Disclaimer: This article represents the views of the author alone.
Something is rotten in the state of NBA 2K League streaming.
Since the 2019 NBA 2K League Finals on Aug. 3, the league has accrued 342 new followers during its streams and 3,249 followers in total (about 3000 people have followed the channel while it was not live). In 2020, the league has streamed 18 times to date and netted a total of five (5!) followers during those streams, with just over 100 more hitting follow while the channel was not live.
The league nows streams daily, with flagship offseason show BFW Live (hosted by Community Ambassador BlkFrankWhite) streaming Friday and six NBA 2K League players taking over the channel for 2KL Takeover each night.
The in-stream follower numbers are eyebrow-raising. While broadcasting BFW Live, the league Twitch channel has added 76 followers during live streams since the 2019 NBA 2K League Finals on Aug. 3; it has lost 13 followers during three streams in the New Year. 2KL Takeover numbers are similarly uncomfortable: from a total of 161 new followers, the average in-stream follower increase is 27 per stream, which decreases to 13.5 when the top and bottom streamers are removed from the equation. BearDaBeast is far and away the top streamer, adding 111 followers during his streams.
Twitch is certainly not the end-all-be-all for measuring growth, nor, on a smaller scale, are Twitch follower numbers. Equally important, if not more important growth, is to be seen in league partnership deals and growing media awareness (neither of which, it appears, have been strong successes this offseason).
In season two, the league diversified its stream offerings by broadcasting all games simultaneously on YouTube. The secondary platform improved during the year, posting impressive total views numbers during the postseason after low concurrent viewership during regular-season games. During the offseason, however, YouTube has seen little use. In the past month, the league has posted just one 22-second video, the APAC Invitational announcement. Locked In, a player-focused documentary-style series and the true success of the league’s content during season two, has disappeared since the finals.
The league’s other major platform investment is with Tencent, the Chinese multimedia megalith, with whom the league broadcasted the 2019 playoffs and now the 2020 APAC Invitational. That partnership is the most important of them all: a successful bridgehead in China, in terms of viewership and following, will have far more import for the league than any offseason worth of progress. There is no indication as to how league viewership has fared on Tencent, though the league hopes that its addition of Shanghai-based Gen.G for season three will help growth overseas.
But Twitch remains the bastion of the league’s content campaign, and the above Twitch numbers are even more questionable considering the success that several league players—admittedly unfettered by the same regulations that may restrict the league, though similarly not buoyed by the league’s vast NBA/2K backing—have had individually during the course of the offseason.
Since Jan. 1, for contrast, new Grizz Gaming acquisition Goofy757 has accumulated 682 followers. His lowest peak concurrent viewership in the new year was 230 viewers, a figure surpassed by the league just twice in 2020. His concurrent viewership peaked at 962 with a Jan. 17 Pro-Am finals stream, more than three times the league’s peak concurrent viewership in the new year (300). Since the Finals, Goofy has gained 5,734 followers in 190 hours of streaming, while the league has added 3,249 new followers in 83 hours.
“Last year I didn’t stream too much because I always had [then-Pro-Am teammate and Mavs Gaming player] Dimez stream every single day,” Goofy told DIMER. “And, of course, [my Pro-Am team is] winning, so that’s why,” he added on his channel’s growth.
Imagine Anthony Davis outperforming the NBA in viewership while posting nothing NBA-related on his social media pages. Unthinkable, of course, because the NBA is all-encompassing both during the regular season and during the offseason. During the NBA 2K League offseason, there is no self-generated NBA 2K League content except for one-off international invitationals—streamed at odd hours with minimal coverage before and after—and BFW Live (or, last year, The Post Up). The NBA 2K League is blessed with a chance to unilaterally shape its own media narrative and yet there is no coherent media narrative surrounding the league, and its content steps into the existing vacuum with little help and little success.
The league has struggled with the issue that it is not a mega-monopoly akin to the NBA. If a viewer wants to consume basketball content, the NBA is the clear choice not just because it is the NBA (college basketball is popular too) but because NBA content is pervasive. Fans watching LeBron James, for example, are watching the NBA. LeBron James supplementary coverage is supplementary NBA coverage. Viral clips of Stephen A. Smith screaming about basketball inevitably build further nodes of NBA content. Twitter, the most crucial social media platform in the NBA 2K League sphere, is dominated all year long by NBA news, rumors and discussion. NBA 2K League Twitter does not exist during the offseason.
