The Philadelphia 76ers chose a new point guard and shooting guard on Wednesday.
But Ben Simmons and J.J. Redick have nothing to fear. The picks were for the digital team, 76ers Gaming Club, playing the NBA 2K18 video game in the NBA’s first professional esports league.
In its first draft, the 76ers club chose shooting guard Antonio “Newdini33” Newman, 22, who had been toiling in a Walgreen’s while attending pharmacy school and living in Washington, Illinois. Yet he practices gaming 12 hours a day and scored 23.6 points per game in the 2K18 League combine, shooting 58 percent from the field, and 54 percent from behind the 3-point line.
That caught the eye of the Sixers who made him their second pick, after choosing Ethan “Radiant” White, 19, a point guard from Battle Creek, Michigan, in the first round.
“I think we can be a dominant 1-2 punch,” Newman said. “Whether I’m having an off game, he’ll be there to back me up, or if he’s having an off game, I’ll definitely be there. I look at myself as a scorer, so I’ll definitely be the Joel Embiid to his Ben Simmons.”
Newman and the five other players whom the Sixers drafted Wednesday are riding a millennial wave. More young adults are cutting their cable cord, pulling down sports and entertainment directly from the internet, and playing and watching a growing list of video games, especially involving sports.
The global esports audience hit 335 million people in 2017 and is projected to reach 380.2 million this year, marketing analytics firm Newzoo predicts. The firm predicts revenue will rise from $655.3 million in 2017 to $905.6 million this year, mostly from sponsorships, advertising, media rights, merchandise, ticket sales, and game publisher fees.
The Sixers are just the latest professional team to launch an e-gaming team. Comcast Spectacor, which owns the Philadelphia Flyers, also operates the esports team Fusion in the just-launched Overwatch League that will play competitive video games before live arena audiences and be streamed online.
The Sixers’ parent company, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, also owns a longtime esports team called Team Dignitas, which competes in popular games like Counter-Strike and Super Smash Bros. Melee.
The 76ers hope to create a similar buzz with its NBA 2K18 team, joining 16 other NBA franchises in an e-league that held its inaugural draft Wednesday at the Hulu Theater in Madison Square Garden. The first games will tip off in May.
Close to 72,000 players with digital versions of themselves made it through an open qualifier in January and tried their luck at a skills combine that narrowed the field down to 250.
Those survivors underwent one-on-one interviews, and the final pool was narrowed to 102. Each of the 17 teams chose six players. All had to be 18 years old by Feb. 1.
“Fourteen months ago, there was no path to becoming an esports professional for them,”said the league’s managing director Brendan Donohue, at a press conference just before the draft with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two Interactive, which owns the NBA 2K18 game. “They were playing and becoming the best players in the world out of the love of the game and because of their love of competition. And so today, it’s exciting because we’re going to reward them for that genuine passion.”
Being a first pick matters for these gamers. Players drafted in the first round will make $35,000 through six-month contracts, while all other players will make $32,000 in that span. Players will receive housing, medical insurance and a retirement plan.
The best teams will be rewarded based in results. The league will dish out money from a $1 million prize pool spread across three tournaments, followed by a championship round with the highest payout.
The league’s success will mostly be evaluated based on viewership, though Donohue said that will be a long-term process.”Viewership and making this a global league I think are our two biggest priorities.”
The 76ers Gaming Club’s draft was led by General Manager Michael Lai and Assistant General Manager Ian Hillman. Lai previously worked for IBM’s Advanced Analytics team as a Data Scientist and Strategy Consultant in New York and Hillman is also the director of strategy at Harris Blitzer.
At the draft, most of the picks were hanging out, basking in the glow of digital possibility.
Newman, 22, plans to relocate to Philadelphia along with White, power forward Mihad “IFEAST” Feratovic, 20, a sophomore at Brooklyn College, and small forward Alexander “Steez” Bernstein, 23 of Orange County, California, who played college football at Northern State University and left his job as a financial adviser in Beverly Hills to pursue gaming full-time.
“My mom, when I was younger, used to say ‘Get off the game! Go outside!’” Newman recalled. “I used to say ‘Well it’s better than me being here than outside on the streets where you don’t know where I’m at.’ After a while, she’s all on board. My girlfriend is all on board. She’s not too fond of the travel but she supports me 100 percent ’cause she knows that it’s been my dream since I was a kid.”