Major leagues have entered eSports, but how many will watch?
In a windowless room in downtown Washington, the city's most promising new basketballers are honing their skills and readying to compete against adversaries they sometimes don't even meet.
There are no hoops or balls in the practice room of Wizards District Gaming, just video monitors and consoles loaded with NBA 2K20, the basketball simulation that the team's eSports athletes use to compete with adversaries from across the United States.
"I wake up in the morning and my biggest concern is playing video games. I don't think that's a hard life, if you ask me," said Ryan Conger, known on the six-man squad by his online handle Dayfri.
Video games are now the largest entertainment industry in the world, and innovations like livestreaming have made eSports a global phenomenon. The largest competitions have had tens of millions of viewers watching competitors battle for millions of dollars in prizes.
The most-popular games are fantasy- or shooter-themed, but the competitions' success has attracted the interest of the major US sports leagues.
Along with the NBA, hockey's NHL, football's NFL and Major League Soccer are, to varying degrees, organizing tournaments and sometimes encouraging teams to sign eSports players -- like they would any other athlete.
"I knew I was going to make it to the NHL," said John Casagranda, who wanted to compete on the ice but found more success in video games. He is now signed to the Washington Capitals.
"That was always my dream growing up, so now to be able to do it in a video game, I mean, it's pretty surreal."
Yet thus far, online sports simulation matches attract far fewer viewers than other games, and analysts question whether they will ever be more than just marketing for the major leagues, who remain titans in American sporting life.
"People don't seem to care, quite yet," said Will Hershey, chief executive of Roundhill Investments, a firm that has specialized in eSports.
"Speaking transparently, I'm a little bit skeptical as to if they ever will."
- As big as sports -
Licensed major league sports simulations have existed since the 1980s, and as eSports has grown in recent years, the NFL now has a competitive series for players of Madden, while the NHL stages its Gaming World Championship (GWC) right before its yearly awards event.
The NBA 2K League is robust, with 23 teams competing this year. To play for the Wizards, 23-year-old Conger gets paid $37,500 over six months and stays in a free apartment.
Playing as JohnWaynee, 29-year-old Casagranda is the only eSports player signed to a NHL team, but competes independently and lives in Alaska, holding down a job at an airline in between practicing two to three hours per day and as much as 12 hours on weekends.
The goal for teams is not just to win competitions, but also to get people watching their players practice and appear at events over livestreaming sites like Twitch.
In a recent practice match, Casagranda played against the Columbus Blue Jackets on a three-person team along with a team official and the Capitals's bald eagle mascot Slapshot.
About 226 people watched the match as it happened on Twitch, which ended with the Capitals losing in a blowout, partly because Slapshot played in a bulky costume wearing talon-like gloves, inhibiting their ability to hold the controller.
"Twitch is monetizing big audiences very differently," said Zach Leonsis, senior vice president of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Wizards and Capitals.
"I think we do look to eSports as reaching a brand new audience, and reaching an audience that we may never touch with our traditional sport teams."
- Competition for eyeballs -
Analysts question whether it can be much more than that.
Online simulated sports "represents a relatively modest marketing investment to engage a younger audience who might not be exposed to the team otherwise," said Remer Rietkerk, head of eSports at Newzoo, a video game research firm.
The final match of the NHL's GWC last year brought in 632,907 unique viewers, an increase of more than 190 percent from the year before, according to league statistics.
But game seven of the real-world 2019 Stanley Cup Final had 8.9 million viewers. And the world championship series final for online battle arena game League of Legends had, at its peak, 44 million people watching.
The major leagues aren't giving up. The free version of NBA 2K has about 44 million users in China, the league's managing director Brendan Donohue said in an interview, and he expects to launch divisions in Asia and Europe in the coming years.
"My son became a fan of Steph Curry and LeBron James playing 2K," he said, referring to the two basketball superstars. "In terms of the speed, of the growth in terms of the number of teams, it's a very successful affiliate league."
© 2020 AFP