July 12, 2021

Brendan Donohue | The Transformational Power of E-Sports

Brendan Donohue | The Transformational Power of E-Sports

Brendan Donohue is the President of the NBA 2k League, an official esports league featuring 23 teams. Take a listen to industry-renowned Brendan has he opens the doors to the transformative world of esports and how it's currently changing lives al...

Brendan Donohue is the President of the NBA 2k League, an official esports league featuring 23 teams. Take a listen to industry-renowned Brendan has he opens the doors to the transformative world of esports and how it's currently changing lives all over the world. 


Visit the NBA 2K League's website to watch, listen and learn about the players and their sport | https://2kleague.nba.com


Follow Brendan Donohue on Twitter | https://twitter.com/2kleaguemd



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Srini Rao: Welcome to the unmistakable creative. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us. Of

Brendan Donohue: course Srini. Great to meet you. And I'm excited to chat.

Srini Rao: I am absolutely thrilled to have you here. So I actually found out about you by way of our former guest Scott who was the CEO of the Philadelphia 76 years.

And when he told me that you're the commissioner of the NBA two K league, I thought, yes, I absolutely have to talk to him. I play this damn game every single day and my roommate is kicking my ass. So maybe you can help me solve that problem. But all joking aside before we get. Into what you do. I wanna start by asking what did your parents do for work and how did that end up shaping the choices that you've made throughout your life and

Brendan Donohue: your career?

Wow. Great question. So two very different paths. So my father was the CFO of a hospital at a very young age. I think in his late twenties, he was a CFO of a hospital in long Island, New York. And I can remember him taking me to work some times and I was always blown away at just how. He just knew everybody.

I mean, from, you know, walking in the back entrance, he knew the maintenance staff, he knew the CEO, he knew, he just knew everybody and he was just friendly with everyone and that always stuck out. It just stuck out to me as a pretty cool trait. So that was my dad and he I'll get into kind of I'll connect the dots, feed him and my mom in a second, but my mom so I am.

The youngest of six kids you know, from, you know, we all grew up with, I grew up in long Island, like I said, and my mom actually was a nurse, went to nursing school. And then essentially when she had my oldest brother stopped and she, you know, she wore, she was a mom for, you know you know, roughly 16 years, she was focused on raising her family and being a mom and an incredible one, like, you know, With, with homework and everything else, she was always kind of super, super attentive.

And then when I went to kindergarten, she actually went back to being a nurse and doing you know, working for a home care agency as a nurse. And then, you know, she was putting in so many hours when I was a S freshmen, sophomore in high school. So you know, fast forward that's about 10 years or so from when she started going back to work.

Her. And my sisters decided like, listen, why don't you start your own home care agency? And so my mom did just that. And my dad actually helped her. He you know, he was at a different hospital at Connecticut. Unfortunately you know, his job didn't work out. And so he ended up becoming the CFO of my mom's home care agency.

And so. I mean, talk about real remarkable. Like, you know, I I'm, obviously my dad was an incredible executive and my mom, you know, to, to watch her go from being totally like committed to being a mom and, and raising kids six kids at that. And then and then starting your own business and being an incredibly successful executive.

And I will say like a really good business leader for someone who had very little practical business experience. But you know, just seeing her build relationships and, you know, and just hustle and lead by example you know, and I will say being an incredibly strong example of a woman in business, I will say to me, it was a pretty, pretty powerful kind of foundation I was given.

Srini Rao: Yeah. Wow. So I have to ask about, you know, six kids what did growing up in such a big family, teach you about navigating relationships, human behavior and that of morbid curiosity. What's the age gap in which of sibling are you closest to and why?

Brendan Donohue: Yeah. So there's 11 years between the oldest and youngest.

We're the Brady bunch. So there's three boys and three girls. I'm the youngest I'm I guess I'm Bobby. But and so as far as closeness, I think I'm probably closest to my second oldest brother. Just yeah, and I, I, you know, just, we were kind of similar in terms of, you know, our competitiveness and, and just, you know, our drive probably And then your other question was about just kind of interacting and relationships.

Srini Rao: Yeah, I mean, a family of six is massive. I mean, I, you know, I only have one sibling, so while I always wonder this about people who have huge,

Brendan Donohue: well, ma massive family, but like, I would say like, Tight head tight quarters. I mean, you know, we, we were you know, we had all the kids sharing one bathroom and you know, there was all the boys were in one bedroom.

And my two, my three sisters here too, about two other bedrooms. So it was tight. I slept, I slept in at one of those like deal beds and had a drink. It was a pullout, a pullout drawer that I slept in. But you know, I'm the biggest thing I learned. And this is something I almost had to unlearn was.

How we communicated, like, you know, in that big of a family communication was, it was, it was so passionate and like interactive. And like, if you didn't lean in, you weren't hurt. And so you know, really kind of like, you know, we, and we would also just the way we were set up kind of family wise and how we interacted and communicated with each other, we would have just brawls and like, you know, and we'd be very argumentative and passionate, but then like, you know, it was.

