Pay-for-Play: Is Professional Video Gaming a New IT Frontier?

Basketball and e sports money

E-sports, or competitive video gaming, is big business. The makers of games like Dota 2, League of Legends, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive shell out millions of dollars a year to the winners of their tournaments. Top players get brand sponsorships, make millions, and get scouted and recruited.

 

And while e-sports is not yet big enough to compete seriously with any of your grandfather's spectator sports, it is big enough that those pastimes are starting to take notice. Some of the more forward-thinking NBA teams have already made investments into e-sports, with the 76ers going so far as to purchase an e-sports team of their very own.

 

And now, the NBA itself wants some of that sweet, sweet digital action.

 

Last month, the NBA announced that it was teaming up with the makers of NBA 2K to create a digital basketball league. Tentatively scheduled to debut in 2018, the virtual league would closely mirror the real league, and each of the flesh-and-blood franchises would also own a complementary e-team.

 

This means that drafts will be held, players recruited, and brackets drawn up. The only difference is that the players can sink that buzzer-beater layup without risking a hamstring. For the first time in history, fathers might start pushing their children to play inside.

 

NBA E-League Not a Slam Dunk

 

If you're wondering who on earth would watch the games ... well, you're not the only one, though it may not be for the reasons you think. Despite its somewhat misleading name, the popular e-sports tend to be action-packed shooter games or colorful fantasy-based team strategy games.

 

Conspicuously absent are games based on actual, flesh-and-blood, tear-your-ACL-type sports. It should also be noted that, out of the top five e-sports, all five are played on PC, and two of them are 100 percent free-to-play.

 

 

All these factors, taken together, present some substantial "blocks" for NBA 2K to overcome. First, it's not as visually stimulating as the most popular e-sports tend to be.

 

Dota 2 is filled with fantastic landscapes and interesting creatures that you can enjoy even if you don't fully understand the game. Counter-Strike lets you ride with the player in first-person, looking down their scope and taking their shots with them, and you can come into it fresh and still have a firm grasp of the rules after a single match.

 

NBA 2K requires you to already understand the rules of basketball to even begin to enjoy it, and because it's based on a real sport, populated with real athletes who have real ACLs, it can seem absolutely plodding compared to the frantic command-making in Dota 2 or League of Legends, or the split-second response times required for Counter-Strike.

 

NBA 2K has another problem; it's primarily a console game. Being able to buy it for PC, XBOX, or Playstation has boosted sales, but when it comes to e-sports things get a bit hairy. There's no cross-platform mechanic, so Playstation users can't play against XBox users, who can't play against PC users.

 

That hasn't been a big deal in the past, when play was casual and players didn't stand to lose money. To build an official league, however, the NBA will also have to sanction an official platform. They're going to have to step on the toes of Sony, Microsoft, or both, and generally speaking that's not a great way to go.

 

Are e sports the next big thing

They also potentially limit the sponsors of their players if they align with one of the consoles. PC has third-party equipment manufacturers who are dying for a chance to sponsor popular gamers, while Sony and Microsoft have done their best to lock-up their consoles for themselves.

 

If the NBA decides to go with one of the consoles, they're saying goodbye to sponsorship deals for their players, and the enticement that comes with it.

 

A Whole Different Ball Game

 

Lack of direct control is a subtle, but also presents a problem. In Counter-Strike, players compete in first-person, and their avatar responds immediately to input from their keyboard or controller. In Dota 2 the play is top-down third-person, but the hero is still directly controlled by the player.

 

In NBA 2K, however, gameplay is closer to being the coach than the actual athlete. You give instructions to your athletes as they play, such as pass, block, guard, et cetera, but how well they carry out the command depends on their stats and, even more importantly, the game's AI.

 

Serious NBA 2K players take advantage of the weaknesses and predictability in the AI, which can lead to matches where the advantage is not in how the player understands basketball, but how well they understand the blind spots in the game's programming.

 

This is interesting only to other players of the game (if that), and could be alienating to casual spectators.

 

Not the First to Try

 

All this doomsaying has a historical precedent. During the E3 video game conference last year, video game giant EA revealed plans to push its flagship athletic games, Madden NFL and FIFA, into the realm of competitive esports. EA announced a major tournament series, staking millions of dollars in prizes between the two games and understandably drawing a large number of skilled players to compete.

 

The result? While not a total loss, it was less than spectacular. As a point of reference, Dota 2 can count on around 6 million viewers for the finale of its tournament series. The Madden finals drew only a few thousand views across all platforms. This may not be a death knell, but it definitely indicates some growing pains.

 

The most interesting factor is that no e-sport has taken its recruitment and roster as seriously as the NBA seems to be planning for NBA 2K. While training and recruitment can be brutal in current e-sports, with teams practicing for minimums of 50 hours a week, contracting and oversight has been notoriously problematic.

 

Could the NBA's e-league lead to stricter oversight and better legal protections for players?

 

Certified E-Sports Professional (CESP)?

 

While certification potential of any kind in e-sports seems unlikely, it is a fun concept to consider, especially at the lower levels. There might be a digital certificate that a player earns upon playing a certain number of games, or certain types of games. It might be revoked for certain behaviors, such as inappropriate tweets.

 

E-sports certifications could also be a way of regulating coaches or event organizers, or of certifying inspectors, who could ensure internet connections and equipment for professional tournaments have been prepared "to spec."

 

If the modern age of IT has taught us anything, it's that there's nothing too specific to certify.

 

With gaming continuing to dominate streaming and video services, and with the competitions getting ever hotter, developers of athletic sport video games are going to need to hustle to keep up. If they can pull this off, though, they might just tap into the coveted demographic that games like Dota 2, Counter-Strike, and League have been very unsuccessful in pulling: actual sports fans.

 

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About the Author
David Telford

David Telford is a short-attention-span renaissance man and university student. His current project is the card game MatchTags, which you can find on Facebook and Kickstarter.