Digital Hurdles: Athletes Invest in Video Games

John Tabbernor, Columnist

“If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” – or so the old adage goes. Many of us might try to forge careers out of our hobbies, only to face a harsh reality and settle for something else. Something less meaningful. It would be nice if you had an entire union backing your passion and doing all the legwork for you. Lucky for video game fans in the NBA, they have exactly that.

This week, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) announced a cross promotional deal with gaming startup ReadyUp. The deal would help develop the gaming and esports careers of current NBA players. This isn’t too surprising. The new generation of athletes and players coming up in traditional sports have all grown up with video games. Many players use them to unwind after games or practices, and to fill the empty hours while they’re on the road. The NBPA itself estimates that 85 per cent of its athletes play video games. What makes this news interesting is that the NBPA doubling down on a trend that has been on the rise alongside live-streaming and influencer culture. Many athletes have converted their fame within their sport of choice to that of video game stardom. It makes sense that we are now seeing new initiatives to help develop the personal brands of players as they tap into these new markets.

Those personal brands that players cultivate on the physical playfield bring a lot of weight to the digital field as well. Whether it’s streaming on gaming platforms like Twitch or broadcasting live on YouTube, those big names are finding an audience for new and old fans alike. Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson has built up a substantial following and side business with his gaming sessions on Twitch. The flyweight champion has made no secrets about planning for their life after the UFC. For many athletes, that is a harsh reality of their current situation. Their bodies can only take so much, and one day, they’ll have to retire. Investing their name brand caché into something they love seems to be a no brainer, and that name recognition can go a long way.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, the wide receiver for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, just signed a six figure endorsement deal. It wasn’t with an energy drink or a fast food chain, but HyperX, a gaming peripheral manufacturer. With the NBPA’s deal with ReadyUp, it’s likely that we’ll be seeing much more of these sponsorships in the days ahead. In years past, we’ve even seen that investment go the other way, as prominent athletes have sunk money and resources into the growing esports scene. Jeremy Lin of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks partnered with Chinese esports organization Vici Gaming to create Team VGJ. Retired basketball player Rick Fox bet big on esports in the early days with his organization Echo Fox, and is now reaping the rewards. What remains to be seen is whether this new initiative from the NBPA will lead to any breakout gaming careers for any current or future NBA players.

There may, however, be substantial pushback on this endeavour from the very teams these players represent. During the most recent NHL drafting season, there were rumours that potential draft picks kept hearing the same question: “Are you addicted to Fortnite?” in their interviews. There has been growing concern in many sports organizations that video games might be affecting the performance of their athletes. In the past, it was worrisome that players weren’t getting enough sleep due to late night parties, now it’s late night gaming sessions. We could chalk this up to a generational gap between players and management, but the apprehension over player self control remains.

If athletes start to see success in their burgeoning gaming careers, they might not even care that their day job is hurting as a result. In esports, we’ve seen players at the top of their game give up competitive play to become full time streamers. Big names like Shroud and Ninja were able to grow audiences and generate incomes by streaming on Twitch that exceeded anything in their past esports careers. Even something as simple as a steady flow of money from sponsors, fans, and advertisers can prove enticing. Though this new venture from the NBPA most likely won’t lead to our favourite NBA stars giving up their dreams on the court to make it big in video games, it could prove to be a both interesting and profitable outlet for those athletes. It makes business sense to help these pros monetize their hobby. Seemingly, they’re also investing in their post-career lives. Traditional sporting careers might have an expiration date, but the prospects of digital careers are only getting better.

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