You know, it melted away. The second you were done with it, it was, it was over and you were back to being family. And so I actually probably had to adjust a little bit in how I communicated to people who might've grown up in normal households that didn't have that where, you know I could, I could, you know, get after it and like, you know, banter with somebody and then just like, Two seconds later.

I was fine. Like, I didn't, I didn't mind if they had kind of come and be a little bit hard. But I, you know, in, in normal society, I guess I had to make that adjustment.

Srini Rao: Yeah. Well, so you know, it, it's funny, you mentioned your mother going from being a mother of six kids to, you know, starting a business to become an executive.

And there's this quote that immediately came to my mind. When you said that, have you ever seen the TV show, brothers and sisters with Sally field?

Brendan Donohue: No, I, and I'm an avid content content consumer, so I know I'm bumping it.

Srini Rao: So there, there there's quote where she, you know, the, you know, not to ruin it for anybody, but, you know, she ends up, you know, losing her husband at the very beginning of the series and she goes into pitch some investors.

On a business idea for some sort of center that she wants to open and you know, they basically questioned her lack of experience. And so she goes out to dinner with one of the investors who only agrees to meet her because of her, her ex you know, her, her husband who had passed away, who had built this very successful business.

And. He basically questioned her experience. And in response, she says, I organize the schedules of five extremely well-rounded children. I ran carpals bake sales in Bluebird groups. I negotiated cuddled and mandated all at the same time, not to mention what I had to do for my husband to keep them happy and productive.

And I did all of this without taking a sick day. The problem is no one values the experience of a stay at home parent, which is truly ashamed because running this big enterprise as you put, it would be a day at the beach for me. And so I, and I love that. That was probably my favorite moment in the show.

And what I wanted to ask you is what does it take for somebody to build that within themselves, that level of sort of conviction and resourcefulness?

Brendan Donohue: Hmm. I think My guess is that, you know, my parents came from, I would argue, what are you, what is one of the coolest generations of parents, you know, in one of the coolest ones in history, in terms of, you know, for them, all of, all of my grandparents came over from Ireland.

Still kind of came to the us and really started their lives. And like didn't have much to work with and they just made it happen. And so I think that generation, at least for me, you know, I don't know, there's obviously been books written about that generation, but I think they all installed this, this sense of, you know, just get it done.

I don't want to hear your excuses. And so I th I think, you know, my mom had that installed in her by her parents and just seeing them operate. And so I, I, I think that was a big piece of it. And you know, and I don't know what it, when it, or, or how it was installed in her, but she just had this, you know, she had an incredible work ethic.

You know, I guess I would like to use a sports analogy both on and off the court. I mean, she was a ho she went a hundred percent plus at work, but then also she didn't come home and like, you know, complain, Oh, I worked all day. Like, you know, you gotta take care of this. She was at all my basketball games, you know, she was always present.

She was, you know, pushing me to work hard on my studies, you know, it was and my dad did too. My dad was also, you know, and I would say like probably to his credit. He was a, probably more balanced executive than I might be now. In terms of like he left the office at five o'clock and he was home and we would be playing catch or, you know we're playing basketball together and he really did a good job of of being present as a dad while also being an executive.

Srini Rao: Hmm. Wow. So you mentioned playing basketball. It's funny because I have mentioned this on a show before I played basketball for two seasons in seventh and eighth grade and seventh grade, I was the most improved player, which just meant I was the shittiest player on the team which is not apparently the case in the NBA when somebody is the most improved player.

They're like, bad-ass, he's, I believe at one point Jimmy Butler was. But what I'm curious about is what peaked your interest in sports and how old were you when you started playing basketball?

Brendan Donohue: Oh, I was a sports nut from the very beginning and that's where I could, I had two older brothers and my dad, there were all sports nuts, and we were going to Mets, Islanders, Knicks.

You know, we were, we, it was a year round obsession. We were, it was just whatever season it was. That's what sport we were following. So yeah, early on, I was kind of traditional. Football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring from, you know, through eighth grade. And then I just got focused on basketball because it was probably the one I was, I was, I was best at.

So yeah, that was, I was obsessed with it. And then I was like, No, they, my family makes fun of me. Like I was like an 80 year old man, not, I would wake up in the morning and I'd walk out in the driveway, get the, get the newspaper, you know, daily news, whatever I would get delivered. And I read the sports section cover to cover.

While eating my cereal, like that was what I did from like, and literally, probably from like six or seven, like it was bizarre. And I also like, I mean, again, to make myself sound like a nerd, like I would read like the world, those sports, sports Almanac, and like, I was always obsessed with statistics and it just the history of sports.

So it was all, I don't know. I don't know what made me, I guess just, I was just my, maybe my intellectual curiosity pushed me in that direction, but I was always super engaged with sports.

Srini Rao: Well, so as somebody who didn't continue playing sports in high school which to this day, I think is one of my regrets.

Cause I feel like every single person I've ever talked to who was a athlete on a team in high school swears by the benefits of it, regardless of whether it led anywhere or not for parents who are listening. And particularly for parents, we're stuck with kids like me who are athletically inept, what would you say to them about encouraging their kids to play

Brendan Donohue: sports?

