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The Milwaukee Bucks are launching a new team, this one hoping to tap into the exploding world of online gaming.
The Bucks on Thursday morning will announce the Bucks Gaming team as the NBA begins a big publicity push to support the new NBA 2K eSports league, which will begin play in spring.
“The NBA 2K League provides a great opportunity for the Bucks to further engage the global basketball and gaming audience,” said Wes Edens, Bucks co-owner and chairman of the NBA’s eSports committee.
“The way fans experience and interact with sports is rapidly evolving and eSports are at the forefront of innovation," Edens said. "We are excited to be one of the founding teams of the 2K League as we enhance our organization by adding another team.”
It's a big deal for the gamers, and an innovative move by the NBA to expand its market.
Beginning in January, gamers will start competing in "qualifiers" for a chance to be selected in the spring by the Bucks and 16 other NBA teams participating in the first-ever professional eSports league. Each team will be made up of five basketball gamers who will control their own user-created avatar.
The qualifiers are open to any gamer who wants to give their skills at NBA 2K a shot. If they win enough games, they could move onto the next round where they'll be pooled with professional gamers and participate in a "combine" and draft in the spring, said Cayle Drabinsky, Bucks director of business operations.
While NBA 2K is based on the play of the league's real stars, the new league won't feature any of the league's real players. The gamers will be drafted based on their skills, and records, and on their personalities and ability to be an ambassador for the Bucks. They'll create their own personalities - avatars - that will combine with their player skills on the virtual basketball team.
Two local gamers - Steven Lay, 22, of Brown Deer, and Nate Kahl, 21, of Milwaukee - will be among those trying to turn a basement hobby into a career.
"This is huge," said Lay, who plays the game 10 hours a day.
"I've been playing video games my whole life and the opportunity to be able to play on an NBA team, whatever that may be, and moving around, and the travel" are very appealing, Lay said.
On his current team he's known as "Slay," a "score first" small forward. The team has 5,300 followers and attracts 250 viewers per game.
The top NBA 2K players build their audiences on lesser-known social media platforms such as Twitch, the Bucks and players say. In other words, while they might not be familiar names to many on Facebook and Twitter, they're well-known within their online communities.
The Bucks plan to hype and celebrate this new team of gamers. Team officials envision live audiences gathered at the new arena who will watch their team battle other teams.
The five players will be paid (the Bucks aren't saying how much), trained and coddled like professional athletes - and be a key part of the NBA's aggressive expansion into areas that, for the average basketball fan, are far removed from the squeak of sneakers on the court and cheers of the crowd.
Bucks President Peter Feigin said the team saw a tremendous opportunity when the NBA announced it would form a league around the video game
"We want to be on every platform as a brand, and this is the emerging platform," Feigin said in an interview.
The Bucks and NBA plan to capitalize on the huge popularity of the NBA 2K game, and the large online audiences that highly skilled players can draw worldwide.
"It's banana-cakes," Feigin said of the audience size.
Some 40 million copies of the NBA 2K game have been sold, 30 million of them in China. Players spend an average of 90 minutes a session on the game, and it's anticipated that $2 billion in revenue will be generated through the game in 2018, he said.
"It outperforms the Super Bowl on a global basis," he said.
The league is a joint effort between the NBA and Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc., a New York-based video game publisher-distributor that owns 2K Games and Rockstar Games.
The NBA 2K eSports league will use a professional sports format, with teams playing a regular season, participating in a bracketed playoff system and concluding with a championship round. The season begins in May and runs through the end of the summer.
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