If we were to take a count of people who love basketball and then another count of folks who enjoy video games, I’d bet a Venn diagram would illustrate a wide swath of overlap between the two sides.
To understand how close that connection is, look no further than this generation of pro hoopers. Remember when CNN reported that 85% of NBA players are gamers? That was seven years ago. Nowadays, the league is rife with reports of “Fortnite” addiction. Can you imagine 6-foot-9 millionaires staying up until the early A.M. fighting in virtual reality, hours before they have to go perform in real life? Gamer life is real.
The NBA is capitalizing on this wave, having launched the “NBA 2K League” as a joint venture between Take-Two Interactive, the company whose “2K” basketball simulator dominates the industry. This makes the NBA the first U.S. professional sports league to brand a official esports league. #forwardthinking
The global esports audience will reach 453.8 million this year and will generate revenues of $1.1 billion (+26.7% YoY; Source: Newzoo, 2019).
NBA 2K League content has generated more than 293 million video views across all NBA and NBA 2K League social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Twitch and YouTube).
Currently wrapping its second season with 21 teams up-and-running, the NBA 2K League regular season consists of 16 games, with three tournaments sprinkled in. The league awards 1.2 million bucks in prize money across the three tourneys and the playoffs, with players working on six-month contracts paying between $33,000-$37,000.
A Golden Opportunity in the Bay Area
The real-life Warriors ownership felt their competitive juices flowing and wanted to get ahead of the game #lightyearslacob. Kirk Lacob is the president of GSW Sports Ventures which oversees the Warriors esports adventures. This includes the NBA 2K League team Warriors Gaming Squad (as well as the “League of Legends” squad called Golden Guardians).
The Warriors hired Hunter Leigh (formerly of Yahoo Esports) to be the head of GSW Sports Ventures as well as Rustin Lee (a former 2k developer) to be the general manager. The final piece? Head coach Thomas Abdenour, who currently is also assistant coach for the Santa Cruz Warriors.
Gadzooks! That’s a helluva brain trust to put together to win a video game competition. When Warriors’ PR rep Christina Pedersen invited me to check out a practice, she noted the Warriors Gaming Squad automatically made the playoffs by becoming the first team in league history to win two regular season tournaments. Although the team went 9-1 in tourney play to secure a postseason berth, they dropped their final six regular season games to finish the regular season at 7-9.
The team blew off the regular season after they had clinched a playoff spot? That’s the most Warriors thing I’ve ever heard!
Checking out a WGS practice
As I waited in the entrance of the Esports Arena in Oakland’s waterfront business district “Jack London Square”, I chuckled from a mixture of disbelief and excitement. The six players swaggered in like Power Rangers, gods of the virtual basketball realm. I had done my research; I felt personal curiosity as an avid 2K player myself. These were the faces behind the gamertags like “Bsmoove” (Alex Reese, reportedly the best shooter in the league) and “Chiquita” (Chiquita Evans, the first female NBA 2K League player).
They were killers from all corners of the United States, specifically summoned to live and game together. After they politely suffered my overexcited introductions, they sauntered into a dimly lit chamber with softly glowing computer screens. As I watched them log in and link up via private servers for a practice against another team, I could feel their slight boredom with the routine. They make a living going to war over the internet; this was just another day at the office.
As the online scrimmages started, WGS began dominating. They communicated constant encouragement and instruction between snippets of thoroughly unimpressed assessments of their opponents. The synergetic brain activity was off the charts. I had truly never seen the game played with such anticipation and ferocity.
Coach Abdenour hovered behind the team, eyes darting from screen to screen, interjecting reminders about overaggression and the issues of playing too fast. Much like Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, Abdenour is confident in his team’s ability to ride the fine line between magic and danger, and also knows they have to be gently reeled in occasionally.
Some “We Believe” potential
As they made short work of their scrimmage partner, they began to share with me how they are preparing for their trip to New York for the NBA 2K League playoffs.
- They weren’t too worried about their paltry end to the regular season because they had proven their abilities during the tournaments, particularly on the defensive end. They told me they held the Magic’s team scoreless in a quarter, and held the Lakers’ team to three points in a quarter the next game. That’s pretty bananas.
- Small forward Samuel Salyers aka “Gradient” is so elite on defense, he’s like the virtual personification of Alcatraz. He’s a major key to their aggressive defensive schemes. He along with Xavier “Type” Vescovi at center and Jin Choe at power forward are capable of creating a near impenetrable front line.
- They have deadly marksmanship, led by BSmoove’s elite sniper skills, and have no qualms about letting it fly at the first opportunity.
- They watch film together occasionally to break down opponent tendencies.
- With the league due to expand, they can only protect two players from expansion draft, which means there is a high chance the team will be split apart next season.
So let’s see, a run-n-gun team with a “swarming defense” switch that also loves to shoot jumpers + supreme confidence heading into the playoffs despite a mediocre regular season record + major potential roster upheaval in the offseason?
This totally reminds me of the Warriors’ “We Believe” 2007 run.
Dedication to craft
Point guard Charles Bostwick aka “CB13” broke down his path to blowing up as a 2K gamer, including working his way up in the 2K Pro-Am circuit, nailing the virtual combine, and getting drafted in the first round of the 2019 2K Draft. He explain that as the team’s floor manager, he’s constantly dissecting film to get an edge on opponents and make the game easier for his teammates.
His preparation style is in lockstep with Coach Abdenour, who stressed to me how unified the coaching concepts are between what he helps implement in the G-League and the NBA 2K League.
I sat down with @WarriorsGaming head coach @TommyAbdenour to discuss the coaching principles he brings from the @GLeagueWarriors to the @NBA2KLeague #2k19 #Playoffs #DubNation pic.twitter.com/qLQ5WaM9vS— Daniel Hardee (@DHardee_SBN) July 23, 2019
According to Coach Abdenour, “Once people realize just how competitive this is, they’ll be hooked”.
Can this team win it all?
They currently sit eighth in the NBA 2K League power rankings. Here’s 2K’s official playoff primer for their squad:
How one views this squad depends on how much you believe momentum is a factor in performance. WGS enter the postseason with the least amount of momentum of any of the eight teams. On the flipside, they’ve been the best team this season in tournament play, so bet against them if you so please. This is a well-coached, disciplined squad that will grind teams down with their defense. Might we see an eighth seed make a Cinderella run in consecutive seasons?
When I directly asked WGS how they felt about coming in as the underdog to the Blazers’ team, they shrugged detachedly: “regular season doesn’t matter”.
They fly into New York for battle Wednesday, they’ll have to beat Portland in a best of three series to advance. Win that, and they’ll have another best of three playoff matchup Friday. Win that? They play Saturday, August 3rd in a best of five for the championship. Win or lose, they are already winning at life by doing something they truly enjoy for a living and for honor.
It’s pretty cool to see people turn virtual reality skills into real dollars with official NBA validation. Who knew there was more than one way to go pro?
Let’s see if they can rep the Bay to the golden standard!
This article has been updated to correct info about the player salaries and title game date.