Well, okay, so I'll say this as a, as a person now who oversees an e-sports league, I would say I would encourage them to compete. Cause I can tell you, you know, some of them were personal to me is, you know, I have a son with has special needs. And so he wasn't able to compete on the athletic field for quite a while.

And now he actually, he does now swim for his high school and it was the first time he'd ever been on a sports team. And so it, it definitely, you know, I love watching him be a part of a team and it's incredible. And so but I mean, for, for him and I, you know, you know, our equivalent of like my dad taking me to, you know, to see a Mets game and sit there and.

Talk about like what was going on in life and school and, and having that kind of uninterrupted time together. Our equivalent was when, when he turned five, I think it was five. And he's now 15 to put it in perspective. When he turned five, my wife got us gaming chairs. And so if you came to our house on a weekend, you would see us playing, you know, playing games in many cases together, you know you know, kind of playing a game at the same time or playing two K or playing one at one of his kind of more action games we play together.

And to this day, you know, we still play two K and oftentimes at night we'll play Fortnite together. You know, so it's, it's for us, that was our equivalent. And so, and so, and he learned competing, I think a lot through. Through gaming actually. And so you know, I do think gaming is a, is a great equalizer for, you know, if you don't necessarily have all the physical tools to compete on a, on an athletic field, you know, your whole life.


Srini Rao: Yeah. I want to go deeper into that because I think that we have sort of two narratives around video games, right. It's kind of like, Oh, video games, make kids lazy and, and adapt. And you know, you hear things like, Oh, grand theft, auto causes violence, which I personally, I don't believe any of that to be true, but I of course am biased because I've been playing video games.

I think as far as I can remember from the original Nintendo, which I'm curious about how old were you when you started playing video

Brendan Donohue: games? I wasn't a tare kid. So I would say probably first grade and my oldest brother, that was where he and I were super tight that way. Like we were the two gamers in the house.

My middle brother didn't play video games at all, never got into it, but th that was our thing. And so, yeah, I was, I was an early, early adopter to video games. Yeah. Well,

Srini Rao: so I think that one of the things I wonder, yeah. And I've asked a couple of different people, this we had this guy, Jeff Harry here, who talked about the importance of play and you as the commissioner or the Kayla, you obviously clearly probably think there were positive benefits to video games.

So what are they, I mean, because you've probably been able to see this over a long stretch of time and have a bigger sample size than the average person.

Brendan Donohue: Well, I think the, I mean, I, if you asked me this question w w in my mindset, you know, when I first started playing video games, what, 1980 or so it's just so different now because.

I mean video your video game experience. Now, compared to when I started playing video games, when I started playing video games, you were in your room, you were by yourself, you were playing against AI, you know, to where fast forward to now. It's very communal I mean, you know, when my son's playing, you know, if we're playing for like a great examples.

So we played Fortnite at times, like. He, and I will play. And Mike, my college roommate and his son, we will team up at nighttime after we dinner. And like, we'll play squads will be the four of us against, you know, 24 other teams playing, you know, against us and competing against us in fortnight. Like it's actually a pretty cool connectivity piece.

I mean it, and, and, and so I, you know, I, I think, you know, if, if, if in the wrong hands, You know, you know, an unwatched sure you can go down, you know, you know, you can get too into it and you need some balance. And, and we definitely encourage that. Listen, my son is super active. He works out. He swims, you know, he's, he's very active.

And so we try to limit the number of hours he's out playing games. But I mean, I actually think it's a very it allows, it has a sense of community, much more so than gaming did when we were growing up.

Srini Rao: Yeah. I mean, I, I live with a roommate I live with now because of NBA two K. It's kind of hilarious that that's how we ended up living together.

But well, let's, let's talk about the trajectory of your career. So we're going to start, as you know, with six siblings, I always wonder how the career advice that you get from your parents differs from sibling to sibling, because I feel like basically every person that comes before you is, is an experiment.

And then the parent fixes the mistakes they make on the previous one on the next one.

Brendan Donohue: Yeah, it's, it's, it's a great point. And so I go going back to my generational kind of theory earlier, I do think that my parents were much more in the camp of you're smart enough, go be a lawyer, like go get a good job and, and she can provide for your family and put your kids through school.

And so that was their mindset. And so I do think that. I've spent a lot of my years, you know, as I was starting my career and going through college and then early in my career, really breaking the mold of what they thought was possible and really what they thought was normal. And so, you know, I think I did, I was just always very independent by nature.

And so I was determined to make. You know, my career, something I was passionate about and following my heart, which was, I wanted to be in sports. I wanted to be connected to sports in some way. And so, you know, when I was in high school, you know, I mentioned my obsession with sports and consuming sports media, and I lived in New York at a time when sports radio became a huge medium.

And I was, I was listening to Mike and the mad dog and, and, and, and that kind of WFAN and in New York, and that, you know, at that point was more of a, a local station. And so my, my total dream going at sports was I wanted to be in sports radio and I wanted to be, you know, and that was my, that was my goal of my, it was my dream.

And that was my first job in sports. Was I mean, outside of like, you know, writings for your yearbooks and local papers on sports. But when I was, I was in college, I did an internship for sports radio WEEI in Boston. Which was the sports. It was the equivalent of WFAN in Boston. And so I got a job, you know, I, I begged my way into that job.

