Can eSports ever rival the popularity of live sports? The NBA 2K League may hold the answer

Technology enthusiasts understood long ago that eSports would become a major player in the entertainment industry. Many rejected the notion, but experts understood the appeal and the accessibility of it. Even the most devout optimists, though, never saw it rivaling, let alone replacing, the value and attraction of live sports. But is that still the case?

eSports has never been more popular. There are more leagues and tournaments than ever. Companies are paying fairly lucrative salaries to form teams or to fund sponsorships with them. The top online sportsbooks in the world offer odds on all upcoming events. Player salaries have skyrocketed. Leagues hold drafts. They have trades. Select events draw in audiences via streaming that major television networks currently dream about.

This meteoric rise in the last few years now lends itself to a question no one—not techies, not gamers, and most certainly not traditional sports fans ever saw coming:

Will eSports ever replace live sports altogether as the go-to source of fandom and the world’s sporting economy in general? It turns out the NBA 2K League might hold the answer.

What’s behind the rise of e-sports?

Certain elements have always been appealing. The accessibility we mentioned before really drives it.

Players don’t need to be freak athletes or boast an anomalous physiological profile to excel. And while there is plenty of equipment involved—much of it expensive when you get into gaming systems, computers, screens, headsets, etc.—you don’t need access to a field, pitch, rink, gym, etc. You can train in the comfort of your own home, within the confines of a single solitary room.

The remote nature makes it easier for people to not only participate but to face the very best. They needn’t join a specific league that mandates cross-country or international travel. That still happens at the highest level, but the internet allows up-and-comers to hone their craft against tangible competition from anywhere around the world.

In particular, this setup resonates with introverts—those who prefer not to socialize in large groups. And believe it or not, the coronavirus pandemic only accelerated the rise of the category. While live sports leagues were forced to shut down, eSports was able to keep on chugging along and hold remote events on a larger scale. And because these leagues were among the only forms of live entertainment available, they reached a whole new audience.

All of sudden, casual and non-gamers started dipping their toes into it. When you combine this with a generational interest in tech—think how many Gen Zers, specifically, are glued to their phones and tablets—it culminated in a monstrous fanbase that’s still growing at a rapid pace a few years later.

NBA 2K league may see writing on the wall

You know eSports has truly made it when the billionaire entities in live sports start paying attention. And though many professional leagues are now attached to sister leagues, the NBA was the first major one to belly flop right in.

The Association now sponsors a separate league devoted entirely to 2K. It isn’t just that their name is on it, either. It’s that the owners of live sports teams are among the driving forces behind it.

Take the Memphis Grizzlies, for example. They are one of the NBA’s franchises with a valuation in the billions of dollars. You might think they’d be reluctant to branch out from their primary moneymaker. They’re not.

Instead, the Grizzlies have been among the most aggressive in supporting and utilizing the 2K League. They have their own separate organization and have even commissioned an internal media company, called Grind City Media, who counts covering the 2K league among their primary responsibilities.

Will eSports replace live sports?

The overtly blunt answer here is no. Live sports aren’t going anywhere.

But could Esports catch them in popularity? Or perhaps match the popularity of live sports?

We can’t rule it out.

The NBA’s view of Esports hints that pro leagues are starting to catch on to this shifting trend. We have since seen more soccer corporations join the fold, as well as some more eSports-related content from the NFL. Shoot, some teams even have beat writers and bloggers, and vloggers covering their every move.

So if you’re a live sports fan who hasn’t yet dabbled in watching eSports, you might want to give them a try now. This is one trend that’s not going anywhere.

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