The first “NBA 2K” Players Tournament was put together on short notice, but organizers say the response they have received since its April 3 television debut could lead to a lasting effect.
Though the tournament ends with Saturday’s semifinal and championship rounds, broadcast from 2 p.m. until 8 p.m. PDT, it could spin off future versions in which NBA players continue to compete in front of national audiences, not in uniform inside enormous arenas, but in sweatshirts from within their homes.
“We’re proud of what we’ve pulled off here,” said Matt Holt, the NBA’s senior vice president of global partnerships. “And I think we will try to do more of these in the future, regardless if we’re in the current situation or if we have live sports back.”
Since the NBA suspended its season one month ago, following the first positive test by a player for the novel coronavirus, league and media executives continue to ponder how to fill vast amounts of programming hours with no guarantees that sports will return in 2020. Esports tournaments cannot fill the amount of live airtime that would have been otherwise dedicated to those seasons, but the positive initial feedback from the players tournament suggests it could be a viable alternative moving forward, organizers said.
“The tournament has been incredibly well received by viewers, both through traditional TV viewership channels, and social streaming and engagement,” Jason Argent, NBA 2K’s senior vice president for sports strategy and licensing, wrote in an email. “The most important thing to us though is the ability to bring some competitive basketball and some light-hearted fun back to audiences around the world right now, and we’re excited to see them respond in a positive way.”
The first round of the 16-player bracket aired April 3 on ESPN and finished two days later. In Thursday’s quarterfinals, Clippers teammates Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley and Phoenix teammates Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker advanced to set up Saturday semifinals: Harrell vs. Booker and Beverley vs. Ayton.
An ESPN spokesperson declined to say how many viewers watched the first round and quarterfinals, which also were streamed on platforms including YouTube, Facebook, Twitch and Twitter. Viewership numbers also were not disclosed by Argent, but he wrote that “we’re pretty delighted by the reach that we’ve been able to achieve, including becoming ESPN’s most-watched esports broadcast in history.”
The idea to pit players against their peers in a video-game tournament broadcast on linear television had never been done before by 2K or the NBA, but wasn’t far-fetched. Some NBA players already had taken to streaming their gaming on social media in real time, and NBA 2K — made by 2K, an NBA partner — is a popular game within the league. Another partner, ESPN, needed live competition programming of any sort.
“We scrambled to try to put this together quickly and given all the circumstances we’re in, the logistics of doing this were not easy,” Holt said. “We’re not sending production crews to players’ homes. We’re sending out XBoxes and audio equipment and cameras. All that happened in a two-and-a half-week span.”
Those who have tuned in, whether casual fans desperate for any live sports programming or others more familiar with esports, have heard Beverley’s running commentary during victories against Portland’s Hassan Whiteside and Cleveland’s Andre Drummond — “my style is impeccable!” — and Harrison Barnes dish memories of playing with Dirk Nowitzki to second-year guard Trae Young.
“It’s great to see these players and it’s fun to see them in their home environment,” Holt said. “One of their kids walks across the screen like it’s happening to everyone else in the world right now and you get to see the competitive spirit come out.
“While we all wish we were playing NBA games this is definitely a good, next-best thing that we’re proud of.”