A relationship between competitive gaming and professional sports has been slowly developing as esports have gained popularity recently. Professional sports teams and leagues have tried to get in on the action in a variety of ways, with some teams investing in already existing organizations while others have tried to pioneer their own leagues and tournaments.

Initial Esports Involvement

The 76ers bought and merged teams Dignitas and Apex in September 2016, becoming  the first North American pro sports team to get involved in esports. Since then, a number of other professional sports teams have invested in competitive gaming. When the North America League of Legends Championship Series announced their 10 teams, four were owned by NBA franchises. The New York Yankees invested in Vision Esports, given them a partnership with Rick Fox’s Echo Fox and Twin Galaxies. Countless other pro sports entities and owners have since gotten involved with esports investments, and currently teams from the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, and MLS have all invested in esports.

Leagues for Sports Titles

The big focus from many professional sports leagues has been creating gaming leagues for their respective sports titles. The NBA 2K League, Madden NFL Club Championship, and eMLS have all been formed in the last year. These leagues all follow a similar formula – gamers representing professional sports teams in competition. The NFL partnered with ESPN to broadcast its Madden NFL Club Championships and Madden Ultimate League for 2018. The eMLS Cup kicked off its inaugural competition at PAX East, and the NBA 2K League began on May 1 with the involvement of 17 NBA franchises in an NBA 2K18 tournament. 

The early results from these leagues have been mixed. eMLS had a promising debut at PAX East, generating over 30,000 viewers on Twitch during the championship game. The NBA 2K League had lower viewership numbers than the eMLS Cup – peaking at 13,000 Twitch viewers, and their viewership declined with each subsequent round of the tournament. There are likely several factors behind this: a main one being that NBA 2K League games were scheduled during the NBA Playoffs. Another aspect to consider is that eMLS uses real soccer stars in-game, while the NBA uses created players representing the esports pro controlling them. So in the 2K League games, there is no LeBron James or Steph Curry, but rather “Radiant” and “Mama I’m Dat Man.” This approach could deter traditional basketball fans, who might find actual NBA stars more compelling.

It’ll be tough to gauge the success of these ventures until more games and tournaments have been played. These leagues will learn and adapt moving forward, and they’ll have some tough decisions to make as to whether they tailor their product towards gamers or traditional sports fans. Will the leagues remain invested in games within their respective sports, or do they venture further into the competitive gaming world with esports giants like Dota and League of Legends? Either way, the rapidly evolving esports landscape is still in its beginning stages, and I’m excited to see where it goes – and how traditional sports are a part of it.