Pacers Gaming, eight weeks into its inaugural esports season in the all-digital NBA 2K League, is the second most followed team in the league despite ranking No. 13 out of 17 teams on the virtual hardwood.
The team — six young men who play traditional basketball positions as the unique, virtual characters Shockey, FrostyTheTruth, VGooner, Wolf 74, TuckerLocksUp and Swizurk —take up their controllers and headsets each week and play through an all-digital rendering of a basketball game.
Like traditional athletes, they moved to Indianapolis in April to practice under a coach and the Pacers' director of esports, Cody Parrent. Each player received a minimum of $32,000, plus housing and other benefits. The league was introduced early this year and began play May 1.
The team's lackluster performance at the halfway point of the season doesn't bother Kelly Krauskopf, president of the Pacers esports franchise, who said online metrics paint a brighter picture.
Pacers Gaming's social engagement, a value that takes into account all activity on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Twitch — the online streaming venue where all NBA 2K League teams play each week — increased by 264 percent in June, Krauskopf said.
On top of the increasing rate at which Pacers Gaming media is shared, liked and viewed during livestreams, Krauskopf said roughly 40,000 users across core social media follow the team.
Even if the players fall on the low end in terms of performance, their fan base activity is growing exponentially — enough to make them the second most followed team in the League, according to Krauskopf.
"We feel very optimistic about the viewership. It keeps trending up, and up, and up," Krauskopf said in a phone call. "This is not a ticket-driven event, but it is still huge for the brand."
Twitch, an online streaming service used by amateur and professional video game enthusiasts, announced a multiyear partnership with the NBA 2K League in April. More than 15 million users are active on the site each day.
As of today, 55,822 users followed the NBA 2K League's Twitch channel. The League's most recent broadcast — round 8 of the regular season — has grabbed nearly 11.6 million views so far. (Since the games are digitally archived, that number almost certainly will continue to climb.)
Krauskopf, former president and chief operations officer of the Indiana Fever, said it's tough to predict how this digital engagement could correlate into tangible support of the Pacers brand, including ticket sales to see the real-life Pacers play at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Until now, Krauskopf said, the world of esports was dominated by fantasy-style games that drew most of their appeal from other like-minded gamers.
Blizzard Entertainment, the entity behind popular multiplayer online role-playing games World of Warcraft and Hearthstone, for example, has hosted international contests for some time. The company launched its first competitive, international league this year as well with its Overwatch League, based on the multiplayer first-person shooter game Overwatch.
The introduction of a program like the NBA 2K League, on the other hand, can draw in a wider, more mainstream fan base.
"This is still a game of basketball," Krauskopf said. "We're seeing more traditional sports fans engaging and following. We know there's a lot of crossover … A lot of what we're seeing indicates that traditional fans support this because this esport is easier to understand, because it is a sport …This is a whole new generation of athletes, if you will."
Pacers Gaming will play in a $150,000 prize pool tournament for the mid-season, slated to begin Thursday night. Winners will receive an automatic bid to the playoffs in mid-August.