NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has taken some bold stances during his time as the NBA head honcho. He’s supported legalizing sports betting, ads on NBA jerseys. But, what he proclaimed on April 4th, 2018 could change the way we view professional sports. He called the NBA 2K League the NBA's "fourth league" before deeming the 102 draftees as “a new generation of athletes, of NBA players.”
And he's not lying, once you get a glimpse at the humanity behind the pixels.
Before he’s SavageDoWerk of Cavs Legion, he’s 31 year old Christopher Tracey from Queens, New York, who has been supporting his family before being a professional NBA 2K player was ever a thought. “I work in a residential treatment facility as a crisis intervention specialist. I used to work 16-hour shifts. It was tough,” Tracey told The Shadow League. “[NBA 2K League] could be something that really supports my family without killing myself to do it.”
Let me paint you the scene: The controllers were put down, congratulatory handshakes were exchanged, and the roars from the spectators began to dissipate into murmurs. Backstage at the first ever NBA 2K League Playoffs held at Brooklyn Studios in New York City, Cavs Legion’s point guard SavageDoWerk is cradling his 3-month old child.
“When they called him to move to Cleveland, I was still pregnant,” Savage’s girlfriend, Nikisha Steele, told The Shadow League. “When I gave birth in April, he had to hop on the first thing moving, come back for the birth, stay for a week, and then go back to the team.”
There's also Knicks Gaming’s verbose 22 year old Dayvon Curry who was “just relying on my social security check” after failing the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test to join the military before he became G O O F Y 7 5 7. Then there’s Jalen Jones of Heat Gaming Check, a 21-year-old from Bossier City, Louisiana who was packing boxes at UPS “doing hard labor for not much money" before he became Jalen03303. Nearly every one of these players has a story that makes this e-sports league more than a game.
“For NBA fans, specifically, they’ve gravitate more towards the storytelling. They want to hear the stories of who these people are," NBA 2K League Managing Director Brendan Donohue told The Shadow League.
102 NBA 2K players were drafted to the 17 NBA 2K counterparts of actual NBA teams. The 17 player drafted in the first round garnered $35,000 for six months, and every other player taking in $32,000. Before a pay raise for players in the NBA’s developmental league -- G-League -- in April, people playing virtual basketball were making more money than those playing actual basketball.
None of that should come as a surprise if you've watched the growth of eSports. Twitch streamer and Fortnite celebrity Ninja pulls in roughly $4.2 million a year from Twitch subscriptions. That’s more money than more than 420 NBA players expect to bring in from their salaries in the 2018-2019 season. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise if you’ve been to an NBA 2K League game.
The atmosphere in the relatively mid-sized Brooklyn Studios was electric, with enough trash talk from players and spectators to make you think you were at an actual NBA game. Players called other players their sons. Knicks Gaming’s point guard Adam “IAmAdamTheFirst” Kudeimati’s father lost his voice in the middle of the two-day playoffs screaming at the team that “this is your city;” a proclamation the team of NBA 2K athletes fully believed.
Knicks Gaming and Heat Check Gaming will face off in the NBA 2K League Finals on August 25th with $300,000 on the line. Win or lose, though, both teams will be walking home with at least $100,000 to be split six ways. Knicks Gaming has already earned $88,400 after placing 1st in The Ticket Tournament, and fourth in The Turn tournament. That means each Knicks Gaming player is leaving the first NBA 2K League Finals with either $31,400 or more than $64,000 in just prize money before taxes are taken out. Even though Tracey and Cavs Legion were eliminated in the semi-finals, the new father will be taking nearly $45,000 in base salary and prize money back to his daughter and his family for six months of work.
“A year ago, I didn’t imagine playing for this amount of money doing what I love. It’s crazy how it manifested,” Jones said with an elated look in his eyes. But, more than money, some of the athletes understand the deeper socioeconomic implications the league can cause. “It gives us more of a chance to do something and step outside of where we may be. I think that’s big, especially in the Black culture, to have something to look forward to,” Tracey said.
These players aren't just athletes because Silver says they're athletes. They're athletes because the NBA treats them like athletes. “We have a rookie transition program in the NBA, and we’ve implemented a form of that. It’s helping players with the adjustment to becoming a professional athlete. So, the importance of sleep, nutrition, and fitness. The importance of vision. It’s really more about financial planning and things of that nature," Donohue said.
Part of that rookie transition program consists of holding mental health sessions with psychologists to make sure the team is getting enough sleep. Implementing a strict nutritional diet so the players are at their optimal performance. For some gamers, adjusting to the life of a professional hasn’t been as switching the player they control in the game.
“The most exhausting part is the flying. On top of being in front of a screen all day, you get tired after staring at a screen for 8, 9 hours of practice. Then you have to get on a flight at the end of the weekend. Fly [to New York City], then literally the next day you have to wake up early to get on a flight back home. It’s exhausting,” Carlos “Sharpshooterlos” Zayas-Diaz of Heat Check Gaming told The Shadow League.
Yes, NBA 2K athletes complain about flying like their multi-millionaire NBA counterparts. They also have an almost obsessive fixation on strategy because similar to the NBA, there are so many talented players that the smallest gameplay advantage can be the difference between a win or a loss. Or, as four teams learned during the playoffs, the difference between $25,000 and a chance at $50,000-$300,000.
In the league, every position has predetermined heights and weights that every player is based. There aren’t any 7’, 300-pound small forwards that players can just button mash to overpower smaller players. From there, each position comes with the choice of five archetypes which dictates the player’s strengths and weaknesses. So, a player can be a “shot-creating sharpshooter” point guard and that means their mid-range and three-pointer are wetter than the ocean, but they rebound worse than Nicki Minaj's album sales after a Twitter meltdown. Add in the fact the league changes those attributes throughout the year, and you don’t have to have ever played NBA 2K to understand that competing in this league takes more than knowing which buttons gets you an alley-oop.
“Six weeks ago, everyone was playing double mash and taking advantage of the two big men. That was the best way to play that build,” Donohue said. “Now there’s a new build, so this small forward position has become a big factor.”
Even if you still can’t respect the athleticism of NBA 2K players, you’re a hater if you don’t respect their sacrifices. Tracey rarely got to see his first child for the first three months of her life. 26-year-old Zayas-Diaz voluntarily isolated himself from his friends and family for countless hours to get himself to the level of a pro. 25-year-old Juan “Hot Shot” Gonzalez “sacrificed a little bit of school. I didn’t go back for my master’s once this came out. 2K League came out. I knew I was good at it, so I went for it.”
If you can’t respect that your whole perspective is wack.
The league still has a ways to go before it can call itself a success. The first ever NBA 2K League Playoffs saw upwards of 28,000 peak concurrence on Twitch. Overwatch League had more than 15xs that amount of viewers tuning in live on Twitch during its opening day back in January. Also, from what I observed, the vast majority of people in the crowd for each game were either friends or family of the players and few casual fans.
The league is working on that by adding four new teams, and thusly fanbases, to the league next year: Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Atlanta, and Minnesota. Donohue says the league may also take these games on the road instead of having every NBA 2K League match take place in the same place in Brooklyn, a move to grow brand awareness. The players also will have a vested interest in making sure this league is as big as it can get.
“I don’t think we ever are going to have an interest in capping [player salaries]. As the business grows, everyone should benefit from that,” Donohue said.
With eSports expected to be a multi-billion dollar industry in just a few years, it may not be long before people who spend their lives playing basketball in the virtual world, can retire off of it in the real world. To me, that's more than a game. That's a life.