The Portland Trail Blazers just hired a new manager, but probably not the type you’d expect from an NBA team.
The latest 20-year-old to join Portland’s pro hoops franchise won’t be draining 3-pointers or snagging rebounds on the court. Instead, Cameron McAlees will help lead Portland’s new Blazer5 Gaming esports team as its first-ever operations manager.
Blazer5 Gaming is one of 17 teams that will compete next year in the new NBA 2K League, a joint venture between the NBA and Take Two Interactive, makers of the popular NBA 2K video game.
Each team is associated with a traditional NBA franchise, with five professional gamers competing in 5-on-5 virtual matchups against other squads during a five-month season. Much like traditional NBA players, the gamers will earn salaries and train throughout the season as they try to win a virtual championship for their respective cities. It’s the first official esports league operated by a U.S. professional sports league.
The new league might sound a little wonky to traditional basketball fans, but the NBA sees a big opportunity to both attract new followers and make more money by tapping into a fast-growing esports industry that is expected to generate $700 million in revenue this year. Several NBA owners have also purchased their own pro esports franchises.
GeekWire this week caught up with McAlees to learn more about his new role with Blazer5 Gaming. The Rochester, NY native previously managed a pro esports team for Renegades and was first exposed to this new world as a developer for Splyce, another esports organization.
McAlees will manage the Blazer5 Gaming team, helping compile the roster and additional front office hires. He’ll also help ink deals with sponsors and oversee marketing initiatives — basically, he’s the Neil Olshey of Portland’s virtual pro basketball team.
“I expect a lot from my players because I will put a lot into them,” McAlees told GeekWire this week. “I’ll make myself readily available as much as possible for my players or anyone I work with, and I expect the same level of intensity and engagement out of them.”
The players will live in Portland — the team is paying for housing — and spend 8-to-12 hours per day playing NBA 2K as they practice for games that will be played at one or two central, to-be-determined studios and streamed online. Each will play with their own unique avatar in the game — real NBA players won’t appear in the NBA 2K League.
McAlees said he’ll focus on helping his players build team chemistry and create their own brands as individual gamers. As someone who is familiar with esports and the potential for growth, he’s excited that the NBA is rolling out its own pro gaming league.
“Some of the younger generation probably didn’t grow up being huge fans of the NBA — this is another way for the league to expand into that demographic and engage with that population,” McAlees explained. “More and more kids are growing up playing games, and less are shooting hoops or throwing catch outside with everyone in the neighborhood. They are playing games and connecting that way. This allows the NBA to create fans of not only the NBA, but their esports league, too.”
McAlees said it’s still important for kids to get outside and exercise — in fact, he encourages his esports players to get 60 minutes of physical activity per day so they can stay mentally strong for competition.
But he doesn’t think that playing video games as a replacement for traditional sports is necessarily bad. McAlees also pointed to the shared bond and connection that can come from gaming, much like with sports today.
“You’re engaging, you’re learning, you’re thinking,” McAlees said of gaming. “It’s also an awesome opportunity for people to come from all different types of backgrounds and have this awesome thing you share. It’s very similar to sports. You can come from different parts of the city, of the country, or even the world and share a mutual love of basketball — the same thing applies to esports.”
McAlees doesn’t get caught up in the debate over whether esports should really be considered “real sports.” Instead, he’s focused on how to expose esports to more people.
“The conversation we should really be having is how do we get more people to see this,” he said. “I was just talking to someone who watched a live stream of an NBA 2K game for the first time and he loved the content. There are a lot more people like that out there, but they don’t realize what it is. We need to learn how to support esports a little better.”
The NBA 2K League is certainly one way to do that, and you can expect more pro leagues like the NFL and NHL to follow with similar concepts.
McAlees did say that esports as an industry has a chance to eclipse traditional sports, given how many different types of esports genres there are — beyond NBA 2K or Madden style of gaming, there are massively-popular titles like League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter Strike, “PUBG,” and more. But he expects both to continue growing in popularity.
“Both will be relevant for a very long time,” he noted. “One won’t end the existence of the other.”