When one, a guy I knew of at Boston college was working there on the production side. And I, I basically told them whatever I need to do. I will work for free, just get me in. And so my junior, junior, and senior year of college, I got a job with them. And I will tell you probably one of the worst jobs in sports was my job was to screen the calls coming in.

So I would answer, I would answer incoming calls. I would kind of find out what somebody wanted to talk about. And then I would send them on to talk to the host. And it was the worst shops. You had like a sentence of like, Hey, I want to talk about, you know Middlebury bonds, and then you sent that person through and then they would get, they'd get nervous, they'd start stuttering.

And then the host would get mad at you for putting them through. So it was, it was a very, very tough job. But that's what led me in sports though.

Srini Rao: Hm. Wow. So, I mean, I was just looking at your LinkedIn profile. I mean, you have this sort of interesting trajectory of, of, you know, being in charge of ticket sales, going all the way to team operations, so numerous things.

So it's the first thing one. What are the lessons that you've taken from, you know, working in the actual MBA that you've applied to two K And how is it that a video game has had this much of an impact on our culture? And then I want to talk about specifically, e-sports like what actually goes into building an e-sports team and how you actually run a league.

Like what, how does it differ from being, for example, David stern or Adam silver, like your

Brendan Donohue: job? Sure. So I mean, I mean the two K league offices are essentially inside the NBA office. So it, it's still, I mean, it's still very much a part of the NBA. But what I think, and to his credit, what Adam silver encouraged me to do was to, to, to be nimble, to act like a startup.

And so I think you know, even though we, we, we, we are inside the, kind of the, the, the mothership of the NBA and we have a ton of influence and a ton of resources from the NBA. I think, you know, What was important for us and for me to make sure I did early on was I had to make sure we were very operational and we were very kind of like nimble and quick to quick to make adjustments and much more much more nimble and risky frankly than the NBA could ever be.

So I think that was a, that was a really early on, I knew what we had to be that way, because just to be functional, you know you know, we only had eight people running the entire operation for a season. So yeah, so it was it was a small operation and and now we're, you know, more than double that size, but it's it's so yeah, I mean, so that's on the NBA side, as far as what I've learned.

I think just learning the value of leadership and then the value, because we're a smaller group, the importance of. Instilling confidence in your team and letting you know, removing obstacles, letting them do their thing, and then getting out of their way. Because frankly, we had so much to do with such a small group that never could have been effective.

If I was trying to hold everyone's hand. Yeah.

Srini Rao: So what is the actual business model of the two K league look like? And how does it compare? Because I'm guessing, you know, unlike sort of the traditional NBA, it's not, you know, a bunch of college students being recruited to play college ball and then being drafted to the NBA.

Right. So what does the business model look like? Like how do you guys

Brendan Donohue: make money? So, and that, that, isn't very, that is not too dissimilar from the traditional sports model. So. It's meteorites, it's sponsorship, it's retail merchandise. You know, so and then eventually it'll, it'll be Tim more ticket sales.

I mean, we, you know, we were kind of steering in that direction last season, but unfortunately COVID, didn't allow for it. So but with ticket sales is definitely a, a possible revenue stream. So on the business side, it's actually not too dissimilar from kind of the, the NBA and its affiliate leagues.

Where, where it's tricky is we, we at the center, we do essentially the recruiting and the identify player identification for the teams. And so, for example, you know, the first season we opened up tryouts and we had 72,000 people try out, but we'll be crap. Yeah. I mean, so you had 72,000 people try now for 102 spots.

And so you know, to their credit, to Kay to develop what we call the combine, which was a, a kind of standalone mode in the game you know, allowed players to go in and play five on five. And so and kept everybody on an even playing field. Like you mentioned, like trying to build teams and make it, make it fair.

We actually have, you know, where every player was a 90 rated player. And the, you know, they could go in and compete against IL Southern 72,000 people. And so we, you know, and again, as far as our resources being limited, what we did was we hired a third party company to essentially build an algorithm that would evaluate players.

And, and we were, we were evaluating, you know, 60 different plus. Stats across every single player and every single game. And I mean, literally millions of data points and so things down, I mean, and it was much, much deeper than points, rebounds and assists. And we were evaluating, you know, telemetry data. And then, you know, how, how good was, you know, how perfect is their Jumpshot, how good is their release point versus perfect.

You know, their, their defensive efficiency, their offensive of efficiency, like. You know, the, the how often did they, you know, did they go for a steal and put themselves out of position? Like it's in pretty amazing amount of data we were capturing and still capturing. And so all of that kind of rolled into, you know, we identified about 250 players and then narrowed that down to 102 on draft day.

And so our first season, we actually declared the 102 players and the teams drafted them. Now we've actually, we we've evolved our system every year. This past season we had, I believe it was 285 players that were eligible for the draft to be, to be drafted. And we had roughly, I think about 60 some odd spots that we were drafted on top of the current players run rosters.

