The year was 2017. It was a simpler time - no 16 seed had beat a 1 seed in March - but that is when the world of esports revolutionized. League of Legends had announced its 2018 season of the North America League Championship Series would move to a franchise model. The Overwatch League (“OWL”), a franchise league for Blizzard’s popular title Overwatch, was beginning to take shape. And then, like UMBC’s upset, the NBA announced an esports franchise league out of nowhere: the NBA 2K League (“2K League”). For the inaugural season of the League, seventeen of the thirty NBA franchises will participate.
Up until the announcement of the 2K League, every franchise league looked like a shell of what we know. For example, the the OWL has city based teams, like the San Francisco Shock, player minimums, and player benefits. The announcement of the OWL promised more than this shell, specifically announcing a player combine and draft. These events, however, never came to fruition. Then came the 2K League, with not only player minimums and and city based teams, but also a combine and a draft. The 2K League announced an application process, followed up by a player combine, and then a draft. Thousands applied, 250 people participated in the combine, 102 and will be draft eligible. The combine ran through the month of February and the draft lottery order was selected on March 13 (with Mavs Gaming, the Dallas Mavericks, winning the first overall pick). The draft will take place April 4 at The Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden’s Lobby (1 p.m. ET).
Although it is incredible to see the growth of esports and creation of franchise leagues, one has to wonder whether these leagues will ever face litigation surrounding a complex body of law that all traditional sports leagues have faced: Antitrust. This post seeks to give a 30,000 foot view of antitrust, what defenses/exemptions are available, and present arguments for the leagues. A majority of the discussion will focus on the 2K League because, to me, it presents the greatest antitrust battle.