The US National Basketball Association (‘NBA’) and Take Two Interactive Software Inc. announced on 9 February 2017 plans to launch a professional competitive gaming league, the NBA 2K eLeague (the ‘League’), in a move that will see the creation of the first professional eSports league operated by a US professional sports league. Set to debut in 2018, the League will bring together teams of video gamers to compete in teams operated by NBA franchises.
The NBA’s partnership with Take Two Interactive Software, the makers of the NBA 2K video game series, is being viewed by some as a way to attract fans in the eSports community and to keep the NBA relevant. “This new venture opens up additional revenue streams for the NBA and allows the League to engage with new fans,” explains Matt Dillon, Lead eSports Attorney at Gatzke Dillon & Ballance LLP. “The NBA has been at the forefront of investment into eSports when compared to other traditional sports. The 76ers and Heat have both purchased eSports organisations and the owners of the Warriors, Grizzlies, Bucks, and Kings have all invested into eSports.”
There may be growing pains and legal disputes, as traditional sports intersect with the ‘new media’ of eSports, note Richard K. Zepfel and Timothy Heggem of Payne & Fears LLP, although they believe that as the NBA is entering into a contract with the game publisher, the most obvious and likely legal disputes - those between the publisher and third parties trying to profit from its IP - will be avoided.
Take Two Interactive explains in its press release that the founding teams of this new competitive gaming League will each be composed of five professional eSports players who will play the game as user-created avatars and that the League will follow a professional sports league format: competing head-to-head throughout a regular season, participating in a bracketed playoff system, and concluding with a championship matchup. “We believe we have a unique opportunity to develop something truly special for our fans and the young and growing eSports community,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “We look forward to combining our best-in-class NBA sports team operators with Take Two’s competitive gaming expertise to create a brand new league experience.”
Dillon comments that there is likely to be some interesting IP and copyright issues due to the fact that the players will be playing as avatars of themselves, rather than as professional NBA players. “In addition, there will be contractual issues common with both traditional sports and eSports (employee vs independent contractor status, guaranteed salary, promotional activities, streaming requirements, etc.). As the eLeague develops we could potentially see some issues with sponsorship, licensing, and merchandising related to individual players,” explains Dillon. “There may also be some challenging immigration issues associated with acquiring P-1 visas for any internationally recruited players, especially if the player is relatively unknown and unable to fulfill the requirements for obtaining a P-1 visa. Finally, because eSports takes place digitally, the broadcasting rights will likely be split between online platforms like Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook while also dealing with traditional TV and cable deals.”
One of the four major professional sports leagues in the US, the NBA’s investment could prompt the NFL, MLB and NHL to follow suit and should the League prove successful it is likely that other sporting associations may adopt a similar approach.