Since its introduction two years ago, the National Basketball Association’s e-sports arm has struggled to draw viewers. Then, with Americans forced to shelter in place in early March, the N.B.A. had a captive audience.
Within days, players for the N.B.A. affiliate, known as the N.B.A. 2K League, were livestreaming games. The league leaned on its counterparts on the courts, setting up online tournaments with W.N.B.A. players. N.B.A. stars even staged their own tournament, which was broadcast on ESPN and drew as many as 387,000 viewers. Sportsbooks took bets on the action.
Even before the pandemic, the N.B.A. showed a penchant for exuberance, announcing team rosters for the e-sports league in a flashy ceremony in New York in February that mimicked the draft for professional sports.
The strategy appears to have helped increase the audience for the N.B.A.’s e-sports venture, in which video game players compete in professional matchups. The N.B.A. 2K League still has only a fraction of the viewers that some other leagues draw, but as it wraps up its third season, which concluded with a championship game on Friday, there are signs of growth.
This season, the audience for games on the Amazon-owned Twitch service increased 76 percent over the year before, to an average of 416,865 unique viewers per game, a spokeswoman for the league said.
“The N.B.A. through 2K has been able to have content flowing through the entirety of coronavirus,” said Rod Breslau, an e-sports consultant known as Slasher.
Created by Take-Two Interactive, the N.B.A. 2K video game series has sold about 94 million copies worldwide. Hoping to capitalize on the success of the series, the N.B.A. started a partnership with Take-Two in 2017 to form the 2K League.
The N.B.A. kept building its e-sports program, saying it generates sponsorship revenue and provides valuable data on viewing habits of cord-cutters. Now, 22 N.B.A. franchises own an e-sports team, with an additional team in Shanghai.
“I think basically it’s a way to try and reach Gen Z consumers,” Jason Chung, executive director of e-sports at the University of New Haven, said of the N.B.A.’s ties to the 2K League. “It’s an avenue they don’t want to miss out on.”
But some cast doubt on the viability of the league when stacked up against more established competitors.
Sports video games generally have a harder time captivating audiences than fantasy games, Mr. Breslau said, adding that the biggest criticism throughout the N.B.A. 2K League’s existence is “No one’s watching.”
The N.B.A. 2K video game series has a big following on YouTube and Twitch, where amateurs stream videos of themselves playing the games. Overall streaming hours for N.B.A. 2K 20, the game around which the league revolves, were 10.1 million in July, according to data from Newzoo, a gaming analytics company.
Brendan Donohue, the managing director of the N.B.A. 2K League, said he viewed the e-sports venture was a way to create content for the N.B.A.Credit…Brian Finke for The New York Times But streaming hours for professional competition amounted to less than a million in the same month. By comparison, League of Legends, a battle arena game that has been around since 2009, garnered 135.2 million overall streaming hours and 30.2 million e-sports hours in the same month, Newzoo reported.
“The larger 2K community is not totally interested in 2K League,” Mr. Breslau said, noting that other e-sports leagues like the Overwatch League, based around a futuristic shooter game, have similar issues. The game will always have a lot of players, he said, but converting them into e-sports fans is an uphill battle.
E-sports viewership metrics are notoriously fickle, as they lack an industry standard method like Nielsen ratings. That “leaves a lot of wiggle room for reporting figures, especially since these figures are largely proprietary,” said Ryan Rogers, academic coordinator of e-sports programs at Butler University. Regardless of how many viewers are watching the N.B.A. 2K League, the N.B.A. is notoriously devoted to its business ventures. It waited many years for its developmental league, the G League, and the W.N.B.A. to reach mainstream appeal.
And e-sports remains a potentially lucrative bet. The industry is expected to generate more than $1 billion next year in sponsorships, media rights and merchandise sales, according to Newzoo. Several N.B.A. owners and players invested in other e-sports franchises before and after the introduction of the N.B.A. 2K League.
“I do believe they’re in it for the long haul,” Mr. Chung said. “I think it’s a very smart play.”
Brendan Donohue, the N.B.A. 2K League’s managing director, said he viewed his league as a way to create N.B.A. content.
“On the business side, you’re able to leverage digital content or sponsorship departments to help drive the league,” he said. “It’s speaking to an audience that is becoming harder and harder to reach.”
Attachment to the N.B.A. name has its benefits, too. The N.B.A. players’ 2K tournament in April most likely “opened the eyes” of ESPN executives, Mr. Donohue said. In May, without a lot of other sports to offer, ESPN2 began regularly broadcasting N.B.A. 2K League matches.
The N.B.A. cachet also reels in companies looking to advertise in e-sports. This season, the N.B.A. 2K League added five new partners to its stable of 20, including DoorDash, SAP and Tissot.