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On any given night this summer, scores of sports fans are going to be watching Major League Baseball or soccer. Now, many more will be watching people who are paid to play shoot-em-up video games involving robots. Indiana Public Broadcasting's Lauren Chapman reports that with the exploding popularity of so-called esports, the NBA is putting together an electronic league of its own.
LAUREN CHAPMAN, BYLINE: Electronic sports or esports are where people are paid to play video games while other people watch them. Amateurs and professionals have been playing for nearly two decades now, and they have leagues - lots of leagues - multiplayer online competitions all around the world with hundreds of millions of people watching.
This year, an estimated 103 million people watched the Super Bowl. By comparison, just a few months later, the League of Legends Midseason Invitational garnered a worldwide audience of 360 million people. That's why the NBA is getting involved. Earlier this spring, 17 NBA franchises recruited 102 players from around the world. They're paid to play a video game called "NBA 2K." They will play as digital versions of their real-life teams.
BRYANT COLON: I work. And I do something I love every day. So it's a dream come true, you know. It's amazing.
CHAPMAN: That's 22-year-old Bryant Colon, who is Indiana Pacers Gaming's first-round pick and just moved from Brooklyn to Indianapolis. As with all the other "NBA 2K" teams, he and his five teammates live in the home cities that their teams train in. Each of the players gets a base salary up to $35,000 with benefits and housing. There's also prize money from tournaments up for grabs. Once a week, each team of gamers travels to a neutral studio to play "NBA 2K" in person for viewers on the streaming platform Twitch, which is like YouTube but for video games. Colon says it will look familiar to many basketball fans.
COLON: It's basketball played in the virtual world. So if you enjoy the game of basketball, you'll enjoy watching the 2K League because it's the same concept.
CHAPMAN: But will audiences agree? So far, the NBA 2K League's viewership is off to a rocky start. Jordan Fragen, an analyst for the online magazine Esports Observer, says the league garnered respectable viewership for its launch but then tailed off. That's a problem.
JORDAN FRAGEN: Especially for sponsors, where you're paying for those eyeballs or the potential eyeballs.
CHAPMAN: And eyeballs pay bills. While gaming and tech companies sponsor many teams, Indiana Pacers Gaming is sponsored by the Indiana National Guard. NBA 2K Managing Director Brendan Donohue isn't worried yet about the numbers because esports is exploding.
BRENDAN DONOHUE: It's likely to - expected to double in size again in the next couple years.
CHAPMAN: Esports is now a one-and-a-half-billion-dollar-a-year industry. If "NBA 2K" can draw a bigger audience, it can add to the boom. And then there's the potential of a new market. That's important because traditional sports viewership in the U.S. is aging. The NFL's average viewer is 50, the NBA - 42. The average esports viewer - 28 years old, an age highly coveted by advertisers.
KELLY KRAUSKOPF: We know that the next generation sports fan is not necessarily watching sports the same way that I grew up and watched sports.
CHAPMAN: Kelly Krauskopf is the president of Pacers Gaming.
KRAUSKOPF: But there's enough room in the, you know, in the sports ecosystem for all of us.
CHAPMAN: While the NBA is the first to dive into esports with sanctioned league play, both soccer and football are not far behind. Both FIFA and the NFL are in the planning phases for esports leagues of their own. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Chapman in Indianapolis.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BASKETBALL")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) They're playing basketball.
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