Last in a three-part series on the new phenomenon of esports.
WATERLOO — It looked and felt like the NBA draft.
On April 4 inside the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City, 102 individuals over the age of 18 saw a dream of a lifetime come true.
Those 102 selections made up the first ever NBA 2K League draft, making the cut over two stages of qualifying and beating out an estimated 72,000 hopefuls.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was on hand to announce the first pick of that draft — 23-year-oldArtreyo “Dimez” Boyd by Mavs gaming.
During the 2017 all-star game announcing the formation of the NBA 2K League, Silver told ESPN: “It may be a different kind of physical prowess in terms of reflexes and your ability to move your thumbs very quickly, but these athletes can be any shape or size and any age from anywhere. So we’re very excited to move into that business.”
Every player drafted was signed to an initial six-month contract. The 17 players taken in the first round are being paid $35,000, and each player drafted in rounds two through six will receive $32,000. Additionally, each player will receive housing, funds to relocate to the city where they were drafted, medical insurance and a retirement plan.
On top of that, there is $1 million more in prize money that can be earned through four events throughout the season that could increase many players’ incomes for the six months well into six figures. Seventeen teams are part of the first NBA 2K League, which is in week nine of its inaugural season. The league anticipates it will expand in year two.
The NBA is one of many organizations taking notice of esports. More than 60 colleges and universities in the United States offer scholarships for esports and have designated gaming areas, including Upper Iowa University and Hawkeye Community College.
According to the NBA, the global audience for esports is expected to reach 557 million by 2021. A Forbes.com story said the global esports market is valued at $493 million, and by 2020 is expected to reach $1.5 billion.
In Texas, where everything is big, the race to get into esports is on.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and real estate friend John Goff bought a majority stake in compLexity Gaming, a North American esports franchise in November 2017 and relocated the organization to the Star in Frisco, Texas, the office location of the Cowboys.
“The growth in professional gaming is incredibly significant,” Jones said in a statement to ESPN on the acquisition.
Furthermore, mainstream media is picking up on the explosive growth of esports.
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ESPN broadcast the inaugural Overwatch League Grand Finals on Friday night.
“We think that reflects the commitment they’re making to the category,” Peter Vlastelica, president and CEO of Activision Blizzard esports Leagues, said. “There is no doubt that this partnership will increase the reach of our league content, and open up, have access to a new audience that maybe doesn’t spend so much time on streaming content online, but who has heard of esports and is familiar with the game and who’s a big sports fan.”
More than 20,000 people watched the Overwatch Grand Finals at the Barclay Center in New York. The NBA’s Brooklyn Nets averaged 15,376 per game this season at the Barclay Center.
The OWL had been streaming all of its matches on Twitch, an Amazon livestreaming platform, drawing 10 million viewers on its opening weekend. That bested Amazon’s NFL Thursday Night Football numbers from 2017.
The prize money for the major leagues such as Overwatch and DOTA is staggering.
The winning team in the Overwatch League will split $1 million in bonuses, on top of a minimum $50,000 annual salary. Those numbers pale, however, in comparison to DOTA 2’s the International.
Last year at The International, a The DOTA 2 tournament in Seattle, Team Liquid split $10.9 million, and more than $24 million was doled out to 16 participating teams of five players each.
Much of the prize money is crowd-funded. The maker of DOTA offers “battle passes” gamers worldwide buy and use while playing the game online. Twenty-five percent of that revenue is put toward The International prize pool.
Major organizations like the NBA and ESPN are not the only people taking notice of esports.
The City of Arlington, Texas, announced in March that in conjunction with esports management company NGAGE it is building a $10 million, 100,000-square foot esports arena. One of the principal backers is Texas Rangers’ minority owner Ken Hersh.
“I see it as exactly the same” as other professional sports leagues, Hersh told the Arlington Star Telegram. “It’s entertainment. It’s engagement. It’s excitement. The players have skills. They have an affinity for their team and there’s competition.”
In Las Vegas, MGM Resorts opened a $9 million, 30,000-square foot esports arena inside the Luxor Hotel where fans can watch gamers play on a 50-foot, two-story-high video wall.
The Luxor arena not only will host big events, but is open to non-professional gamers with a $25 all-you-can play pass.