Goofy pulls viewers during the offseason by playing Pro-Am. Viral clips during the offseason of 2K are viral clips of Pro-Am gameplay. Twitter discussion is inevitably Pro-Am discussion, not NBA 2K League discussion, because the league has built a firm public boundary between the two (even while blurring the private boundary). Pro-Am dominates the competitive 2K offseason, and the league, despite building its core following on the Pro-Am community, has done nothing to capitalize on the pull and excitement of amateur leagues and streams. That is potentially due to legal issues, but there are assuredly workarounds (more on that later).
The inability to capitalize on Pro-Am points to a larger issue: the league is far from a monopoly even within its own gaming niche. There are far more popular offerings on Twitch, and there are more popular offerings within the 2K community itself. Through 2KL Takeover, the league has tried to select entertaining players, but they are competing for views in a circumscribed 2K market against people who create 2K content as a career. Furthermore, the majority of 2KL Takeover streams seem—at least to the public consciousness, which is everything—to just be playing Park mode, which in practice has nothing to do with the 2K League and does not draw views from even the league’s most hardcore fans. When Park gameplay is the only option, viewers will choose park content creators, not Pro-Am veterans. The usual CBA restrictions inhibit players from making use of their own parent NBA franchises in-game, further severing a necessary link for self-promotion. The point of 2KL takeover is to market the league by enabling players to market themselves, but the league’s bigger cross-branding restrictions and inability to go all-out on offseason 2K content have hindered that strategy. Several managers noted to Pacers Gaming’s abrupt departure from last offseason’s Twitch streaming in favor of YouTube content this season, where the team has become a popular 2K channel.
I would be remiss not to offer some well deserved praise. The league has stepped up its written/podcast content over the offseason, which I certainly applaud, although written content (I speak, alas, from experience) is not valued highly by the community. The EU Invitational and APAC 2.0 are certainly major achievements, as is landing Gen.G and, hopefully, a renewal of the Tencent deal. Players believe that the league has their best interests at heart, and think 2KL Takeover is a strong platform to build on. The league’s overall content plan has improved from last season, and the sheer increase in hours streamed is a positive. But there is room to grow in both imagination and execution.
Without knowing the resources at hand or the expected allocation of resources (there’s always reallocation to be done, such as building up the players as influencers rather than hosting 2K influencers at tournaments), here are several weekly suggestions for offseason content.
- A weekly offseason show focused on the LEAGUE. Jeff Eisenband and co. bring in players and coaches to discuss past games, league news, and a variety of discussion topics (transactions, new league build, etc). Debate segment. Bring in league staff and media to talk, with an eye toward making the league more transparent and accessible. Add media personnel like Jacob Wolf to talk about big things like the Gen.G addition and where that stands in the greater esports sphere. This is where league Managing Director Brendan Donohue’s state of the league periscopes should go.
- Remember the 2K Lifestyle segment from The Post Up? BFW hosts a weekly 2K Lifestyle show in his role as community ambassador, where he talks Pro-Am, exciting future prospects, and the latest hot news and content from around the 2K world. Intersperse some Phil’d Up segments as just that, segments, as well as the latest Locked In and some team content. Segments should continue to go up on YouTube. This is where influencers, so prized by the league during in-season tournaments last year, should come on the show.
- Partner with WR Pro-Am League/MPBA for 2KL Pickups to be played during 2KL Takeover. Instead of watching Dayfri at the Park, viewers watch Dayfri and four select league players take on another squad of league players in Pro-Am pickups with WR implication of some sort (think actual Pro-Am with WR/MPBA prizes). Alternate between serious pickups and more arcadey games, where players have to use certain archetypes or play out-of-position, perhaps voted on by viewers during the week to increase engagement and draw to the stream.
- League staffer Harris Rubenstein, who recently did play-by-play announcing for the WR finals, hosts a Pro-Am watching event, where he and select guests—players, managers, etc—watch the Pro-Am game of the week and talk gameplay, best builds, and more.
- Keep the 2KL Takeover. You’re allowed to have multiple streams in one night.
The league is still young, heading into just its third year. Its flaws are to be expected and understood. But there is room for more imagination, more creativity, and more success. To return once more to Hamlet: it is an enterprise of great pith and moment, but it is too young to lose the name of action.