So so yeah, so, and, and, and also to the player identification point, we've also added other elements to our player ID process, such as. We we, we now have tryouts in London. We've had a tryout in Hong Kong and Seoul, Korea. You know, it's, we've gone and done tryouts and other countries to identify players around the world because you know, if you are, if you're in Australia, you know, trying to compete against North American players, your, your connect, your connection is a huge disadvantage.

So we had to find, we had to find, we had to find great players and actually invite them know to try outs, you know, physically or remotely in different regions. So, so that we were able to identify great players around the world. And so the end result is now we have 10. International international players on our team rosters.

And you know, including this year, we had our first from Spain, our first from Australia. So we know when we're identifying international players and the other player diversity piece, which is a really interesting story is, is on with, with getting women in the game and finding women because what was amazing was our first season you know, we had the 72,000 players try out.

We got down to the final two 50 and we only had one woman. And, and that woman, unfortunately, did not go from the two 50 down to the one Oh two. She was eliminated in that process. But we immediately said, okay, well, why, why is that? Like, you know, we, we know there's no reason why a woman can't compete in two K.

Why would we not have any women in the league? And so we, we immediately began, we began our women and gaming initiative. And so We did. We did research. We did focus groups with top women with our GMs. And what we found from the women was that when they played and competed at the highest levels, all of our players were headsets.

I mean, if you're going to play at a, at an elite level, you have to have a headset and communicate with your teammates. And what happened was, as soon as they kind of identified as a woman with a woman's voice, they got past the ball less. They were harassed at times it was, it was a kind of a toxic environment for them.

And so they were getting passed the ball less often then then, then, then other their male, their male counterparts. And so as a result of, if we're evaluating statistics, of course their statistics going be are going to be less. If, you know, if they're not getting as many opportunities. And so so we, then in season two, we work with our analytics company to start analyzing players, how effective they were when they had, when they actually got the ball.

And so then, so it totally changed the dynamic of our analysis. We ended up with you know, with a couple of women in our draft pool. We had our first woman actually drafted by a. By, by, you know, the golden state warriors and warriors gaming squad. So we, we kind of broke that barrier in season two, but our, our work was far from done.

Like we sell a lot of work to do. And so in season three we had four women in the draft pool and none of them got drafted. And so that, that immediately was like, okay, there's something broken here. Like we're not, we're doing, we're not doing something right. We're not good enough. And so This past year, this past off season, our women's women and gaming initiative.

And you know, what we found out from GM's and coaches was they weren't playing against the top level players. There wasn't enough of a you know, enough information or examples of seeing them. Compete against the top players in the world. So we actually, we don't, we are women and gave me an issue.

It became a much more robust process. It was, we actually went out and we we helped identify it and help create too. Top women Pro-Am teams. So two five on five teams that we know we helped. They entered into the top tournaments. They were competing at the highest levels. We took, we did that. And then secondarily, we set up these remote gameplay sessions where we had, you know, the known best women players in the two K scene competing with with our, some of our top two K league pros.

The coaches and GM's came in and watched, we had, we had a couple of former former two K league players, pros coaching the teams. And so that was kind of second step. And then the third step, which we've now done, two of them, two, two sec, two consecutive years is we created a women in gaming development camp where we had the top 20 women players that were known in the two K league scene to casein.

We had, you know, w N w NBA players come talk to them. We had top, top e-sports pros top influencers kind of talked to them about how to navigate, you know, social media and streaming. And then we had them gameplay a ton. Against each other and also with two K league pros. And so all of those kinds of steps now this past year you know, we had a we had I believe it was nine or 10.

I think it was 10 women we had in the draft pool and we had two women drafted this this year as now we have two women currently in the league. And so I will say, like, we still have plenty of work to do when rack checking the box by any stretch of the imagination, but what our goal is, Really is to just one, get the best players in the world.

And we think a diverse pool is a stronger pool. But then it's number two is we're trying to normalize women in the two K league scene. And so it, you know, certainly we want women players. But if you watch our broadcast, we have several women on our, on our broadcast team. You know, if you look at our, our executive team, you know, some of our top executives of the league are women.

And so we're just trying to normalize women in the two K league scene more broadly. And I think we have taken significant steps in the right direction, but we still have a lot of work to do. Yeah,

Srini Rao: well it's so it's funny. I wanted to ask you sort of the skill development ask if this, because you know, my roommate, when he gets on these winning streaks, jokingly, you know, declares himself as the NBA, God.

And I was like, yeah, you want to see how good you are? Go play a teenager online. Then we'll find out how good you really are. But you know, I remember talking to a friend of mine and as I was joking with you before we hit record that, you know, I, if I ever had a few money, the first thing I would do was buy an NBA basketball team.

And one of my friends said. You could potentially buy an e-sports team. He said that's probably more realistic and probably where we're headed next anyways. So for the e-sports athletes, like what goes into, you know, their own skill development, because I doubt it's sort of the way that my roommate and I play my guess is they're probably very D like they probably have what, you know, Anders, Ericsson would've called deliberate practice.

Like they're probably doing things to improve.

Brendan Donohue: Totally. And I will say, I mean, that, that's kind of also that, you know, w one is they just play a lot. They, they get, they, they, they, they do have an, a unique skill set. They generally speaking have an incredibly high basketball IQ. And so they begin to compete at the highest levels and, you know, and, and you know how there's, I mean, first you start by being the best player, you know, on your block, then your school, then your area, like.

