Sorry, Mark Cuban. I'm all for supporting Dallas' sports teams, but I think the upcoming "NBA 2K eLeague" sounds boring.
A partnership between the NBA and video game publisher 2K, the eLeague is being talked up as "the first official eSports league operated by a U.S. professional sports league." It will feature teams operated by real NBA franchises, including the Dallas Mavericks, and those teams will compete in a 5-on-5 tournament for a $250,000 grand prize.
The fact that this sounds boring has nothing to do with the fact that video games are involved. I'm a big supporter of eSports and have enthusiastically written about Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's support of the medium more than once.
The problem with this eSports league is that it's based on basketball.
Basketball is great. Watching Dirk Nowitzki dominate on the court is great. But basketball already exists. It's a physical sport with an established audience, and they come back to watch every game because of all of the factors that make basketball basketball. The players on the team, the physical traits needed to excel, the realness of what's happening in front of you.
Playing a basketball video game can be a lot of fun, too. Especially if you're not in a position where you can play the real thing. But watching someone else play a basketball video game? That's far less appealing.
Popular competitive video games have different strengths than popular sports, which is a large part of what makes them exciting. You can still care about individual players and individual teams, but the action you're watching on the screen is something that isn't necessarily possible in the real world.
Even the more realistic of competitive video games have this hook. Look at Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), which has a very large and healthy competitive player base. On the surface, it's just a military action game. You could look at it and say, "Well, just get two teams together, build an arena, give them all paintball guns and boom, you have a real-world sport." Not quite. CS:GO has so much more going on that makes it fascinating as a competitive game, including player respawns, an economy system (with which players purchase new weapons), and a sheer speed at which the action moves.
League of Legends, one of the biggest and best examples of a successful eSport today, takes things even further. It's less of a pure action game and more like extremely fast, team-based chess with a fantasy backdrop. APMs (actions per minute) are king and mental agility is of the upmost importance.
Cuban himself, who seems to know this is a factor. He told The Dallas Morning News that he's not sure that the 2K League will reach the impressive heights of current eSports mainstays, where millions of dollars are often on the line.
The 2K League gets one thing right, though: Regional teams
eSports teams right now operate a lot like NASCAR -- they're often owned or sponsored by big companies. One team is even sponsored by a porn site. While you might get some loose nationality affiliation to them (you might have "a North American team" or "a Korean team"), you don't have teams like the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Yankees.
(An exception to this is college eSports, which are affiliated with specific schools.)
That can be an extra hurdle to building fanbases. If you're very interested in Dota 2 and watch its tournaments a lot, you might grow fond of a team like Evil Geniuses because you decide you like their players or their play style. But there's little "local pride" in supporting a team that isn't actually local.
Compare this to Dallas sports. Even if you don't watch baseball regularly, there's a good chance you will care about (and cheer for) the Texas Rangers if they go to the World Series. Call such people bandwagon fans if you want, but there's a legitimate sense of camaraderie that forms around a local team's success.
Overwatch, Blizzard's hit first-person shooter, appears to be taking that lesson to heart with its own upcoming league. They plan on creating teams that are city-based.
So yes, if I'm going to cheer for an NBA 2K League team, it's going to be the Dallas Mavericks.
But if I want to watch basketball, I'll just watch basketball.