The Phoenix Suns on Making Basketball Video Games a Main Event

“When you have a broadcast that gets that kind of engagement, when you’re running advertisements on it, we can go back to the partner and not only show them the results, but also show them a new area of opportunity that we created from the circumstances, and something we should consider moving forward once we get past COVID-19,” said Allison Harissis, social media senior manager for the Suns.

Oddly, the Phoenix Suns are one of the eight NBA franchises that have not yet joined the official NBA 2K League; an esports joint venture between the NBA and Take-Two Interactive (currently postponed due to COVID-19). Stoyer said joining the competition had been on the table before the lockdown, and while the positive impact of its virtual broadcasts may make entry more attainable, he adds that not having an esports franchise meant the Suns were free to approach gaming in its own way.

“We approached it, purely from a broadcasting perspective, that this was a new channel for us,” he said. “You don’t have ten guys or ten women on the court; you got a couple of gamers or influencers, but you’re still broadcasting a game.” 

The Suns have even discussed hosting watch-and-win collaborations with local Arizona restaurant partners; offering discounts for pick-ups and deliveries. “If we were to get into that space, it would be paramount for us to carry on looking at things differently, not falling into what every organization does with its esport team,” added Stoyer.

The setup and streaming of the NBA 2K games was achieved with local esports production company SAK Gaming. One of the more unexpected destinations was 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station, which would air post-recorded coverage with play-by-play commentator Jon Bloom and color analyst Tim Kempton. 

“Esports on the radio” is a largely unheard of concept; the closest recorded instance is fans in the early 2000s listening to Dota match commentary while on the go; at a time when it had to be synced manually with game broadcasts.

“We started watching Twitter closely after the first couple of streams went live, just in regards to the cross-pollination of audiences,” said Harissis. “It’s not only a way for us to engage our fans, but a way for us to test and expand our audience outside of the Phoenix market.”

The Suns closed out its virtually simulated season against the Houston Rockets last week, with its opponents represented by MLB Network host and gaming personality Robert Flores. Like most other NBA franchises, the team is planning a content package of re-runs of classic games as the COVID-19 lockdown dredges on. When basketball stadiums are up and running again, it’s unlikely the video game counterparts will receive as much attention, but that’s not to say they won’t play a larger role in team marketing.

“It’s opened up a new door for us,” said Stoyer, adding that while nothing definitive was planned at this point, there’s potential with the postponed WNBA season, and the franchise’s own Phoenix Mercury team. 

“Our basketball season is pretty much around the clock,” he said. “How do we maintain both, and how does this supplement a regular season? On the charitable side there’s thoughts there, broader fan engagement, getting our fans closer connected, even if it’s through the virtual world.” 

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