You just start competing more and more at higher levels. And so that scene kind of organically happens also. But I, I will say as far as e-sports goes, I think we're at the early stages of what the right training is for an e-sports athlete, because I actually think it's. And we're S we're starting to see it more developed, but I think this notion of like, just put in the hours and become a master in like just grinding grind and grind, and that's, what's going to make you great.

I think that's old school. I mean, it's kind of an archaic perspective. Like, I mean, you have to think that, you know you know, we encourage our players. Like they work, many of them work out together and physically, or physically fit, you know, their nutrition is a consideration, certainly your eyesight, your eyesight and your hands.

Are, you know, if you are as important as anything, like, you know, it's the equivalent of like jumping ability and speed for a, you know, an NBA player. So I think it's, I think we're at the early stages of really what truly good. Professional skill development is in e-sports. And I will say it's interesting as, so the only non NBA owned team in our league are, I know, so we had, we sold our first franchise outside of the NBA family last year to the Genji tigers of Shanghai and Jenji Jenji has.

You know th this number is probably changed now, but at the time they had, you know, they had 11 different e-sports teams across seven different games and what, what they were. And one of the reasons we actually decided to partner with them and actually have them buy a franchise is they were, you know, somewhat tip of the spear in terms of player development in e-sports.

And so they actually, they actually run an e-sports school in Seoul, Korea. And it's truly a remarkable facility I've been there. You know, and they are developing kind of a, a balanced attack to, you know, to edgy. They educate, they have education. They have, you know, obviously e-sports development.

And so we, we thought they brought a really unique kind of skill set to the NBA two K league. And so one of the things they actually are helping us do is identify two key players in China to kind of help bring the league and, and continue to grow the league.

Srini Rao: Yeah, so they're cold. It seems, I wonder.

Yeah. About sort of somebody who's got a potentially promising career current e-sports. So I, I remember very distinctly. We were stuck at the Dallas airport for three or four hours after we teaching a seminar. But my roommate and I, and we just happened to walk by this section. I was like, wait a minute, they have a whole video game section here.

And we walk up to the guy we're like, you guys have NBA two K we have three hours. And he's like, yeah, of course we have two K. So we literally paid 40 bucks to play a game that like we had at home for a couple of hours. But. He had started telling us about the fact that now e-sports is leading to people, getting college scholarships and all sorts of things.

So there are two questions I have about this. And typically like when you look at a lot of the NBA athletes or for that matter, many of the professional sports, like the NFL, a lot of these people come from fairly underprivileged backgrounds, right? Tough neighborhoods poor families. And that is often the path out of poverty for so many of them.

But when you're talking about something like e-sports an Xbox is not a cheap purchase for the average person. You know, a copy of two K at this point is about a hundred dollars. I only know this because I remember thinking I was like, you know, the target market for video games is not really kids.

It's people my age, because for us a hundred dollars is not a big deal. Like we have the disposable income to spend video spend on video games. So what role do you think that privilege plays in the prospects of all these people?

Brendan Donohue: I don't know, I actually, I don't think to many of our pros come from very challenging, you know, upbringings.

And, and in many cases, very kind of you know very likely, I would say very tough backgrounds in terms of like where they grew up and what they had access to. And I think you know, I, I, I think, you know, K you know, you're right. It a console, you know, it is not inexpensive, but I, I, you know, I, I do think a lot of players, you know, maybe share, you know, share them or early on as kids.

I think two K does a pretty good job of, you know, making, you know, William will even last year. I think that, you know, they had the game available for a much lower cost, you know kind of in the latter part of the, of the NBA season. So I, you know, I think it's, you know, you have to be creative to kind of try to find the right deal, I guess.

But I, I, you know, I will say like our. We do not see privilege being an advantage. At least our, our league makeup it's, that's not been the case. Okay,

Srini Rao: cool. So out of morbid curiosity this is for my own personal reasons. Can you give me any suggestions on how to put an end to this like 15 game losing streak that I've been on?

Brendan Donohue: I w what's what's the breakdown of me. Are you, are you, are you giving up to me? Threes? Are you, are you breaking down a defense? Not getting bored?

Srini Rao: I would probably say I'm not passing enough and I'm probably shooting way too many threes.

Brendan Donohue: Yeah. All right. Well, listen to it. That sounds like a problem. I mean, you may have to get into the you know, getting again and get a little practice in, on your, on your, on your three ball.

Maybe change the sliders when, when he's not looking. So, you know what, they're easier to me.

Srini Rao: Yeah. So, I mean, you've mentioned that you, you sold a team. So this is, you know, back to that idea, like is, you know, for somebody who's aspiring to own a sports team, as crazy as that might sound because most of us are not, you know, Mark Cuban, you know, with enough money to buy the Mavericks.

Are e-sports teams going to be something that we start to see over and over, and like, what is happening on sort of the, your college recruiting path? Like, do you guys recruit from college and what's happening in terms of opportunities that are being created outside of just playing the game? What kinds of opportunities has this created for people who play?

