While expansion franchises Atlanta, Minnesota, Brooklyn and Los Angeles Lakers start stocking their rosters in the NBA 2K League expansion draft Wednesday, the people behind Raptors Uprising GC are looking to expand their esports presence in Toronto.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment says the first year of the NBA esports circuit was an eye-opener.
"It was learning the business of esports but also learning what we can transfer in terms of what we've been successful with in traditional sports to esports, but also vice-versa," said Sumit Arora, MLSE's senior director of strategy. "And how do we give back to traditional sports what we're seeing as being really successful in building fan engagement in the esports world."
Knicks Gaming were crowned the inaugural NBA 2K League champions Aug. 25, defeating Heat Check Gaming 2-0 in the best-of-three final. Organizers noted it was the Knicks franchise's first championship since 1973.
Raptors Uprising finished fourth with an 8-6 record, rallying from a 1-5 start to make the playoffs where it lost 77-65 to Cavs Legion GC. The Cavs were then beaten by Knicks Gaming in the semifinal.
"Overall we're very proud of the season," said Shane Talbot, MLSE's esports manager. "The 1-5 start put us in quite a hole and meant that we had to execute with near perfection for the remaining 10 weeks of the season to get into the playoffs."
Raptors Uprising was honoured with the league's 2018 Community Engagement Award.
"We wanted to win and to a certain extent we did — we were proud of the fourth-place finish and clinching the playoffs (spot)," said Talbot. "We wanted to engage fans and to learn the business of esports within the confines of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment and I think we did all of those things."
The 17 original NBA 2K League teams are able to protect two players from the expansion draft, with Raptors Uprising opting for Kenneth (Kenny) Hailey and Trevion (All Hail Trey) Hendrix.
"Kenny is one of those guys who is able to remain completely calm under pressure," said Talbot. "It's probably an overused expression but he's got ice in his veins ... He's definitely the kind of player that rises to the occasion."
Hendrix also excels under pressure, he added.
The original 102 gamers in the league, who got a salary plus room and board, were drawn from a pool of more than 72,000 who entered qualifying.
Hailey, a native of Memphis, was drafted 11th overall. Hendrix, from Hot Springs, Ark., went in the fourth round, 58th overall. The 28-year-old Hailey was working for AT&T as a distribution co-ordinator until he quit his job to game professionally. Hendrix, 22, was working at a steak house.
The other Raptors gamers — Toronto's Yusuf (Yusuf_Scarbz) Abdulla and Americans Christopher (Detoxys) Doyle, Seanquai (KingQuai614) Harris and Joshua (TsJosh) McKenna — are eligible for the expansion draft.
Atlanta will pick first from the pool of 68 eligible players followed by Brooklyn, Minnesota and Los Angeles. Each of the expansion teams will make two picks.
Only one player from each of the original 17 teams can be selected in the expansion draft.
NBA teams are looking for other ways to connect with their esports side. Orlando's Magic Gaming, for example, has struck a partnership with the AS Monaco soccer club.
"By launching this esport partnership with a club as prestigious as the Orlando Magic, AS Monaco is looking to seize the opportunity to develop its image in North America and to create innovative content and activations for our respective fans," Jean-Philippe Dubois, Monaco's head of digital, said in a statement. "This partnership is fully in line with the club's digital strategy, to announce us as a pioneering and bold club."
Talbot says Raptors Uprising found its playing identity as the season wore on, pointing to a key training session with the Detroit entry, Pistons GT.
"The boot camp in Detroit allowed us to experiment with a number of different rosters over a couple of days and we landed on one that just seemed to be unbeatable against Detroit and that was the one we ended up running for the remainder of the season."
The lineup they settled on was McKenna at point guard, Abdulla at shooting guard, Hailey at small forward, Hendrix at power forward and Harris at centre.
The Raptors gamers lived and trained together in Toronto, commuting to New York on weekends to play virtual games in a studio before a live audience and those watching on the popular Twitch gaming channel. They play five-versus-five with each gamer controlling his own player.
MLSE also has FIFA gamer Philip Balke carrying the Toronto FC colours in esports. Hockey is the next frontier.
"We're definitely interested in find a way to get hockey fans connected to esports ... We working on a bunch of very cool ideas," said Arora.
The 2018 NHL Gaming World Championship Final took place June 19 at the Esports Arena Las Vegas with Finland's Erik Tammenpaa winning the inaugural championship and US$50,000.
Arora says it is just a matter of time before the NHL takes a larger step into esports.
"The NHL has definitely talked to teams likes ours on how to grow that and which way to go. Right now everybody is in sort of an evaluation mode and experimentation mode which I think is great. But I think the interest is there."
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press