Bucks fever | The Milwaukee Bucks on establishing their NBA 2K League team

  • NBA franchise has invested $250,000 in Bucks Gaming, including state-of-the-art training centre 
  • Esports expert Andrew Buck hired to become manager of NBA 2K League team 
  • Staff have utilized co-owner Wesley Edens’ links to competitive gaming community

When the NBA contacted its 30 teams about the creation of a new esports league back in March 2017, the Milwaukee Bucks confirmed their entry within a day.

Bucks co-owner Wesley Edens is a huge supporter of competitive gaming, having established the League of Legends franchise FlyQuest, and he was understandably keen to join the NBA 2K League from the outset.

Over the past year, the Bucks – like each of the 17 NBA teams involved – have quietly gone about setting up their esports franchise, Bucks Gaming, ahead of the tournament’s launch on May 1.

This has included: creating a front office, scouting and then drafting players, finding housing, building a training centre, naming and branding the team, and finding sponsorship opportunities.

SportBusiness International spoke to Bucks Gaming co-managing directors, Colin Hayes and Cayle Drabinsky, to discuss the challenges and opportunities in setting up a team in what commissioner Adam Silver has described as the NBA’s “fourth league”.

First step: hiring an esports manager

Equipped with just the basic information and guidelines that the NBA had provided, the Bucks began staffing their 2K League team last spring. Hayes, the Bucks director of business strategies and platforms, and Drabinsky, the director of business operations, were brought in as co-managing directors.

Included was a recommendation that each team should hire an esports manager. Andrew Buck, founder and managing director of gaming company Vault (which had fielded competitive teams in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and other leagues), was handed the role in November 2017.

“Andrew has experience in the general competitive esports space and we were looking for somebody who was able to manage the players from a lifestyle perspective,” says Hayes. “For two years [before joining the Bucks], he was managing a roster of Colombians [in CSGO]: doing everything from operationally how are they practising every day, all the way to how do they get to all of these tournaments on each continent around the world?

“We’ve never had the situation of a gaming house for the athletes that we are servicing so we wanted to make sure he could handle that.

“And on top of that having an innate knowledge of the platforms that resonate with esports and also the culture that esports has taken on in the Twittersphere. He fit that whole mould. He had been doing that from Minneapolis so we thought he was a great fit.”

Buck also played a key role in creating the team’s name and logo – along with the Bucks marketing department – which was announced a month after he joined. Bucks Gaming now has four front office members: Hayes, Drabinsky, Buck and a part-time content manager.

Finding housing and a training centre

As as well as a salary – either $32,000 or $35,000 for a six-month contract – 2K League players receive a series of benefits including medical insurance, a retirement plan, paid housing, relocation costs, and food and travel expenses.

With the Bucks about to move to a new arena in downtown Milwaukee, the Bucks Gaming staff were keen for their esports players to feel a close part of the organisation and decided to rent three fully-furnished two-bedroom apartments nearby for their six-player team.

The Bucks have also spent a reported $100,000 (€83,000) to renovate part of a warehouse near Schlitz Park, just a few minutes away from The Moderne high-rise where the players live. Even though the costs are higher, having separate housing and training facilities was essential, says Drabinsky.

“The original model [for a competitive esports team] was that you buy a house and you give the players what they need within it to both game and live. But it created a psyche that there was no work-life balance or separation and led tensions to run high with teams,” he says. “On top of that, a lot of these teams were in LA and were based about 45 minutes outside of the city.

“We wanted them in the heart of downtown, we wanted them where all the other developments were with the Bucks and the greater organisation we are forming.

“On top of that we wanted to give them a separate place to train. So we’ve already built out an 1,100 sq. ft. performance centre for them as well so it really gives them that separation.”

Following multi-year partnerships with Dell and Intel, all 2K League teams practice and play on the same Alienware computers and monitors, to ensure a fair playing system. Peripheral gaming equipment has been provided by Bucks Gaming partners: chairs from Vertigear; headsets, mice and keyboards from a soon-to-be-announced sponsor. Also included in the training centre is a break area and a live-streaming room.

In terms of practice, which regularly includes 12-hour days, the Bucks Gaming players prepare for league play online – either in computer-simulated games or against players around the world – and against local esports players brought in to the training centre to simulate the experience of playing at the NBA 2K League headquarters in New York City.

The six Bucks Gaming players are considered athletes and, as such, the Bucks organisation are keen to ensure they are as physically prepared as possible for the esports grind. The players have been given membership to a local gym complete with a basketball court. “These kids love the game of basketball, that’s what drove them to the 2K title,” says Hayes.