Brendan Donohue: So kind of a little bit similar to my point on, on player development. I still think e-sports, it's such early days. That everyone's trying to figure out what their place is in e-sports. And so I think it's going to, it's going to continue to become a more prominent recruiting tool for colleges. I think, you know, you're going to say, you didn't know, you already have starting to see it, but.

Seeing will kind of college programs develop as, you know, as kind of a tool to recruit students. Because I will say me like the generally speaking, you know, e-sports enthusiasts are very tech savvy. They're very, you know, they generally are high IQ. So it's it's actually, it's, it's an interesting audience for colleges to get in front of.

And so I think you're going to continue to see that develop. And then I, and I even say, we're trying to figure this out right now is. It, you know, we're trying to put a little more, a little more structure around just the grassroots competitive scene because in order for us to be successful, It's not enough for us to have the top 138 players in the world.

You know, we, we have to continue to develop that next part of the, in the frankly, the wider part of the funnel, which is the, you know, over 2 million players that are literally playing the game like yourself, probably 2 million players playing every day that are super competitive, but maybe they're not good enough to be in that 138.

But as we grow, like, we want to make sure like, That is a big part of our audience. And so we want to make that group feel connected to the two K league and have a reason to watch it. And so that's, that's really a big, big area of focus for us is trying to figure out, you know, how do we appeal to that, that next tier of competitive of the competitive scene.

And so So, yeah, I, I think, I, I think your point oncologists, I think we're seeing high schools also. Now

Srini Rao: I was going to ask you about that. That was my next question. Is, is this starting to make its way into primary education?

Brendan Donohue: It definitely is. And I think some of it is also trying to figure out what's the right entry point for a school.

And I said, I will say like two K we're very lucky in that. There's two K is it's rated E for everyone. You know, it it's, you know, it's, it's not as controversial a choice as some other games might be for, especially for a high school. So I do think you're going to see two Ks kind of grassroots community continue to grow as e-sports grows.

And then the other really, I mean, I would call this a significant advantage is because in two K and the NBA two K game is going to be the. Best basketball game in e-sports. And it's going to be for a long time. Cause you know, you just, you know, obviously given the fact that we, you know, it's, it's, it is the best game.

And so as opposed to, you know, some of the other games out there, it's a very competitive marketplace and to, and to get, to maintain your status as the game to play, you know, kudos to the games that are. That are on top right now, but they're, they always have kind of other, you know, game developers kind of, you know, creating what the what's next.

I mean, you know, Fortnite really does kind of come on the scene the last couple of years. You know, but it, it, it was a minute ago that pub G was pub G was dominating that space and then Fortnite came along and it's been incredibly successful at building an audience.

Srini Rao: Wow. Well, so I, I, I wonder about is you also forgive me.

I lost my train of thought. Josh, make sure you edit this out, please

Brendan Donohue: here.

Sorry, give me, give me a second. I'm trying to get my train

Srini Rao: of thought back. I had a question, but I was trying to remember what it was.

Where was I going with this? Oh, okay. Now I don't know. Just so you know, the, the thing that I had noticed, and I think I'd mentioned this to you, is that I've been playing this game for 20 years. And I couldn't believe that when I sat down and looked at it, I was like, wait a minute. I have played this game since two K one.

And my, my friend Ryan holiday who's working might be familiar with written a bunch of different books. All of which are New York times best sellers. He wrote this book called perennial seller, which is about how to make something that is timeless and something that lasts. And I know, like you said, When you think of, you know, a basketball video game, two K is the first thing that anybody defaults to, what do you think it is that has led to that kind of dominance of sort of perennial seller nature of two K.

And what do you think creative people can take away from that?

Brendan Donohue: I would say for two K it's to their credit is like, you know, there's not many games that come out with an annual version of the game. And, and so you know, most, most times there's, there's a couple of years of kind of a breathing room in between releases.

And so to their credit, I mean the two K development team, like they are, they have an insatiable appetite to continue to improve the game. And whether it, you know, and they've, you know, even the last couple of years, the way in which they added, you know, they added the neighborhood. And the whole neighborhood experience in like, you know, and having different modes of the game to play.

You want to go play in the park. If you want to play team up, you want to play. Pro-Am like, there's so many different modes of the game. Too, you know, and it's the whole, I would say for marketers in general, it's the entire movement towards direct to consumer and really allowing the consumer to dictate their experience.

And they want it to be customized. It wants to be personal. And I think two cases that a brilliant job over the last several years of doing exactly that. Of really customizing what the player wants. And so I think that's really been one of the, and I will say like, it's one of the reasons why, like the, there, it's not only a great selling game.

It's also a game that has incredible engagement numbers. I mean, a lot of these players are playing 30 plus hours a week and you don't, that doesn't happen unless you are creating something. That's excuse me, that's something that's engaging enough.

Srini Rao: It's funny you say that because I think I'd be horrified if I actually looked at how many hours we play every week.

So, you know, there's, we have three, the three of us that live together, two of us play it. And our other roommate hates the fact that we play this game so damn much.

