Ailene Voisin

Sacramento's new pro team is in a virtual league of its own – banking on millennials

Adam Silver is seriously playing games. No, seriously. The smooth-as-silk, tech savvy NBA commissioner, who has long envisioned his league expanding into places such as Mexico City and India, is adding another destination to the mix: The lounge chair.

Silver is so convinced that esports is the next big thing – particularly among millennials – that he is thrusting the NBA into video games with the full force of his 15th floor Manhattan office.

NBA. WNBA. G League. Make room on the couch for the NBA 2K League, a “fourth” partner that features Kings Guard Gaming, 16 other NBA-operated teams, 102 players – or gamers, if you prefer – and opens its first four-month season in May.

“We view this the same way as those other leagues,” Silver said prior to Wednesday’s draft that extended well into the afternoon. “It’s something that we’re going to develop over a very long time, and we’re building this league as something that’s going to be around forever.”

The format follows the pro sports model, with the teams competing during a regular season and a postseason. Games take place in two central studios. Players have to be 18 years old and are listed as guards, forwards and centers. The league pays first-round picks $35,000 and all other players $32,000, with housing provided by their respective franchises.

Opinion

Kings minority owner Shaquille O’Neal, serving as general manager of Kings Guard Gaming, selected Mitchell Franklin of Yorktown, Va., with the No. 4 overall pick. The only readily available scouting report on Franklin consists of his age (24), position (power forward), and handle (Mootyy). The other Guard picks go by worthingcolt, Timelycook, SAFiya4ya, cowboyxcollazo, ColeWorld2K.

Get it?

For those who think this all seems a little strange, who believe video gamers speak in tongues, want their kids shooting hoops in the driveway instead of working out on a screen, or prefer they stay in their rooms and read a book – novel concept though that is these days – then the first official esports league operated by a U.S. pro sports league is not for you.

But for a rapidly growing audience, primarily those in the 18-35 age group, this is very much for them.

“Like the way we play basketball,” said Kings rookie De’Aaron Fox, the clubhouse connoisseur of video games. “They do that, but you don’t get physically fatigued, so they’re able to practice for five, six hours a day. I don’t know if I’d be able to that. That’s extreme. (But) I think I’ll definitely follow it.”

The bonding of NBA 2K and the NBA was prompted by league-generated data that affirmed industry-wide suspicions, including the following: NBA fans are two times more likely than non-NBA fans to play video games; 70 percent of avid NBA fans play video games multiple times per week; 85 percent of avid NBA fans have heard of esports and a majority said they were likely to participate.

Kings minority owners Mark Mastrov and Andy Miller were among the pioneers of similar endeavors. Almost three years ago, and before the data was fully compiled and released, they co-founded an independent company (NRG Esports) that offers a variety of games played around the world.

“We got out there a little early,” Mastrov said, “because our kids are avid esports fans. We’re on vacation in Mexico right now, and they’re playing (games). Just look at the NCAA championship. All the kids were playing ‘Fortnite’ in their rooms the night before. It’s kind of like the ‘Hunger Games’ for the millennials, and esports has kind of become their games of choice, which is why they’re not watching football and baseball as much. Our focus groups show they continue watching basketball because it’s so fast. We told Adam (Silver), ‘You guys should take a look at this.’ But he was already there; he was ready to blow this thing up.”

Though somewhat skeptical initially, Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive joined the cause, and in some respects, is leading the charge. Golden 1 Center, already an icon among arenas for its technological and environmental innovation, is adding a full-stack esports facility for it’s 2K league squad, complete with training area, content studio and lounge.

As with most novel undertakings, of course, there are issues. The NBA 2K League currently excludes half the population. There were zero women entered in the 102-player draft.

Silver, a persistent and powerful advocate of the WNBA, vows to rectify the lack of diversity by Year 2, which means reaching out to the gaming community and asking their help in both identifying and then encouraging female gamers.

“We expected there to be women in the draft,” NBA chief diversity officer Oris Stuart told ESPN. “We know women play the game and that they compete at a high level. We’re going to get to the bottom of what might be getting in the way.”

For now, the female gamers are forced to sit on the sidelines and watch the male rookies get to work. But, hey, Silver promised, and he is known for being true to his vows.

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