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NBA's Sixers make an e-sports full-court press

The Philadelphia 76ers turn to a video gaming veteran to help drive its recently acquired e-sports teams into the mainstream.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Think of the Philadelphia 76ers, and you think first of Dr. J, Allen Iverson and a long drought since their last NBA championship.

Now you should also think of e-sports.

Last month, the Sixers became the first professional sports franchise in the US to enter the ranks of the wildly popular e-sports realm, acquiring not one but two teams and merging them under the Team Dignitas banner.

On Monday, Team Dignitas announced it has appointed a gaming industry and marketing veteran as its new CEO. Jonathan Kemp will oversee Dignitas' business operations and player recruitment and development. He is a former senior executive at British video game publisher Edios and was on the team that created gaming content for the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Kemp's arrival comes about a month after the Sixers named as Dignitas' chairman another prominent video gaming exec, Greg Richardson, who had been CEO of Bioware and a vice president at Electronic Arts.

The Philadelphia 76ers are hoping Jonathan Kemp will help its e-sports franchise, Team Dignitas, attract a more mainstream audience.

Sixers/Team Dignitas

"This is a great opportunity," Kemp said in an interview Friday. "I could not afford to ignore this. This is too big of a sport, a phenomenon, to not be involved with."

Consider it a full-court press.

And why not? E-sports is where the action is. The phenomenon of competitive professional gaming has about 292 million followers online and on TV and attracts nearly $500 million in annual revenue, according to e-sports data tracker Newzoo.

Twitter, which has been hoping that live-streaming of NFL and other pro sports games will lead it to glory, has also delved into live-streams of e-sports events. Microsoft's Xbox chief, Phil Spencer, believes e-sports will eventually be "as big as regular sports."

Earlier this year, the NBA team signed a jersey sponsorship with online sports ticket site StubHub, making it the first major North American pro sports team to have such a sponsor. The StubHub patch will appear on jerseys starting in the 2017-18 season.

The Sixers aren't the only NBA-related types to invest in e-sports. Golden State Warriors owner Peter Guber and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis recently announced they were co-acquiring e-sports power Team Liquid. Basketball great Magic Johnson and noted self-help expert Tony Robbins are also partners.

These partnerships with traditional sports franchises are signs of things to come for e-sports as it pushes deeper into the mainstream, according to T. Bettina Cornwell, a marketing professor at the University of Oregon.

"One of the things e-sports has lacked is a real understanding of how to gain a relationship with mainstream sponsors," she said. "They've done well in certain areas, but they are still learning. The partnership with NBA teams is sort of a progression."

Team Dignitas adds to the big-league portfolio of the Sixers' ownership group. The group already owns five other pro sports franchises, including the NHL's New Jersey Devils and English Premier League soccer team Crystal Palace FC.

Sixers' CEO Scott O' Neil said that Dignitas' goal is to have the most dominant franchise in e-sports. He said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the league's chief financial officer have been talking with NBA teams about e-sports as an opportunity to reach younger fans.

The rebranded Team Dignitas will be competing in the five biggest e-sports video game leagues -- League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm and Smite.

"We're putting the pieces in place," O'Neil said. "This is not a trend -- e-sports is a global phenomenon that was organically developed, and it's barely scratched the surface of reaching its full potential."

Dignitas' chairman agrees.

"There's something big here and we're not just dipping our toes in the water, but diving into the deep end," Richardson said. "We couldn't be more excited."