Brendan Donohue: That's awesome. No, it's, it's true. And, and then you know, the, the other point I was going to make, and I didn't touch on earlier, which you were, you were, you were kind of talking about and I think I might have gone off on a different tangent is you mentioned kind of, you know, the, the the value of, of of e-sports and how it's changing kind of the educational experience.

The one biggest, I would say the biggest surprise I've had of the two K league is that. Listen, certainly we've identified the best 138 players in the world. They're incredible. And, and, and, you know, and they are amazing at what they do, but we've created, you know, probably at least that number, if not more of jobs connected to the two K league.

And so whether you are. You know you know, what traditional sports calls announcers we call casters. So if you're doing play by play or color commentary, you're doing sideline reporting. You know, we have an entire broadcast team, you know, we have content creators, we have, you know, media there's obviously sponsors and all that.

And then all the traditional jobs of sponsorship sales, you know, marketing, you know, community development, et cetera. So I will say that, like, I think we're. East way. I find e-sports very exciting for someone who's been in the sports industry for over two decades. What I find exciting about e-sports is that it's, it's truly creating a whole new branch of the business.

That's creating a ton of jobs.

Srini Rao: Yeah. Well, I, I, before we hit record, you had told me that you had known Scott for 20 years and the story of how you met was actually cool. So how did you guys meet?

Brendan Donohue: Yeah, so my, my first so I was an intern for the Boston Celtics after I graduated Boston college. I interned for the Celtics, got a job in, in, in and then they helped me get a job with the Detroit pistons and palace sports you know, right out, right out of right, right efforts to never, I graduated college.

And so I was selling for the pistons and I was, you know, one of probably it was, it was a massive sales organization, probably 60 sellers. And so Scott. He actually was was in a group called team marketing and business operations, which is a kind of a McKinsey style you know, consulting group for the MBA that David stern started.

And and it was the old to help the teams with, you know, sharing best practices and, and being effective off the court. And so. Scott was essentially the pistons representative. So he would come into market and visit. And so I was just a generic seller. And so normally I would not get the opportunity.

Generally, someone like Scott would come in and he'd meet with all the senior executives. And so. For some, you know, he he and I actually, you know, we played hoops in the morning. He, you know, he would try to organize a basketball game when he came to town. And so we actually got to, we, we competed against each other regarding each other kind of playing hoops before, before the Workday began.

And then he'll, he agreed to give me a half hour and meet with me. And so that really started like, From that point, he kind of helped connect me. I took a job with the Milwaukee bucks and then eventually, you know, in new Orleans with then the Hornets. And then he, I became very connected to that Timo operation.

And then ironically you know I actually took it. I left the team side of the business after 12 years and I was with the Atlanta Hawks and Thrashers in Atlanta. I actually, I randomly took a job in Timbo in the NBA league office, you know, ideal call. It probably was 10 years after I met Scott. Wow.

Srini Rao: Well I feel like I could talk to you about this for hours on end, but that's only because I'm obsessed with this game. Probably not as much as yeah. I doubt my listeners are as obsessed with it as I am. So I have one final question for you, which is how we finish all of our interviews and mistake creative.

What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?

Brendan Donohue: What's the last question. I mean, you, you stumped me.

Srini Rao: What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable.

Brendan Donohue: Oh

I think it's legacy. I think it's, it's the impact you have on the people around you. You know, and I, I hope that my team or my, or people that I've worked with and, and managed over the years One thing. And frankly, I actually may have got this a little bit from Scott and learning from him and other mentors I've had over the years is the, you know I am very obsessed with the talent and the development of talent and I, and I will be very, I will be very constructively critical.

Of my team, but I think I get a lot of latitude with them because they know I care about them. I mean, I, I genuinely love my team and they know it. And so as a result, I think they know that like I'm, I'm coming from a good place and they can trust me and they know that I'm just trying to help them get better and make a bigger impact and think bigger.

And so I would say like, you know, it's a if you're not constructively helping your team at your team grow. You're, you know, you know, you're not, you're not giving them your best. And so I would say that's, that's a pretty, that's a pretty big trait. I think, of, of leaders that I think they should make sure they, they they, you know, they stay true to themselves, but if they make sure that they're helping their team get better.


Srini Rao: Wow. Well, this has been amazing and fascinating and funny and insightful all at the same time. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us and share your story and your wisdom and insights with our listeners. Where can people find out more about you your work and everything else that you're up to?

Brendan Donohue: Let's let me, I mean, obviously an NBA two K league dot com is our website, but I would say the EO I'm I am very active on Twitter. And I'm, I am a T two K league MD on Twitter. And so feel free to follow me there and You know, I you know, I'll try, I'll try, I'll try to put some some, some thought into, into a, you know, maybe some nuggets of wisdom.

I, I will say I now follow you. So I'm looking forward to seeing what else. I listened to Scott's interview. I want to listen to somebody, some of the others you've had on your podcast.

Srini Rao: Awesome. And for everybody listening, we will wrap the show with that.

Brendan DonohueProfile Photo

Brendan Donohue

As President of the NBA 2K League, Brendan Donohue oversees the first official esports league operated by a U.S. professional sports league. A sports industry veteran with more than two decades of experience in team and league operations, Donohue manages a league that features 23 teams and is entering its fourth season.