The NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers are making history. No, they’re not making a historic title run. In fact, until they get past LeBron and his Cavs, that dream’s little more than a wisp of the wind. But that doesn’t mean the team can’t do something exciting and groundbreaking off the court.
eSports is a form of the popular massive multiplayer video gaming format that includes real-time strategy games, first-person shooters, arena battles, and other tournament-style competitions. Winners take home prize money and, sometimes, salaries from various promotions. The industry is growing, and there’s certainly money to be made. It could be a perfect marriage for a strong basketball program in a league searching for ways to make its sport more profitable for ownership.
It’s no secret the NBA is the league of the haves, and the have-nots. Top tier programs like the Lakers and the Knicks make big money year in and year out, win or lose, while other programs in smaller markets struggle. But, to keep the completion alive for the bigger cities, a profit sharing program is in place. Still, without the marquee matchups of previous decades, the league is suffering a loss of fans. That, coupled with pro hockey’s growing popularity, has the NBA and the NHL fighting for the Number 3 spot in national pro sports promotions.
While the team didn’t reference this reality, Sixers CEO Scott O’Neill did tell CNN, “We’re always looking for new and exciting opportunities, and eSports is an incredible, growing space…”
It might sound odd for an ownership group dedicated to a single entity to talk up another industry, but there’s tons of crossover potential between eSports and the NBA. The fan base itself is a heavily overlapping Venn diagram. The new generation of basketball fans that grew up with Kobe and Lebron also grew up playing games online. The divide between sports fans and gamers is growing thinner. What used to be two disparate groups is becoming one larger cohort with only the outliers who do one or the other.
So, while the Sixers are the first pro ball team to buy into eSports, they will probably not be the last. The current plan, according to CNN, is for the Sixers to merge two eSports teams, Dignitas and Apex, into a single organization, then turn that super team loose on the top five eSports opportunities – League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm, and Smite.
The Sixers will manage operations for the eSports team and build up the sponsorship and promotion streams, as well as the social media presence. In doing so, the team will bring decades of proven promotional savvy into a relatively new industry trying to figure out the best way to turn a profit. Their success (or failure) could provide a template for other pro sports organizations to follow suit, pumping a lot of new money and interest into eSports.