A healthy diet is also considered essential. “Our goal throughout the season is to educate them on healthier eating choices,” says Drabinsky. “We’re not going to push it down their throat but when you are playing 12-14 hours a day, the healthier you are going to eat, the better you are going to perform.

“We’re going to our Bucks sports science staff to help educate our guys. It’s a process – they are all young but eating habits is something we are going to focus on.”

Drafting players, then creating a team

From a pool of 72,000 players who pre-qualified, the 2K League identified the best 250, and following evaluation from the selection committee 102 were declared eligible for the draft, which was held in April.

Bucks Gaming treated the 2K League draft as seriously as the Bucks would the NBA Draft itself and brought in the Bucks general manager, assistant GM and head of scouting to help with their strategy.

On top of this, the two founders of the esports My Player Basketball Association – from which most 2K League players come – were flown into Milwaukee to act as draft analysts to help choose the six players.

“They had not actually met in real life – one was from Mississippi and one from Ohio and them flying into Milwaukee was the first time they had met in person,” says Hayes. “They were really able to tell us about these players – what was their worst moment, what was their best moment, how do they handle team-mates who have a big learning curve?

“Part of our draft strategy was to bring on players who had existing relationships in the community, had shown themselves to be good team-mates during hard times of esports competitions, being able to bring up lesser-known players. We wanted to bring in players early who could really help the upside of those who are newer to this community.

“We think we’ve hit a slam dunk with these guys with the information we could get before we drafted them.”

As for creating team chemistry, the Bucks Gaming staff put on regular social events. But Drabinsky adds: “In all honesty these guys have known each other for years – the NBA 2K game has a really tight community.

“It hasn’t been really difficult to get on the same page. What will really take the chemistry to another level is when they really start to play together and go through the battles of the season. We’re interested to see how they react to wins and losses – all the little things that we look for.”

Seeking commercial opportunities

The Bucks made a “significant investment” to the 2K League with an up-front multi-year commitment. On top of that, there have some “significant expenditures” on setting up the team, principally the training centre.

Bucks Gaming has identified three main revenue drivers: sponsorship (such as the hardware), merchandise and media rights.

The Bucks business staff have played a significant role in helping drive esports commerce. “From a holistic approach, the Bucks organization has been a huge support staff for Bucks Gaming – from marketing, digital, HR, ticket sales, everything across all business units,” says Hayes.

“More specifically, the sponsors that we already have an established relationship with and we understand are innovative and want to look at new spaces and reach younger generations, those have been the first conversations that we’ve had.”

Drabinsky adds: “The NBA will have some announcements in the next few months with big retail partners and we’re going to capitalize on that.”

Despite the huge growth of esports in recent years, finding commercial opportunities remains a challenge. “When we created Bucks Gaming, we were the first league that had franchising,” says Hayes. “The NA LCS (North American League of Legends Championship Series) was going through its franchising process, the Overwatch League hadn’t launched either so there wasn’t really a model that we could really base it on.

“So we we were trying to figure out exactly how you adapt existing esports models into this franchise model – and also how does it lend itself to fans of the NBA already and fans of the Bucks branding already?”

This is where the relationship with FlyQuest, Edens’ League of Legends team, was extremely useful. “FlyQuest have given us their best practices,” says Hayes.

To create and grow the fanbase, Bucks Gaming is targeting the gaming community and younger Bucks supporters, who might be more inclined to become fans of the organisation’s esports team.

“There is a grassroots esports tournament in Wisconsin so we’re going to try to pair with up them to talk to an existing group of gamers and esports enthusiasts,” says Drabinsky. “But the problem is that we want to make sure we’re not pushing our brand into their space – we really want it to be a cohesive environment.”

Bucks Gaming has also hired digital content staff to engage with their supporters and the gaming community as a whole. “All the 2K teams understand the value of content in this space,” says Drabinsky.

Despite all the progress made, building up a new esports team in a new league has not been straightforward. But Hayes and Drabinsky remain undaunted.

“Everything is really new to us, we really need to stay flexible to understand what the players need before they get into the market and once they hit the market react as their needs change on the fly,” says Hayes.

“And also working our way around a new schedule, a new kind of league structure where they always have to compete in one centralized location.

“The other challenge is to bring on partners who really understand esports and bring everyone up to speed as this thing is already moving at 1,000 miles an hour.”

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