Sports games and eSports aren’t commonly associated, especially within the eSports fan base. Sports games that host online or even live tournament are often referred to as competitive gaming events as opposed to true eSports. However, the competitions being staged by 2K Sports in their NBA 2K gaming range look poised to break into eSports properly.
Why sports games struggle to get into eSports
NBA 2K21, just like all other mainstream triple-A sports games, features a simulation of a team sport. As such, those who play the game tend to play team-based modes. In playing these, the user only controls a small percentage of the action at any one time, making most of the result dependant on how the computer simulates non-user-controlled players.
FIFA is the biggest sports game in the world, with its FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) mode siphoning in over $1 billion per year to publishers EA Sports. As such, most competitive gaming tournaments for the yearly titles focus on FUT. This is where the main problem lies, as matches become more like real-time tactics simulations, reliant on not-perfect algorithms and being less about player skill than anything else.
The spectacle is a significant part of eSports because so much of the industry relies on viewership numbers. Watching a gamer and ten AI-assisted players go against another gamer with the same set-up isn’t very entertaining. Furthermore, the game costs £60 to buy and then, to create a competitive team, players are strong-armed into buying into further content, erasing any potential validity of player skill.
NBA 2K21 is even more microtransaction and loot box-driven than the EA Sports games, but for their competitive scene, the publishers have steered away from their version of Ultimate Team (MyTeam).
NBA 2K League picking up an audience
NBA 2K League did exactly what a sports game should to do attempt to break into the eSports scene by carefully ensuring the game is balanced and responsive. Leaning on aspects like MyPlayer, users control one player on the court, with all positions on both teams being controlled by real gamers. It effectively creates a digital basketball match.
With this format, the sports game has a much greater chance of being integrated into the eSports community. FIFA competitions are included in eSports betting markets already, meaning that third-parties at least see some value in them to fans. As such, there must be similar, if not better opportunities for basketball betting to integrate itself, seeing as NBA 2K League better represents the skill-based format that eSports fans crave. The format of 2K Sports’ leap into eSports gives it the potential to find an audience and grow within the $1 billion industry.
People are responding to the skill-based format of the sports game, with the third season of NBA 2K League seeing a 70 per cent increase in viewers just via Twitch on the year before. The tournament was also shown on ESPN2, its digital platforms, Sportsnet, eGG Network, and Loco.
Sports games have notoriously struggled to break into the still-young eSports scene, but with a few tweaks, more titles could break in and earn a decent following. NBA 2K League is proving that by ditching the money game modes and making contests about player skill, sports games can reach an eSports audience.