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Why the NBA 2K League’s All-Star Game is important for its future

Brendan Donohue, the NBA 2K League president, spoke to the Deseret News about the importance of the All-Star Game

Members of Blazers Gaming, an NBA 2k League professional esports team, huddle before a match against Warriors Gaming Squad.
Team members of Blazers Gaming, an NBA 2k League (NBA2KL) professional esports team, huddle before taking seats at their video stations for a match against Warriors Gaming Squad on Wednesday, July 24, 2019, in the Queens borough of New York. The teams kicked off day one of the NBA2KL playoffs with Blazers on the losing 67-45.
Bebeto Matthews, Associated PRess

There aren’t a lot of times in history where you get to see a league grow from the ground up. Most of us have heard the legends and the stories that build up a league's history. Tales of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth in the MLB loom large for baseball fans. The story of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point dominance in the NBA is a tale that will stand the test of time. Finding footage of the first Super Bowl is almost impossible. Forgotten teams, like the Hartford Whalers, remain almost mythical in their historical standings.

It’s rare you get to see a league built from the ground up. But you can right now. We’re at a point where we’re witnessing a league first with the NBA 2K League, a professional e-sports league based around the NBA and its teams. Played on the latest NBA 2K video game, the league is a true battle of best players on the planet. We’ve seen a draft, championship games and so much more from the league.

And, this upcoming weekend, the NBA 2K League will host its first-ever All-Star Game on Sept. 25, 2021, from the Brooklyn Steel venue in Brooklyn, New York.

“It’s exciting,” said Brendan Donohue, the NBA 2K League president, in an exclusive interview with the Deseret News. “It is just another first for our league. It’s our first-ever All-Star game. It’s the first time we’re ever gonna be able to really shine a light on the best players in the league of the best players in the world.”

The game will be a unique All-Star Game. It will be a 5-on-5 matchup, pitting the best of the Eastern Conference against the best of the West. That said, it will be a best-of-three series. Players will compete on PS5 consoles in NBA 2K22’s Pro-Am mode. The game will have a $25,000 prize pool. The winning team snags an $18,000 bag. The losing team still gets $7,000.

Utah Jazz Gaming’s own Kimanni “Splashy” Ingram and Spencer “Ria” Wyman were voted into the All-Star Game roster, which was selected by fans and media alike, just like a typical All-Star Game. Fresh off a loss in the NBA 2K League Championship Game, the Jazz Gaming stars will look to bring a fresh batch of skill to the showcase of the league’s best talents.

That’s the hope anyway. The 2K League is hoping that the All-Star Game will kick off a new era for the league, one which includes domestic and international expansion, as well as raise the floor of e-sports in the U.S.

“I’m just excited for that moment which we’ve never had,” Donohue said.

How the NBA 2K League wants to reach new players

Right now, the NBA 2K League has 138 players — some of the best in the world. But 2 million people play NBA 2K every day, according to the league. That’s on top of the 30 million people who install the game and play at home.

The future of the 2K League will depend on connecting the 2K League to the broader player base, Donohue said.

“That’s a big priority for us,” he said. “I think it’s an opportunity for us.”

Donohue said his vision includes connecting with the general player base. That includes hosting tournaments and events that show off the 2K League to NBA 2K players. And the goal is to find new talent, too. Hosting events for gamers to compete and test their skills can bring new faces into the league.

Donohue pointed to Utah Jazz Gaming’s “Splashy” as an example of the future. Splashy — as I have noted before — is one of the best NBA 2K players in the world. He’s had success in the NBA 2K League, but he also has been successful in the NBA 2K MyTeam mode, a fantasy mode where you collect cards of your favorite players, who you can compete with on the floor.

“He thinks he’s the best in MyTeam,” Donohue said.

Splashy — a 2K League star — competes in MyTeam, something that Donohue wants to replicate. He would love to see NBA 2K League players compete in MyTeam or the MyCareer mode, where players can compete against others on outdoor courts in a virtual city (the game mode is often referred to as “park”).

Putting some of the 2K League’s best against some of the best from “park” or MyTeam would be a fun crossover, Donohue said.

“I think those types of conversations are just great for us, for our community. I think it’d be it’d be fun for us to kind of have some types of exhibitions and games where we put some of those questions to the test.”

Will more teams join the NBA 2K League?

With more players, more teams could come into the league, too. There’s a desire for all the NBA markets to join the league, and even markets outside of the NBA that want to link up, Donohue said. Global expansion is possible, too. Donohue said he wants to reach markets outside the U.S. since NBA 2K is a global game.

The key, he said, is having a nose for innovation.

“I think there’s a lot of good reasons why people are interested,” he said. and so we’re just trying to make sure we have the right partners to grow with. It is only a finite number of teams you probably can have, so we want to make sure we know we’re partnering with the right organizations.”

Reaching out to more markets — whether it's through those crossover events in “park” or MyTeam — can have a profound effect. More players, more gamers, more eyes on screens. Like the NBA, MLB, MLS and NFL before it, the NBA 2K League is a growing league, trying to connect with a player base that is there, watching NBA 2K videos on Twitch, YouTube and other platforms. The players and fans are there. The 2K League wants to reach them.

And all of that begins with the All-Star Game. It’s the first for a growing league, and it’s an event in itself. But it’s a sign that the NBA 2K League has no signs of slowing down, and that the league will do whatever it can to stick around and stay on course for a broader future. Bringing the best of the league together for an All-Star event is the next step for the league with a clear high on reaching new levels of success.