Nikuro is a VIP guest of the Wizards in the bubble. He’s a virtual VIP guest, to be specific, which is why no one in the arena batted an eye when the 21-year-old wandered onto the court in the middle of a game. To be clear: Nikuro isn’t a real person. He’s one of a growing number of computer-generated virtual influencers, almost-human-looking characters manufactured by venture capital-backed technology companies across the world to serve as brand ambassadors in the music, fashion and entertainment industries. Nikuro, who was created by Tokyo-based 1Sec Inc., is the first such character to be employed by an NBA team.
“We just thought it was a really unique and great way to connect with a younger generation and a new audience for us,” said Jim Van Stone, president of business operations for Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Wizards.
Van Stone credited Saxx Booker, who joined the Wizards on April 1 in the newly created role of social influence manager, for the team’s latest experiment with artificial intelligence.
As the NBA prepared for its restart in Orlando amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, without fans and with strict rules limiting the personnel allowed inside the bubble, Booker thought of Lil Miquela. A couple months ago, she mentioned the possibility of partnering with a virtual influencer to give fans — actual human fans — another way to experience the remainder of the season.
“We were like, ‘Okay, find out a little more information,’” Van Stone said of his team’s reaction to Booker’s initial pitch. “‘This is pretty cutting edge, but I’m still not 100 percent sure what we’re getting into.’ We’re always looking for innovative ways of connecting with audiences.”
“It was a half-baked idea, and I didn’t have a person in mind,” Booker said. “My team really gravitated toward it and was super excited about it, so I just started digging into it more and started to understand the landscape of the virtual influencers.”
Booker’s digging led her to Nikuro, whose Tokyo-based creator bills the character as Japan’s first male virtual influencer. He’s a basketball fan who splits his time between Tokyo and Los Angeles. He loves music, including Bruno Mars, Justin Bieber and Kendrick Lamar.
“He may be fake, but he has a real personality,” 1Sec CEO Hirokuni Genie Miyaji told the Japan Times last year.
Like Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura, Nikuro is half Japanese, which made him an especially good fit for the team.
“I just felt like that ties in perfectly with the story we’re building here with Rui,” Booker said. “He doesn’t have the millions of followers that some of the other virtual influencers do, but his story line is resonating [in Japan].”
The Wizards have invested heavily in building their fan base in Japan since they made Hachimura the first Japanese player selected in the first round of the NBA draft in 2019. They launched a Japanese-language team site and a Japanese Twitter feed, which now has 44,000 followers, and have a three-person team dedicated to producing Japanese-language content.
“We’ve put so much focus on the global piece,” Van Stone said. “We think the power of the NBA to really be a global brand allows us to build the Wizards’ profile broader than the greater Washington area.”
Booker said she and her Wizards colleagues have collaborated with the team at 1Sec to craft Nikuro’s digital experience in Florida. One thing Nikuro hasn’t yet seen with his CG-created eyes is a Washington win. The Wizards, who are without John Wall, Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans in Florida, entered Wednesday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers 0-3 since the season restarted.
“It would be nice to get him into the lineup,” Van Stone joked, “but we’re looking forward to all of our guys coming back next year.”
While he’s been relatively quiet on social media since his Insta-worthy moment on the court, Booker said fans can expect to see more of Nikuro over the next two weeks, and potentially next season as well.
“Liam was a Wizards fan before our partnership and a huge Rui fan,” Booker said, “so I wouldn’t count him out in terms of seeing him in the future, engaging with the team.”