NEW YORK — On the night LeBron James began the second round of the playoffs, a computerized Cavalier tormented teams the way the real Cleveland superstar does.
The NBA is betting there are enough fans for both versions.
The league is staging the opening tournament this week of its NBA 2K League , hoping to cash in on the combination of the global popularity of basketball and the burgeoning business of esports.
Television ratings have soared in recent years to watch James, the rise of the Warriors, and a thrilling era of high-flying dunkers and long-range snipers. But will fans really race to their computers to watch other people sitting around playing video games?
"I think the esports universe is answering that question for us," NBA 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue said. "People are completely, 100 percent engaged with watching others play games. I think Twitch is walking proof of that, and all the success these other games have had. The esports space has doubled in size the last three years and every prediction is it's going to double in size the next three years, so I think we're almost beyond that question a little bit."
So do NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and many of his owners. Donohue said the league hoped to get eight to 12 teams for its inaugural season and instead got 17, with enough interest remaining that he expects rapid expansion. Some owners of NBA clubs were already invested in popular esports such as Overwatch and League of Legends and had seen their arenas host well-attended competitions even before the league created the first official esports league operated by a U.S. professional sports league.
"Esports are big and getting bigger. 2K is a way to connect not only with gamers, but gamer fans and to turn both into NBA and Mavs fans and vice versa," Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote in an email. "We think we can take traditional NBA fans, 2K fans and strengthen the bond they have to the NBA."
Each of the major sports leagues is looking to claim its share of what Newzoo, the market research firm, reports will be a $1 billion industry by 2019.
The opening day of the Tipoff tournament had some excitement, highlighted by two 40-point performances by Cavs Legion GC's Brandon Caicedo, who plays under the handle Hood. (The players are playing as themselves, not the guys on the NBA's Cavaliers.) But the league was already encouraged by the response even before the games began.
When Cuban's team used the No. 1 pick on Artreyo Boyd (Dimez) in the draft, Donohue said 450,000 watched on Twitch, the streaming service popular with video-game players that will feature NBA2K action. More than 40 percent of that audience was from outside the U.S., providing the international eyeballs that have been so crucial to the NBA. Some of the players drafted that day bring their own individual fan bases that have watched streams of their games in other competitions, and even people who don't know the competitors may know enough about basketball to watch anyway.
Kings Guard Gaming's Mitchell Franklin, the No. 4 overall pick whose gamer handle is Mootyy, said that's what separates NBA 2K from Overwatch League and Dota 2, which draw huge esports audiences.
"Me, and I know I'm not the only person, I know there's tons, if you don't know what's going on, you turn it on, you don't know what's going on," he said. "With 2K, it's very similar to basketball. It's not like any unique twists or turns to it, so the average basketball fan, anyone and their mother that's ever picked up a basketball can literally flip it on and really see and understand what's happening."
The only thing the league can't provide, at least for the first season, is the live atmosphere of playing in the arena. All games and tournaments will take place in a Long Island City studio, which features a first-of-its-kind competition venue in which the teams sit five on a side, diagonally from the player at their same position, with monitors in front of them and a huge video board called "the boat" above. There's a table above the playing stage for the pregame studio analysts and one gameside for the duo calling the game, making it look just like an NBA game.
Except that there are only about 115 seats for fans, so teams playing Warriors Gaming Squad won't face anywhere near the noise they would if traveling to Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. Donohue said perhaps next season the league would experiment with taking some games on the road, but doesn't seem concerned about the location for now.
"We think the vast majority of the audience, no different than any sport, is actually outside of the building," he said. "So no different for us."
The NBA is treating the gamers just like players, including the same rookie transition program that first-year players receive, where they get everything from media training to lessons about sleep and nutrition, and explanations of their benefits.
And they will receive the same power of the league's marketing arm, which has made one-name stars of its players for years and now will attempt to do the same with its gamers.
"I think now you combine the same talents, you have NBA teams and the NBA, you have 2K and their story telling and the incredible talents they have," Donohue said. "It's the same folks who are actually doing the story telling, so I think it's a great opportunity for us. And some of the stories are incredible."
Such as Wizards District Gaming's Austin Painter, who left a State Department job shortly before the draft, telling friends and colleagues he was off to go play video games for six months.
"Then they were like, 'What, you said you're quitting a government job to go play 2K?'" And I was like, yeah, it should be pretty fun. I'm just going like 20 minutes on the other side of the city," Painter said. "So that was like the best reaction. 'Uh, can we get a job doing that?'"
Maybe next season, if they've got enough game. For this one, only 102 of the more than 70,000 qualified candidates made it through the draft process to get picked.
The reward was a salary of $32,000-$35,000 and housing expenses for six months, plus access to NBA facilities, training staffs and more. Franklin's team, which has the first dedicated esports training facility and content studio to be located inside a pro sports venue, even trained with UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber, Kings Guard's director of Mental Performance and Human Optimization.
"I thought it would just kind of be like a little bit like for show, like he's going to be cool, but woo, I'm still a little sore, I'm not going to lie to you," Franklin said.
"We're not used to working out all the time, we're used to being on the stick. So being there and him, like, working us and stuff, it was pretty surreal."
As was the first game, featuring a chaotic situation that would be replayed for hours afterward if it happened in the NBA postseason. Matt Rux and Pistons Gaming led Bucks Gaming in the fourth quarter when suddenly his camera monitor malfunctioned. Unable to see the play, he was called for a defensive 3-second violation, and the ensuing free throw cut the lead to two. But Rux remained calm while his equipment was repaired during a timeout, and not long after hit a 3-pointer that helped put away the game.
"That's like the moment that I've been envisioning for the last 10 years with picturing this moment," Rux said, "getting to play with an esport with this great organization and these great teammates. I couldn't have asked to a better finish to Game 1."
Or a better start for the NBA's new game in town.