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Cavs Legion

The Cleveland Cavaliers have some recognizable players. You know, just a few. LeBron James, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and Kyle Korver are all well-ingrained in the minds of NBA fans.

So what sort of marketing connection will there be between the Cavs and talent from the franchise's new eSports team, Cavs Legion Gaming Club?

"The short answer is there's not," says Matt O'Brien, vice president of partnership development for the Cavs, when asked if there will be a direct marketing connection between Cavs and Cavs Legion talent. "There's no crossover from the team-player side. In the 2K League, we're building our own new superstars. The NBA, which has our existing roster -- they're great guys -- but we're going to find out who our new superstars are on in the 2K League side."

Part of this has to do with NBA restrictions on how players can be used to market the NBA 2K League. The NBA 2K League will have its own avenue of corporate sponsors. But another part of it is the NBA 2K League's desire -- and necessity -- to build its own identity.

Whether James leaves town this summer or not, Cavs Legion will go on. O'Brien and his team see an opportunity. Seventeen of the 30 NBA teams bought into Year 1 of the NBA 2K League with the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves among those who opted out. This leaves Cleveland, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Detroit with an opportunity to capitalize in the region.

"Our goal is to make Cavs Legion in Cleveland, and to a greater extent, Ohio, the capital of eSports in the Midwest," says Jonathan Sumers, senior director of digital partnerships for the Cavs. "ESports is traditionally a New York and LA enterprise, and what we've noticed, for example is MLE has put on multiple events in Columbus, which I believe is within a five to six-hour driving distance of half of the country, so Ohio and our location is in great proximity to people throughout the country."

Adds O'Brien: "Cavs Legion GC, there's actually no Cleveland [in the name]. We think the opportunity is far bigger than Cleveland. While we may have a regional TV market, the digital world connects us with fans in China, Australia and all over the place. This is just an extension of that. We will certainly be rooted in Cleveland, but I think our opportunity is far bigger."

First the Midwest, then the world? It's believable. In January, to promote the launch of Cavs Legion, the team hosted a weekend of eSports events in the Cleveland area, capped off by an NBA 2K tournament at a Microsoft Store. While eSports may have a reputation for connecting individuals virtually, a noticeably diverse crowd came to see Cavs Legion in person.

"We had hundreds of people attending," Sumers says. "They drove from as far as Canada -- Nova Scotia -- California, Washington state. They drove from all over the country to participate in this, and that's when we looked around and said, 'Wow, this community is rabid.'"

While the NBA and NBA 2K League are restricting cross-promotion involving players, there is another way the Cavs can use their global presence as an advantage. Considering the NBA 2K League's appeal will skew to the young and tech-savvy, the Cavs have a secret business weapon, thanks a lot to what LeBron James and his crew have done over the years.

"We have 20 million social media followers all around the world and everything we do in the digital and social space can reach those fans wherever they are," O'Brien says. "We're very bullish about what we do on our digital side and our social side with the Cavs, and we'll apply those learnings as techniques to Legion more than anything else."

"The thought is to utilize the Cavs to help promote Cavs Legion and vice versa, in terms of expanding our regional fan base," Sumers says. "If we can create fans of Cavs Legion from our Cavs fan base, and create fans of the Cavs from our Legion fan base, we can use the two to bounce back and forth, while also expanding our reach, into a young and more multicultural audience."

While the coasts have a reputation for promoting eSports at the professional level, the Midwest has moved faster into collegiate eGaming. Robert Morris University in Illinois was the first U.S. college to make eSports a scholarship-sponsored collegiate athletic program in 2014. The Big Ten Network currently broadcasts League of Legends competition among the conference's 14 club teams, with scholarships contributed by Riot Games.

"We're reaching out to a lot of the regional universities," Sumers says. "ESports is growing on the high school and college level. Most schools now have gamer clubs and gaming majors. We've been in touch with the University of Akron -- they just created a varsity eSports program [starting fall 2018]. We're having brainstorming sessions with these clubs and these universities to see what they're doing on their campuses. In a few years, I wouldn't be surprised if over half the NCAA has a varsity eSports program."

For all 17 NBA 2K League teams, plus the league itself, there is a learning curve that is unavoidable in Year 1. No professional American sports league has produced a full-on eSports league in the way the NBA will this coming season. But rather than sit back and watch the league play out -- as 13 franchises are doing -- the Cavs put themselves in the thick of things.

"We looked at the opportunity and we had people who were looking into eSports already, as an emerging opportunity," O'Brien says. "We’re typically one of the more forward thinking organizations in the NBA and we just thought it was a great opportunity ... This was a nice place to start."

O'Brien and Sumers presented some of their Cavs Legion marketing ideas -- without giving away all their secrets -- at the Esports Activate conference in New York City on March 6. The inaugural eSports showcase featured a variety of competitive eGaming executives, marketers and players descending on Times Square's PlayStation Theater.

Among those also affiliated with the NBA 2K League, Jim Ferris, managing director, CLTX Gaming (Celtics), and Dimez, the No. 1 prospect in the NBA 2K League Draft, also took the stage.

The NBA 2K League Draft will take place April 4 in the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden with Cavs Legion GC holding the No. 16 pick of the first round. The regular season starts in May.

-- Follow Jeff Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband. Like Jeff Eisenband on Facebook.