Minnesota’s newest pro sports team was on the ropes early. After two months, the team fired its coach and traded its top player.
A comeback followed, then a dramatic victory to make the playoffs. Finally, earlier this month, the team won the league championship.
“Congratulations to our guys @TWolvesGaming on getting the job done!” Karl-Anthony Towns, the Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star center, shouted out on Twitter to his colleagues on the team’s video-game doppelgänger.
The Timberwolves, along with Minnesota United and the owners of the Minnesota Vikings, have plunged into professional video games, or e-sports, betting they will reach new fans and appeal to sponsors just as their real-life teams do.
The move into the virtual world is happening as sports teams at all levels face more challenges in the real one. The proliferation of streaming platforms, highlight videos and on-demand channels has made it harder to keep fans in the stands. Meanwhile, sports video games have become sophisticated replicas of real life. They lack physicality but possess speed, strategy and drama. The e-sports teams for the Wolves and United play electronic versions of their sports, basketball and soccer. The owners of the Vikings, the Wilf family, started a business called WISE Ventures Esports to field professional gamers playing “Call of Duty,” a first-person shooter game that has an international e-sports league.
“If you look at e-sports in the macro, it’s at a level that’s not far off from what you see in traditional sports in terms of total viewers,” said Brett Diamond, chief operating officer for WISE Ventures Esports.
Pro video-game leagues are big business in places like South Korea and China and are becoming so here. ESPN’s website has a calendar of e-sports matches in various leagues. More than 130 colleges, including St. Paul’s Concordia University, have a varsity e-sports program, according to the National Association of Collegiate Esports.
And last month, 19,000 fans filled the biggest stadium at the National Tennis Center in New York to watch the championship of “Fortnite,” a battle game. The winner, a Pennsylvania teenager, took home $3 million.
The players on the local e-sports teams don’t make nearly that much. But the salary and championship bonus yielded players on the Wolves’ e-sports team, called T-Wolves Gaming, about $80,000 each over six months of work. That’s more than what most real-life basketball players make in the NBA’s development-level G League.
Among the local teams, Minnesota United moved into the virtual world first. Major League Soccer, which United joined two years ago, last year started eMLS, a gaming league around Electronic Arts’ FIFA video game.
“MLS fans spend as much time gaming on a weekly basis as they do on social media,” said Bryant Pfeiffer, Minnesota United’s chief revenue officer. “It’s a chance to grow our fan base at a faster pace.”
One of its three eMLS players in 2018, Elias Baca, made it to the round of 16 of the eMLS Cup, the league’s marquee event. Its main player this year — Jay Adams, who has a day job at Wells Fargo — finished in last place of the 22 teams but is hoping for another year in the league.
“The level of people that you play against are literally top 20, top 50 people in the world,” Adams said. “There’s a level of dedication that needs to be there to compete at that level, and I wasn’t there.”
The Wilfs see long-term potential in e-sports, including teams for other games and possibly an e-sports arena in their Vikings Lakes development in Eagan. They can sign “Call of Duty” players on Sept. 3. The effort to attract sponsors has already begun. “Most of the early meetings with companies is essentially an E-sports 101,” Diamond said.
The NBA partnered with Take-Two Interactive, maker of the NBA 2K video games, to launch the NBA 2K League last year. The Timberwolves — owned by Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune — had other projects up in the air, including the renovation of Target Center, and joined this year.
Once a week from April to August, the league’s teams flew to New York for games that were played in a studio before a live audience and streamed on Twitch, YouTube and China’s Tencent. League officials said bringing teams together in real life creates a better viewing experience online than if they simply played over the internet from their home cities.
Erik Franke, a former Minnesotan now living in Massachusetts, watched T-Wolves Gaming games online and then traveled to New York to be in the studio for the NBA 2K League Finals.
“It was really well set up,” Franke said. “Although it’s a virtual game, they really made you feel like you were in the middle of it.”
NBA 2K League teams play five-on-five but don’t use avatars of real-life NBA players, as NBA 2K players at home can. Instead, each player creates a character and chooses its style of play, such as “sharpshooting playmaker point guard.” Each character has the same skill rating to ensure competitiveness.
The Timberwolves remodeled a marketing center on the second floor of Mayo Clinic Square, which houses practice gyms for the real-life Timberwolves and Lynx, as a training facility for T-Wolves Gaming. Players and computers sit on a round stage with video monitors above and around them, visible to 12,000 people passing in the skyway each day. The team spent $500,000 to build it.
Ted Johnson, the Timberwolves’ chief strategy officer, and T-Wolves Gaming manager Max Minsker promoted the team through local events and social media.
They forged partnership deals with Dell’s Alienware, HyperX, Scuf Gaming, Raynor Group and the Minnesota Lottery.
“This is a long-term commitment,” Johnson said. “Short-term, we absolutely are measuring revenue [but] not necessarily with the thought that, year one, we’re going to be at a break-even state or making money.”
The T-Wolves Gaming team came together just as other pro sports teams do: through a draft. The team picked its first two players, Timothy Anselimo and Mihad Feratovic, in the NBA 2K League’s expansion draft last fall.
A day after the draft, T-Wolves Gaming traded Anselimo to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ gaming team. The player it received in that deal lasted just six regular-season games before being traded again.
T-Wolves Gaming’s head coach was shown the door after starting the regular season with one win and three losses. Justin Butler, the Timberwolves and Lynx vice president of technology, became interim coach and stayed that way through the season.
Michael Key, who played small-college basketball, became the first player to join T-Wolves Gaming in the regular draft and emerged as its playmaker. “There’s a lot of guys, 18, 19, that just came” into the league, Key said. “I’m 27 but I’m in the same boat and have the same mentality they have.”
The team won six straight games from June to early July. In the season’s last game, T-Wolves Gaming beat Portland’s Blazer5 Gaming, which had the league’s best record, on a buzzer-beater set up by Key.
The victory put Minnesota in the playoffs. It then swept two teams in best-of-three rounds to reach the finals. And on Aug. 4, T-Wolves Gaming beat 76ers Gaming Club three games to two to take the title.
As the players celebrated with fans in the New York studio, Johnson watched from offstage and said he thought about the entire process of building an e-sports team.
“For people that don’t understand e-sports or are still trying to figure [it] out, this is a story that will be very familiar to them if they’re sports fans, of trial and triumph,” Johnson said. “I was just happy for everyone that’s been involved.”
The Timberwolves hosted a breakfast event for commuters in the skyway to congratulate the e-sports players. The team was also recognized at a Lynx game, and Fanatics Inc. sold a championship T-shirt online.
Key cemented himself as one of the league’s best players, winning the Finals MVP award and July Player of the Month award.
During the offseason, he plans to stream himself playing video games on Twitch. He can make money streaming if he does it for enough hours and attracts enough viewers. Feratovic, a sophomore at Brooklyn College, is taking a heavy course load this fall after taking two semesters off to focus on e-sports.
Johnson said he hopes T-Wolves Gaming’s success will attract more fans and sponsors. The team also faces hard roster choices — league rules say it can keep just four of its six players — and must find a permanent coach.