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This week we had the honor to interview Brendan Donohue, Managing Director of the NBA 2K League.

📝Show Notes: Throughout our conversation, we talked about the NBA’s decision to enter eSports, the response from their fans so far, and what they have learned since the launch. We also talked about the challenges they have faced, the recipe for success for a sports organization to enter the  esports market..and the NBA’s goals in the eSports space in the coming years.

🚀Best Quotes: Here’s some of the key discussion points and best quotes from our conversation with Brendan:

  1. On the NBA’s decision to enter eSports: While we’ve been around, this is our second season, so this process probably started about four years ago. We’ve been looking at eSports really more broadly and it’s been just this business that keeps exploding in growth and growth and higher and higher. We saw this burgeoning community that was developing and so we thought as a media company that the NBA is, there was an opportunity there that existed that we wanted to take a look at. Then the second thing I would say is our NBA owners were very bullish on eSports. In fact, they were starting to invest in eSports even outside of the 2K League. They were really pushing us to consider something in Esports. Then the last piece was, we just have a really successful NBA game that we have access to and so 2K is the best selling sports game and sports title in North America, and the second biggest globally. We had this great game. We also had partnered with 2K and so it all brought it together to be a really easy decision for us to start the 2K League”.
  2. On what they have learned so far since launching the 2K League, and on anything that they would have done differently: “I think the biggest thing we learned early on was just how truly engaging our players are. Our players are very unique individuals. They all came from very different backgrounds. Some might have been an Uber driver. Some might have been in the military. We had a police officer that joined the League. We had all these really amazing backgrounds and stories and just stories we had to tell. (..) We learned that really in season two that that story needed to be unpacked more. So we’ve developed a docu-series that we now are releasing every week, just really telling those behind-the-scenes stories of the players behind the League and really their life stories (..) We had amazingly strong feedback about it. I’d say in terms of what we learned, we learned we had to one, continue to unpack the stories of our players and then also number two is, prioritize storytelling content because while people love the game, they equally love hearing what is unique about our players and about everything else about the League”.
  3. On the biggest challenges they have faced: “One was initially that we had to make sure we created awareness about the League. You assume an NBA product and a 2K product would naturally have great awareness, but in fact, we had to one, make the eSports community and everyone aware of what we were doing and really making people aware of what the 2K League was. Then also, educating them on what we were doing because what we were embarking on was very different than what other traditional sports leagues had done up until that point. We went all in on Esports. It’s five on five. It’s not LeBron playing Steph. It’s actually our 126 players playing their own unique avatar. We had to really educate everyone on what we were doing. Out of the gates, that was probably our biggest challenge. Then I would say now, the biggest thing we’re trying to overcome is if you come to our studio, people realize it is electric. I mean, the excitement, on the stage, the unique set up we have, that circle set up where players are facing each other is unique to eSports. It creates this level of engagement amongst the players and it’s trash talk and it’s excitement. It’s amazing when you’re in the studio. We have to continue to figure out a way to have that translate into the broadcast. That’s really one big thing we’re focused on for this year”.
  4. On the need to listen to the eSports community and your staff in order to offer the best eSports experience: “It is about listening to the community and it’s the fans, it’s your broadcast, it’s listening to your players. Oftentimes, the changes we’re making from week to week, they might come from our staff just in the studio sitting with players and talking to them and finding out what they think we should be doing differently”.
  5. On the need to combine the best of traditional sports with the best of eSports: “Generally speaking, traditional sports are really good at the business. Whether that’s putting on a production or it’s creating great partnership or marketing the product. That’s really in their wheelhouse. (..) We initially took the approach of, how can we take the best of eSports and the best of traditional sports? That has been our mindset all along. There are a lot of amazing things that I think traditional sports brings to Esports. If you followed our League, you’ll know we have a very, you might call it a traditional draft that the players love and their families love and it creates that moment. The perfect moment we had this year was Chiquita being drafted and that moment when the audience erupted”.
  6. On Chiquita Evans, and how it goes well with the NBA’s priority to improve diversity: “It was a priority for us as a League. It’s one of our core values, which is making diversity and inclusion a priority. That moment when Chiquita was drafted was amazing as I mentioned earlier. The reception she has gotten from her team, from fans, has been outstanding. It’s been really an exciting moment for the League. I would say Chiquita is a great player. She’s an even better person and ambassador. She is the perfect first person, first woman to be a part of this League. She’s been a great role model. I have no doubt that there are women competitively playing right now or young girls who are watching our League that are completely being inspired by her and they will be our next generation of women in the 2K League”.
  7. On their goal for the next 2 years: “I would say probably our biggest priority is making sure we continue to find the best players on the planet. We think there is a big opportunity for this League to be a global league and so that means global fans and we want to make sure that we’re giving them access to the League and that we’re covered around the world. We also want to make sure that we have players from all over the world. We already have that to a certain degree as we have nine players this year that are international players. Then the last thing I would be to have franchises all over the world. We think there is an opportunity for us to have a team in London or a team in Shanghai playing Knicks Gaming or playing Celtics Crossover Gaming. We expect this to be a totally global league”.
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