NBA, Twitch Bring Creative Changes to Basketball

The streaming-video platform is expected to help attract a younger audience

NBA broadcasts could someday get a lot more interesting, thanks to experiments starting in the NBA’s G League.

G League is the current name for the NBA Development League, its official minor league. For the current season, the NBA sold sponsorship rights to a certain sugary-beverage maker — the first time the professional sports league has sold naming rights — and so the league was renamed. But it turns out that the G League isn’t just the place to develop players; it’s also the place to develop ideas. Twitch is home to a large and dedicated audience of videogame enthusiasts, and it has done some well received experimental broadcasts in the past. The NBA thought it was the perfect testing ground for provocative new ideas.

The agreement between the NBA and Twitch lets the league stream three to six exclusive G League games each week for the rest of the regular season, which ends in late March. Although the G League also broadcasts on ESPN, NBA TV, and Facebook, the Twitch games will be exclusive. But the real story is what fans will experience when they tune in.

As NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at the Recode conference in September, NBA broadcasts today look pretty much the way they have for 30 years. He wants to see some innovation, especially in ways that can attract a younger audience, and he thinks Twitch is the place to make it happen.

The NBA’s Jeff Marsilio describes the league’s partnership with Twitch as “a match made in heaven.”

“We do think of the G League as a place where we can experiment and innovate, whether it be with new basketball rules, new approaches to officiating, or new approaches to capturing and distributing the game,” says Jeff Marsilio, VP, Global Media Division, NBA. “We want to take a similar spirit of innovation to the Twitch partnership, where we will be trying new things, and, if things work, we may consider taking them up to the NBA, the WNBA, or even 2K League in the future.”

Starting now, the biggest experiment is that fans can create their own game commentary and stream it live to their viewers. Now, the NBA isn’t crazy: it knows how risky that would be if it were completely wide open. That’s why it’s curating a white list of people allowed to create commentary, one that it hopes to expand as the season goes on. Fans might create commentary in other languages or go for jokes. NBA execs are eager to see what they do.

The other big experiment is with interactive graphical overlays, which will offer fans instant data about the game they’re watching. Viewers might not know anything about the G League, but they’ll be able to access information from their video player as they watch. It should make the game more interesting and let casual fans find their way around.

The NBA is counting on Twitch’s especially vocal community to let it know what works and what doesn’t. Although those are only the first two experiments, Marsilio promises more-creative ideas by the All-Star Game. That should be interesting. Fans voting on whom to play and whom to bench? Mascot knife fights? We’ll have to wait and see.

“The Twitch platform has a very young and very active audience,” Marsilio says. “Their core audience is kind of right in that millennial sweet spot, and they’ve got about 15 million daily active users. The NBA’s audience, our fan base, is about roughly half under 35. If you go down to the G League, you’ll find that nearly half is under 18, so it’s even younger than the very young NBA, and that’s sort of a match made in heaven.”

The NBA is taking the same open attitude about sponsorships, although it doesn’t have any big ideas to test here. However, there’s more opportunity for brands to be integrated into the content than before, and the NBA welcomes all creative ideas.

G League production will be handled by Twitch, which is taking care of most capture and distribution chores. The Twitch ad-sales team is likewise handling sponsorship opportunities.

“This partnership is a way to have a laboratory for game presentation for the G League, which is, in a way, the laboratory for the NBA,” Marsilio says. “We’re really excited about it because of all the different perspectives that those fans could provide, and we’re just really anxious to see how it turns out.”

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