Seventeen of the 30 NBA franchises have confirmed they will own NBA 2K League teams and the Draft Pick takes place in New York on April 4.
To be eligible for consideration for the new league, which will provide $1 million in prize money, players must be over 18 and have purchased a copy of the game for their Xbox or Playstation.
They also need to have graduated from high school and have won 50 games in the Pro-Am mode before January this year. Of the tens of thousands who participated, the top 102 ranked players will take part to the opening round of games in May.
The financial package of the NBA 2K League indicates how seriously it is being taken - first-round picks will pocket $35,000 for a six-month contract while other players will be paid $32,000 basic.
Like their real-world counterparts, the players will be allowed to sign endorsement deals and will receive paid housing and relocation expenses. Every gamer will also get medical insurance and a retirement plan along with travel and food costs.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has kept one eye on online gaming with good reason - there are an estimated 130 million competitive gamers who also watch gaming online, and esports is a huge growth market currently worth one billion dollars a year globally.
Lucrative tournaments are springing up across the world and professional teams compete for huge prize money in front of millions of mainly young viewers online.
“We believe we have a unique opportunity to develop something truly special for our fans and the young and growing esports community,” Silver said.
Nicola Piggott, co-founder of esports communications consultancy The Story Mob, told Reuters the NBA/NBA 2K partnership is a logical step for sports teams.
“Esports has so much to offer regular sport, with its intense tribalism, hyper-connected fanbase and the overlap between the two, so this makes a lot of sense," she said.
"It also gives the NBA the potential to extend their brand to a completely new global audience. It really is a win-win for all parties.”
The NBA initiative has been the catalyst for other sports to join the esports bandwagon.
World soccer's governing body FIFA has linked up with long-time licensing partner EA Sports to launch FIFA Ultimate Team, which morphed into the FIFA 18 Global Series and will culminate with the FIFA eWorld Cup 2018 Grand Final in August.
Other American sporting organizations have since announced the formation of online tournaments they are not only endorsing but are working on with software companies.
Major League Soccer (MLS) launched the eMLS Cup in January and the National Hockey League has revealed plans for its NHL Gaming World Championship, a global ice hockey competition that will stage matches in the U.S., Canada and Europe before the final on June 19 in Las Vegas.
Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), the internet and interactive division of baseball, has been described by Forbes Magazine as "the biggest media company you’ve never heard of", generating over $1 billion revenue in 2017.
It is developing its own videogame series, R.B.I 18, and is deciding when to make its move, hoping to cash in as fans flock in thousands to watch the first generation of eSportsstars battle it out on huge hi-definition screens.
The world’s first purpose-built esports stadium has opened in southwestern China and others are planned for the U.S. this year.
The most watched esports event last year drew in 80 million unique viewers and records are set to be smashed in 2018 with NBC Sports, ESPN, Viasat, Sportnet, Facebook, Twitch and YouTube all set to screen tournaments.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)