From Hardwood to HD: Esports, and the NBA2K League

Esports might seem like the playground of geeks with no game, but billion-dollar profits, investors including Michael and Magic, and a quickly growing audience suggest otherwise. Homecourt’s Jimmy Ness plugs in to the world of 2k tournaments to discover a powerful strain of competitive basketball immune to Covid-19.

It’s day 3005 of quarantine. Interstate players are pummeling your outmatched squad. The rival set floated two uncontested jumpers, plucked a steal and posterized your star. Coach benched you for verbally flaying your teammates. The GM is a microsecond from stress-induced hernia. While you scan the animated screen for salvation, fans fiercely lament last year’s defeat. As Esports inch closer to sweat-stained reality, the NBA2K League nears main stage.

If you’re over 25, a familiar reaction to Esports is a scoff and a shrug. Competitive gaming still hasn’t shaken the stigma of nerdiness. To the uninitiated, there’s an Orwellian vibe to seeing players emotionally break down over virtual competition. 

Like Jazz music and long hair before it, digital contests immediately divide generations. After all, it’s not “real” is it? Matches are streamed and the arenas animated, but 2019’s billion dollar profit was bona-fide. Shaq, Magic and Jordan are industry investors, plus team owners like Mark Cuban. 

Esports is a recent fixation in the West, but old news to Asian fans. South Korea has been hip since the early 2000s. Strategy blockbusters StarCraft and Warcraft 3 are broadcast to thousands on 24 hour networks. With franchises Dota2, Fortnite and League of Legends ascending globally, spectator gaming has hit pop culture. 

In 2018, Disney and ESPN partnered to broadcast shoot-em-up Overwatch on their US channels. They’ve hit viewership numbers eclipsing Kawhi Leonard’s best playoff matches. Though slightly bizarre and very Gen Z, it’s true; people love watching other people play video-games. 

Simulated sport could be next, and the NBA is riding shotgun. They’re the first league to bankroll a legit tourney. Using Take-Two Interactive’s franchise NBA2K, they unveiled a cyber circuit in 2017. 2K’s six month season imitates pro-ball’s gamut in a surreal, HD spectacle. 

Here’s how it works: twenty one clubs represent individual cities, each sniping for a seven-figure prize pool. NBA junkies are recruited to form a playoff conquering squad. Each team has six players. They can hold two members annually, with the leftover four up for trade. 

Draft day is suitably dramatic. Under stage lights, the auditorium echoes with rowdy ovation. Officials usher rookies with energized formality. A recent standout was first female pro Chiquita Evans’ tearful speech. Looking understandably shell-shocked, she struggles to convey her proudest moment.  This year also included celebrity announcers, with rapper Casanova2x declaring a pick for Brooklyn’s NetsGC.

2K pro Isaiah “Wavy” Hancock was drafted to the Nets in 2019. A native New Yorker, he felt honored to represent his city. 

“The draft was unbelievable, definitely one of the best days of my life, I can still say that now. It felt like it was kind of similar to the NBA draft. Everybody’s around and you’re in suits, you’re meeting a lot of these guys for the first time, everything’s being broadcast, you’re on camera a lot. It’s like you’re the stars for that day.”  

For a newbie to acquire virtual stardom, they must stack 50+ wins during the qualifier month and be filtered through application. Hopefuls then ball-out in selection matches before being cherry-picked for skills, marketability and game IQ. If that sounds hardcore, it is. 

From a global pool of thousands, about 200 rookies are recruited for draft day. Clubs also go full Moneyball with gameplay analytics and team-fit considerations to fill specific positions. 

Gamers are paid around $60k AUD, a salary similar to the G-League. Outside of the modest wage, sponsorship and winnings bump earning potential (more on this later). Pros also receive full living expenses, insurance and retirement plans. 

Blazer5 Gaming GM Cameron McAlees says 2K pros must be digital wizards. 

“I refer to every single player as an analyst, they understand the game at such a high level.

“In order to compete in a video game at the highest possible level, you need an immense amount of knowledge of the mechanics and how every single little detail interacts with one another.” 

McAlees’ Portland team is ranked number one in the league. He moved from New York two years ago, and came up in the Esports trade. Many league staff are also recruited from within the association.

NBA top dog Adam Silver declared the digital league sits firmly with their other franchises. Despite its infancy, 2K’s level of professionalism is overt. 

Players are fined or suspended for breaking strict guidelines. Commentators debate with the passion of their analogue counterparts. New Era stock merch with slick logos and sponsors are animated onto courtside billboards. 

When it comes to practice venues, you might invisigue a rancid internet cafe complete with mum’s basement decor. But that stereotype is wildly inaccurate. 2k pros have dedicated training grounds decked in official branding. Many team HQs are on stadium property and players stroll the same hallways as NBA icons.

Nets PG Wavy says although the league is still bubbling, players take it very seriously. 

“I would say it’s very similar to training to be an elite athlete because you’re working on your craft continuously, you’re always trying to perfect your game. Even when you’re not in the game, you’re thinking about it. It’s just a 24 hour process, it’s a lifetime bond basically.”  

Gamers can have their faces scanned onto digital avatars to use during a typical 5V5 showdown. Pros use a specific game build, on advanced PC software. The best opponents apply real basketball knowledge, scouting the court and spotting openings. Players talk with the usual sports vocabulary, celebrating the importance of being a good teammate and on-court communication. 

“If I had to say there were two key aspects that made someone good at 2K, I would say decision making and timing,” Wavy says. 

In 2K it’s like everything counts. If you miss a wide open shot, that could swing a game. If you make the wrong decision; you’ll be paying for it later on. It’s just all about making the right decisions, every single time.”  

Like a dystopian reality series, cyber stars live, train and travel together almost 24-7. Support comes from the GM and team coach. Both provide outside perspective and emotional backing as well as whatever else players need. 

A typical day consists of eight hours running scrimmage, practicing drills and trialling strategies. Make no mistake, this is a full time job. Plays are recorded then dutifully scrutinized later. On weekends, all teams fly to Brooklyn’s flashy Barclays Center where games are broadcast live. Clubs also train against each other outside of scheduled matches.  

As the 2K league emerges, a whiff of skepticism remains. Sponsors require schooling on why Esports visibility is worth their cash. Staff are decades younger than their grizzled NBA equivalent. GMs are fresh-faced 20-somethings rather than white-haired billionaires with fingers in the oil trade. 

An ongoing debate is if NBA2K mechanics provide skill-based competition. Some fans complain of players exploiting glitches rather than simulating basketball. To combat this, Reddit has a rare forum where suggestions for improvement are shared with coders. 

Teething issues aside, 2K league’s potential remains titanic. 2020’s new Chinese squad is an alley-oop for global talent. As the Shanghai Tigers hit the pixelated court, more non-NBA teams are surely incoming. 

It’s not entirely unrealistic to foresee an Oceanic city hitting the court. This year’s draft saw 24 players from 10 countries including New Zealand, Spain and Austria. 

“Once the message gets across to everyone, as well as the avenues to watch, the potential is endless,” Nets PG Wavy says.  

GM Cameron McAlees agrees. He believes gamers will be eventually matching NBA player wealth. He references celeb streamers like Ninja, who’s earned millions streaming games like Fortnite on YouTube or Twitch. 

“I think as the industry continues to grow and evolve, and people learn how to monetize their business better, it builds stronger brands, larger fan bases and overall revenue, and in turn player salaries are going to increase.”  

With the Olympics opening its historic arms to Esports, McAlees’ predictions could be accurate. 

Maybe those hours spent hitting digital hardwood will pay-off.