Dissecting the NBA 2K esports league

Ryan Cameron | The Red & BlackA game of Super Smash Bros. Melee is played. Aeternum Esports hosted a video game tournament on Jan. 12 at the Classic Center in Athens, Georgia. Professionals in the NBA 2K League have a more of an advanced setup. They compete on personal computers with controllers attached, funded and organized by and NBA parent franchise.

Co-founded in 2017 by the NBA and Take-Two Interactive, the “NBA 2K” esports league is approaching its 2020 midseason 34 days behind schedule. Its THE TIPOFF tournament, originally scheduled for March 24, begins tomorrow.

Paying 138 professional gamers, the NBA 2K League has fielded six-to-10 NBA-affiliate teams every Thursday-Friday in an online NBA-simulation game. One outlier, the Shanghai Gen. G Tigers, have no NBA franchise partner.

While COVID-19 has shaken up the 2K esports schedule and forced athletes to play while socially distanced, the show goes on.

Streaming audiences watch these newly ordainend athletes, controlling customized characters in 5-on-5 play, compete for league dominance as well as thousands in cash prizes at tournaments sprinkled throughout the season. 

Last week the Tigers beat Portland’s Blazers Gaming 179-132 over two games. Meanwhile, Jazz Gaming beat Warriors Gaming Squad 223-197 in three. 

Announcers call the contests, commentating using athletes’ gamertags, or screen names, while a webcam displays some competitors gaming in real time.

Each newly drafted athlete in 2020 will earn between $33,000-$35,000 in base salary. Those retained from 2019 signed contracts for $37,500.

The draft

To be eligible for the 2020 NBA 2K League draft, players had to complete an online application and win 50 games in NBA 2K20’s Pro-Am mode, played under real-life NBA rules but with six-minute quarters. Players had to win at least half of their qualifying matches to be considered for the league.

Qualified athletes were tested at the NBA 2K League Combine over Nov. 18-Dec. 9, which whittled this year’s top talent down to 147 draft-eligible players.

After picking a positional archetype, maybe a 6-foot-3, 170-pound “Scoring Machine” point guard or a 6-foot-8, 220-pound “3-level playmaker” power forward, qualifiers competed with the same character build over the three-week, 40-game tryout alongside four randomly assigned teammates.

“Once you get to the combine phase, you can’t play with your friends anymore,” Talon GC general manager and head coach Wesley Acuff said. “You show up, you pick a position, you load in ... then you go out there and play against five other random guys.”

Basic statistics, such as win percentage, points and rebounds informed a joint NBA-NBA 2K selection committee’s selection process. But advanced metrics — including jump shot timing and dribble move count — were also analyzed and considered to determine who’d be among the top-147 available in the 2020 draft pool.

In addition, 31 players jumped in via strong performances at regional pro-am tournaments and the league’s European and Asia-Pacific Invitationals.

Talon GC’s Kwan “followTHEGOD” Niblack Jr. was one of the latter draft entrants. Yet despite losing in his pro-am, he received a guaranteed draft spot heading into the combine.

Niblack Jr. described the qualification and combine processes as “wild,” as a pool of 228 aspiring professionals vyed for 68 open draft spots.

“[Making the draft pool] was a blessing in itself,” the Bronx, New York, native said. “[But] I still had to play the combine. I had to play as if I didn’t get a pool spot … so it was a grueling period.”

Acuff said two scouts and some Atlanta Hawks personnel, who learned about their team’s budding esports franchise, helped determine his draft strategy.

In the four-round draft held on Feb. 22, Acuff and his advisors selected four new athletes to accompany two second-years. Niblack Jr. was chosen by Atlanta No. 46 overall.

The game

Each athletes’ custom character has the same in-game overall skill level. However, coaches draft players for certain specialties, and athletes shape their character’s attributes based on how they fit into their team’s strategy.

“Most of us know what these players are capable of when we scout them,” Acuff said. “You know whose strength is point guard, dribbling, [which requires] stick control there, and who’s great at setting screens, rolling [and] playing defense.”

Talon’s main scorer in 2020 has been offseason pickup Michael “Bp” Diaz-Cruz. Niblack Jr. specializes as a defender at what he called “the lockdown position.” Levi “Lee” Lamb runs the boards. He averaged 13.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in the team’s first nine games.

Given the altered reality inherent to online games, 2K competitions can look different from their real-world counterparts. A guard may take the rock coast-to-coast dribbling between his legs or rise up above a 7-footer for an easy finger roll. But the downside is when an athlete’s on-court avatar decides not to listen to commands, flubbing a combo move or otherwise misinterpreting a gamer’s input.

“[It’s] absolutely frustrating,” Niblack Jr. said. “You’re trying to do one thing, and your player plants his feet the other way. But as a professional, we learn to adapt, and we know what certain animations do.”

The season

The NBA 2K League’s regular season involves at least six weeks of remote play, with 6-10 two-team series occurring Tuesday through Friday. Each series is a best-of-three format, with teams needing two wins against an opponent to add to their season win total. 

During the 2019 season, T-Wolves Gaming defeated Kings Guard Gaming and Warriors Gaming Squad in the NBA 2K League Playoffs before besting the 76ers GC to take the league’s second championship.

So far in 2020, Raptors Uprising GC ranks No. 1 at  9-0. Warriors Gaming Squad and Wizards District Gaming follow tied at 6-1, while Hawks Talon GC ranks No. 10 with a 3-3 record.

Jasmina Charania contributed to this article.


Printed with permission from The Red & Black independent student media organization based in Athens, Georgia; redandblack.com/sports

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