Time is Right for NBA 2K League Players to Unionize

The NBA 2K League will arguably take its most important step toward starting its third season of competition on Saturday in New York City. The league’s 23 teams will add a total of 68 players to their rosters in a live draft at Terminal 5 on Feb. 22.

The league’s framework is not only sustainable but set for substantial growth. Adding the first franchise outside of North America (and the first not sponsored by an NBA franchise), the Tigers of Shanghai was a huge step in the league’s ascent.

An equally large step in the ascent of the league’s players remains largely undiscussed, however: NBA 2K League participants are still largely dealt with by franchises and the league as part of a block of employees in some ways but as individual contractors in others.

The solution to that inconsistency is a union for the league’s players.

There has been some recent news on a similar front. The NBPA recently voted to support the unionization of its players within the G League (rather than just the “upper” NBA league itself, as previously). While the G-Leaguers still have to form their own organization, the support of their NBA counterparts points toward that happening.

Basketball and esports are different arenas, sure, but there is some carryover in themes: Like G Leaguers, NBA 2K League players sign contracts that are short in duration. So far, no NBA 2K League player has signed a multi-year deal. While teams have chosen to protect players during offseasons, the franchises are the only parties with the power to make those decisions.

Up until now, players in both the G League and NBA 2K League also have very little leverage in negotiating those contracts. The offer is a “take it or leave it” proposition. There is little room for negotiating a salary or other benefits. Both leagues offer players pretty standard deals.

In the NBA 2K League, however, players have little say in where they play. Unless they are traded, the drafting teams own their rights. They can either sign with that team or forfeit their spot in the league. That has led to fathers being separated from their children for months on end. It also means putting their jobs outside the league at risk.

Despite those facts, there has been little conversation about unionizing. That’s somewhat typical for esports (and startup leagues in general), but that tide is turning.

Photo from NBA 2K League Twitter account.

There were significant movements to form unions for the CS:GO and Overwatch leagues late in 2018.  Riot Games somewhat broke that ice when it formed a trade association for League of Legends players in its North American League Championship Series.

That isn’t a true union, however. Riot not only provided the infrastructure but funds it as well. That may be sufficient, at least for now in that venture, but NBA 2K League players could benefit from an actual union.

There is one hang-up, however.

That’s because there are questions about whether all players in the NBA 2K League would even be eligible to join. All but two of the league’s franchises are based in the United States. Because of that, any union activities for players on those 21 franchises would be governed by the National Labor Relations Act.

But the National Labor Relations Board, which is charged with administering that law, doesn’t concern itself with matters pertaining to employees of Canadian and Chinese companies.

A union that players for Raptors Uprising GC and Tigers of Shanghai can’t fully join would be incomplete. Separate unions for those teams could create conflicts with the union for the rest of the league. Because of this factor, both the league and union would have to jump through some additional hoops.

When it came time to bargain for a labor agreement, all three potential unions would have to represent a united front.

The league would surely (naturally?) take advantage of any breaks in the armor. As terms of a proposed agreement might benefit players in one country more than those in another, union reps would have to push solidarity.

Fortunately, this has been done before despite the inherent challenges.

The MLBPA and the aforementioned NBPA, for example, have members in Canada along with the US. They are among the strongest unions for professional athletes regardless.

Another important consideration for forming a union in this context is the youth of the league: Entering just its third season, the future does look bright. It’s only been two full seasons, however. On the world stage for esports, no NBA 2K League events are currently in the stratosphere of League of Legends or Overwatch.

The union would have to be careful to ensure its interests align with the continued growth of the league. If they “fly too close to the sun,” they risk crashing everything.

credit: NBAE/Getty Images

At the same time, that’s a reason why now is a good time to unionize.

Creating a space for players to feel they have some control over their fates in the league now—before the league becomes a truly powerful entity in the esports landscape—could be ideal. There is a risk to doing so for individual players, however.

Any player who pushes for unionization could risk her/his roster spot if not in the current season or future seasons. He/she might jeopardize her/his playing time as well. This is a huge reason why minor-league baseball players, for example, have been reluctant to organize.

It’s a Catch-22 that works well for the status-quo interests of the franchises: Players will never gain any power without organizing, but attempting to organize could relinquish their need to organize by putting them out of the job.

NBA 2K League players may have similar reservations about organizing because they aren’t guaranteed a spot in the league past the current season and their playing time relies on staying in the good graces of their employers. Team dynamics also rely upon cohesiveness as well. Players might be reluctant to organize because they don’t want to disrupt their relationships with their teammates.

But the marketability of players has never been greater as the NBA 2K League opens its third season. The players should take full advantage of that with calls for organization and solidarity.

While the league may eventually make the terms of its labor deal more friendly to players, that isn’t guaranteed. It would certainly be much more like to happen quickly if there is a union.

There are risks, but the rewards outweigh them. It’s time for NBA 2K League players to examine their prospects and act accordingly.

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