When a traditional news outlet posts coverage of gaming and esports, there’s almost always a contingent of people that comment that “This isn’t sports” and that competitors are virgins who still live in their parent’s basements. For some people, the only thing they have to go off of is that South Park “World of Warcraft” episode from 2006.
That was over a decade ago. Those people are wrong.
And, it’s actually easy to take a look around and see that those generalizations are not the case at all: Gaming is versatile, and the world of esports is developing and evolving. Real life example? On April 4, the worlds of basketball and video games came together to watch lives change on NBA 2K League draft day.
The players that were drafted into the league will earn salaries of over $30,000, housing, gaming products, and other amenities as well as a chance to earn more money from a $1 million dollar prize pool that will spread out across multiple tournaments during the season. The league is slated to start in May 2018 and ends in August.
If you play 2K sparingly and are thinking, Man I can beat these bums, just know that there are levels to this stuff. These ain’t bums. Most of these players have been playing NBA 2K for years, some for over a decade, and it’s the long nights and intense preparation that the audience doesn’t see. A lot of the gamers drafted play anywhere from 8-12 hours a day, practicing plays, strategies and just getting better. The league’s first pick, Atreyo ‘Dimez’ Boyd, claims that he even plays 16 hours a day.
“This is a great feeling to be playing all these years for nothing and for now to be making a living off of it, being able to provide for myself and everyone else,” says Dimez, with a great big smile on his face and a Mavs Gaming draft hat over his dreads. “It’s dope.”
All these hours have turned these gamers’ passions into employment, and the best parts of this draft class are their backstories. Beyond the United States, the inaugural season will feature players from Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Some had jobs, some were in college, and a few just graduated out of high school. Regardless of their previous endeavors, all of their career paths have taken a sharp and exciting turn into gaming.
My favorite player story at the draft was Larell Mitchell, aka ‘Winner_Stayz_On.” After being drafted 15th, Mitchell smiled on stage as this moment cemented that his life was about to change.
“Yeah, it’s really crazy. I have a Class A CDL, so I drive tractor trailers, and I just come back and I just have time to do everything. It’s just been really an amazing journey.”
Wait what? I had to run the question back.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Mitchell says again. “Couple months ago I didn’t think this was possible, but this is something that’s worked out for me. I’m just really thankful to be here.”
Mitchell isn’t the only one in the league with an incredible origin story. When most of these players started playing 2K, they never expected that one day they could be playing professionally. With everyone wearing an NBA 2K League draft hat, each player’s sheer excitement for what’s next in their career was easy to read on their faces.
And these stories span beyond just players — they apply to new NBA 2K league staff members as well. Two of the most recognizable people in the competitive 2K community are Ivan Curtiss and Toijuin Fairley. The duo was recently hired as draft analysts by Bucks gaming, but they have been involved with the competitive 2K community for years. They are part of the My Player Basketball Association (MPBA), a league not affiliated with NBA 2K that creates tournaments and leagues for the 2K Pro-AM community.
While they’re known as the faces and go-to people for this the MPBA league, few know about all the late nights that they spent manually entering stats, and coordinating and making sure that player experiences were at optimal levels. Sometimes they handled the league during their downtime while serving in the Navy.
“It was a lot of behind the scenes work that the community didn’t really get to see,” says Fairley. “Just me locked in a room entering stats for all the top players that are currently getting drafted now.”
Their work in the MPBA helped them forge relationships and get familiar with some of the top NBA 2K competitors from around the country. Many of the players from the draft pool have experience with the MPBA circuit.
15 of the first 17 players selected in the 1st Round #LEGENDARY @DatBoyDimez @_oFAB @GFGCompete @Mootyy2K @LetsGet_It_Ramo @OneWildWalnut2K @Hotshotx305 @@KontruL @Goofy757__ @DRAKEGRIFFlN @KennyGotWork @FreshPrinceJT @WoLF__74 @iTz_Radiant @HoodBC_ #MPBA✊ pic.twitter.com/CtdW7Y29y5— Ivan Curtiss MPBA (@OGKINGCURT) April 5, 2018
The league was powered by the passion for the game and it has grown to the point where they can have seasons and tournaments with cash prizes. Some players and staff in the league are very familiar with each other, but for some, this was the first time they’ve ever met in person since all the games were virtual. Hell, some had never even flown on a plane before.
