Rise of Esports Continues on Collegiate, Pro Levels

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Mentioned on ESPN's "SportsCenter" and recognized by strangers on Manhattan avenues, Brandon Caicedo is basketball's latest one-and-done who left college in search of fame and fortune.


Timberwolves brethren Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns went before him, but not like Caicedo. He's a 20-year-old Floridian known by his video-game avatar named "Hood" to a new breed of basketball fan who consumes sports and competition differently, in an alternative world the NBA and its team owners wager is the next big thing.

He also is a new face for the Wolves' fourth franchise, alongside their NBA, WNBA and G League teams. This new one is "T-Wolves Gaming," an expansion entry in the growing NBA 2K League that begins its second season in the spring. "NBA 2K" is the name of the game — literally — and this is the first official "esports" league operated by a U.S. professional sports league.

People watching people play video games? Really?

You bet.

So do NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and a growing list of forward-thinking, mostly younger owners already involved. That list includes Dallas' Mark Cuban and others from Golden State, Boston and Milwaukee, who want younger audiences, primarily males 14 to 25.

More and more by the month, colleges across the country offer varsity programs for esports — electronic sports — administered by their athletic departments and providing scholarships.

Esports are competitions using video games such as "League of Legends," "Overwatch," "Dota 2" or cultural phenomenon "Fortnite." They're now spectator sports, with 15 million daily streams on websites Twitch and YouTube and live crowds selling out arenas and soccer stadiums from New York to South Korea.

From your couch to worldwide audiences, esports has grown exponentially the past four years and are poised to become a $1.4 billion annual global industry that reaches 600 million people by 2020.

"When I was growing up, my parents always said, 'This will get you nowhere, go do your homework,' " Hood said. "Like normal parents."

All grown up now, he is a professional video-game player and new member of the Wolves/Lynx organization. He will move to Minnesota this winter to practice and compete with five teammates. Each will receive insurance benefits, a retirement plan, housing and a salary that equals what many actual players earn in the NBA's developmental league, the G League.

Modified from the retail game you might play at home, the 2K League is 5-on-5 basketball. All 10 fictional players are controlled by its own gamer such as Hood or new T-Wolves Gaming teammate Mihad Feratovic, a Brooklyn, N.Y., teenager re-imagined in "2K" as a 6-11 power forward called "IFEAST."

Teammates are connected by headsets, microphones and their own monitor, and they don't maneuver a Towns or a Wiggins or any other NBA player on the screen. They manipulate their own characters, with assumed names and invented personalities.

The four-month season that begins in April includes weekend games and interspersed tournaments — which paid out an additional $1 million last season — that can increase participants' pay well beyond their $35,000 salary. Each franchise's six-player team lives and practices together in its respective cities and flies every other week to compete in a specifically designed New York City television studio with a live audience.

T-Wolves Gaming will add their final four players to a team that hired a coach/general manager in October.

"It's an opportunity I'll never have again," said Hood, who left Indiana University after one year and became the league's third-leading scorer last season with Cleveland. "If things don't go well, school is always going to be there."

To E or not to E?

Many NBA owners and players current and retired — Michael Jordan, Stephen Curry, Rick Fox and Jeremy Lin among them — have invested in a variety of esports. Next in this new world: Gamemakers eyeing the pro sports model and creating city-based franchises priced from $10 million to $20 million each.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft bought an "Overwatch" franchise for Boston in 2017, calling it "the future" because of the way millennials consume sports on their smartphones.

More than 72,000 people worldwide tried to qualify for 2K League's inaugural season and 102 were chosen. All were men, a result Silver last spring called disappointing for an NBA that prides itself on diversity and inclusion.

Going global

Hood played high school ball near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as a 6-5 forward, but he is a 6-4 scoring point guard in 2K. IFEAST played AAU ball, but broke his foot and now is a 6-4 Brooklyn College sophomore who plays a 6-11 forward on Twitch.

"We're playing a video game, but a lot of it is real basketball IQ," Hood said. "You have to know screen-and-rolls and how to read defenses. You watch film. You have to know basketball to play the game."

A mere concept three years ago, the 2K League likely will include all 30 NBA teams soon, with possibly 15 franchises added worldwide because of esports' remarkable "scalability." The Wolves' electronic team can reach a worldwide audience with a relatively bare minimum of resources and expense.

When the 2K League launched last spring, Silver compared it to the NBA's other three leagues and said, "We're building this as a league that's going to be around forever."

In an essay he wrote for news website Quartz, Lin called esports "democratizing entertainment" because all you need is a fast internet connection — size, age, gender and lateral quickness don't matter. It cuts across countries, cultures and religions.

"Esports have been global from the beginning," NBA 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue said. "We view this as a totally stand-alone fourth league. This is another way to engage our audience, especially the younger audience. We see franchises all over the world and that's in our near future."

Wolves limited partner Meyer Orbach and CEO Ethan Casson nudged the franchise toward its 2K League team. Both see space for innovation with corporate partners and advertising that's already built into the simulated NBA game.

This exploding esports audience has powered the rise of stars such as Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, a Fortnite streamer, who has nearly 12 million Instagram followers and made ESPN the Magazine's cover recently. Meanwhile, the uneducated are trying to catch up. Johnson said when he pitches corporate sponsors, he'll sometimes see "this dumbfounded look, like, 'How does this work?' " And IFEAST's own father, when first hearing the draft news, thought for a moment his gamer son was headed to the actual NBA.

Universities, though, have noticed: More than 100 have added esports programs, many of them offering scholarships, according to the National Association of Collegiate esports. Website traffic at Concordia (St. Paul) spiked — its biggest story this year — when it announced two weeks ago it is adding a varsity team to the esports wave. Associate director of athletics Regan McAthie called it "really important for us to be first to market" in a competitive higher-education market in Minnesota.

"Every time we turned around, another college (nationally) was announcing," McAthie said. "It's something people definitely are intrigued about. The smart money?Unlike his younger teammates, Wolves veteran Anthony Tolliver hasn't played video games since high school, but he is intrigued nonetheless. As an entrepreneur, he has contemplated investing millions in esports.

"I didn't understand it — kind of made fun of it," Tolliver said. "You're watching another person play a video game? How crazy is that? Well, you think of some TV we watch. We watch 'House Hunters.' We watch other people shop for houses. So when you think about it that way, I was like, 'OK, never mind, I can accept it now.' "

But is this sports?

The International Olympic Committee seemed to be headed toward recognizing esports over the summer, but the organization backed off, saying the discussion about including it in the Olympics is premature.

A skeptic might call e-sports symptomatic of a postindustrial society. Donohue says without hesitation e-sports are "100 percent" sports because of the practice, skill and teamwork required.Hood compares esports to poker and reasons that poker wouldn't be on ESPN if it weren't a sport.

"This is an esport," IFEAST said, making a distinction. "It's not a sport. To me, calling us athletes is kind of pushing it. But we're e-sports athletes. We do the same things an NBA player does every day, but it's in a virtual way."

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December 12, 2018


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