“The announcement with the whole 2K to esports along with the events created by the NBA 2K League teams allowed me to meet these guys that I’ve been watching playing, talking to over the phone, or DMing on Twitter,” says Curtiss. “I actually got to meet them in person. It was a beautiful thing. Today is even greater, we get to be a part of history.”
Yes, it was history, and the NBA 2K League didn’t half-ass the draft presentation. The first part of the draft was streamed on NBATV, Adam Silver was there to present the first round pick, and the NBA 2K League allowed the draft class to get the finest wardrobes that New York City had to offer. The whole aesthetic of the draft was a good sign that the NBA is taking this seriously.
“From the NBA’s standpoint, this is our fourth league,” said Silver in the press conference before the draft. “Of course, we have the NBA, the WNBA and the G League, and now this is the fourth league in our family, and that’s exactly as we’re treating it: one more professional league.”
It was good to hear those words coming from Silver’s mouth. The league is in a unique spot because basketball fans can understand some parts of the game even if they haven’t touched a controller before. NBA fans can find comfort in the fact that if they’re watching the NBA 2K league, they are still watching some form of basketball at the end of the day.
This might make it easier for people to buy into this new league, which is good because sometimes explaining esports to people that don’t play video games or grew up playing video games of old isn’t the easiest thing to do. New industries like these are always going to raise questions from older generations and it’s up to them to either dismiss it, make generalizations or try their best to understand and support it.
Take 13th pick Bryant ‘WolF’ Colon, a New York native, who was ecstatic that he was able to get drafted in Madison Square Garden. “It’s surreal, a lot of big games were played here, a lot of legends were drafted here. Being from Queens, getting drafted in MSG is truly an honor for sure.”
Watch us make our first pick in franchise history! ⬇️— Pacers Gaming (@Pacers_Gaming) April 4, 2018
Welcome to the squad WoLF! pic.twitter.com/Zd1nUKKArp
Colon’s esports dream didn’t manifest when the NBA 2K League was announced. Colon first told his family that it was possible that he could become a professional gamer two years ago while he was still enrolled at Ithaca College. His dad, also named Bryant, admits that he and his wife were a little skeptical at first when their son first told them. As time passed, however, they became more understanding and aware of the potential of their son’s new career path.
"He’s been gaming his whole life, but the fact that he had an opportunity to become a professional gamer, the initial reaction my wife and I had was, if this is what your calling is then that’s your calling.”
The hesitancy from older generations and even parents of esports athletes is perfectly natural, and I don’t blame them. My parents didn’t understand it fully at first either, but I didn’t expect them to because it was a whole new world for them. I can’t wait for that to be me in 20 years. Not the point of the article. I’ll continue.
Now, this league has some challenges. When the NBA 2K league released its logo in December, the special meaning behind it was to stress that the league will focus on diversity and inclusion. While there are women in NBA 2K league staff roles, such as Jazz Gaming Manager Angie Klingsieck and Pacers Gaming team president Kelly Krauskopf, out of the of 250 players that were interviewed, only one was a woman and she ended up not making the draft pool.
Adam Silver expressed his disappointment at this fact, but also touched on his optimism of how the NBA will adapt to this in the future. “We are making a concerted effort, led by Oris Stuart, who is the head of diversity and inclusion at the NBA, to create a task force designed so that next year when we’re sitting here for the draft, we will have a pool of women who are participating, as well.” Only time will tell if the NBA’s efforts pay off.
One thing for certain is that this league has already made dreams come true for the 102 players that made the pool, its staff and more. It’s hard to calculate how many lives the league will touch or how many players it will inspire in the future, but it’s a potential start. Few people that played NBA 2K7 or even 2K10 thought that this would become a reality one day, and those that did must have a time machine that they’re not sharing with the population.
It’s awesome that esports is starting to gain more ground in sports gaming. From the Madden Ultimate League, to FIFA Tournaments, the development of an NHL tournament and an upcoming FIFA MLS league. Moves are being made.
In this world, there are somethings and there are nothings. When you think about all the people that play NBA 2K, all the people that play video games, on top of media and audience curiosity and intrigue — this has all the potential to be a pretty big something.
“Once you get the broadcasts,” says Fairley, “and you can actually see the facial expressions of the players doing what they love, doing what they’ve been doing in their living room all these years, in person it’s going to lift it over the top.”