TORONTO — On the eve of a crucial Raptors home game against the Washington Wizards last week, Yusuf Abdulla understood the gravity of the moment as well as anyone. The 25-year-old played basketball in college and is a fixture at gyms in the suburban neighbourhood of Scarborough, where he grew up a Vince Carter fan and waited patiently for the franchise to embark on a deep playoff run. He knew the spring of 2018 could be momentous for the team and its city.
“My goal is to win the championship and to bring the chip to Canada,” Abdulla said. “I want to bring the championship to Toronto. We’ve been trying for 23 years, since 1995.”
Though he says he is “well known” in Toronto men’s leagues and compares his playing style to that of Houston Rockets power forward Ryan Anderson — silky shooter, capable rebounder — Abdulla wasn’t talking about winning a title on a physical basketball court. Nor was he thinking wishfully in declaring he could be the person to bring a ring home. Abdulla is an elite NBA 2K video game player and a core member of the Raptors Uprising Gaming Club — a revolutionary sporting experiment that is set to get underway this week.
The Raptors are one of 17 franchises that have entered a team in the 2K League, a professional esports competition devised by the NBA in concert with 2K Sports, the makers of the popular video game. Each team selected six of the world’s best 2K players at the league’s inaugural draft at Madison Square Garden in early April. The draftees wore suits and donned team caps on stage. NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced the No. 1 overall pick, a scene that emphasized just how seriously the NBA is taking this endeavour.
In the past few years, major North American teams and leagues have begun to invest in esports (multiplayer video game competitions) as a means of pursuing a new cohort of fans — and, more to the point, of capitalizing on a potentially lucrative new revenue stream. The NHL is backing an EA Sports world gaming championship that will unfold over the next two months, and 19 of Major League Soccer’s 23 franchises, including Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps, sent a FIFA gamer to represent them at the first eMLS Cup in Boston last month. Mark Cuban, Ted Leonsis and other owners have invested millions into various esports ventures, including betting companies and team management groups.
No traditional sports entity has committed more to their foray into the genre than the NBA. The company line, proffered in the press by Silver and other executives, is that the NBA now considers the 2K League to be the fourth branch of its operations, on par with the main on-court product itself, the WNBA and the G League. The market research firm Newzoo projects that 380 million people worldwide will watch an esports event this year. The coming 2K League campaign, from a preliminary tournament currently underway in New York City to a best-of-three final series on Aug. 25, will be streamed live on Twitch in hopes of reaching a cut of that audience.
“The advantage the NBA and 2K have in entering esports is that we have a game people globally recognize. People know what good basketball looks like, whether that’s virtual or on the NBA court,” 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue said in an interview. “There is significant interest in the game across the globe, and I think we’re going to find that our fans of the 2K League are going to be global. We see that as a massive opportunity.”
In its first year in action, the faces of the league will be players like Abdulla, an aspiring police officer who studies criminology at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa. When he isn’t consumed by schoolwork or performing his best Anderson impression, he finds time to play 2K for at least 40 hours each week. It is a commitment that often costs him all but a few hours of sleep a night, but it also set him apart from the 72,000 gamers who participated in the 2K League’s qualification combine earlier this year.
Abdulla is one of five Canadians who made the league’s final pool of 102 players, each of whom will draw a salary of either US$35,000 (if they were drafted in the first round) or US$32,000 (everyone else) for their work this spring and summer. After Raptors Uprising snagged him in the third round of the draft at No. 45 overall, he said he had the biggest smile of anyone in attendance.
“Growing up, you’re from Toronto, you gotta root for the Raptors. Next thing you know, you get drafted to a Toronto Raptors-affiliated team,” Abdulla said. “It’s a dream come true. It’s crazy, man. Who would have thought?”
In the 2K League and past gaming tournaments the NBA has run — namely, a 100,000-team event in early 2017 that culminated at the All-Star Game and awarded US$250,000 to the victors — players compete as pixellated versions of themselves within a five-man unit. Abdulla is a centre who goes by the handle Kobeyusuf. Toronto’s power forward is Christopher Doyle, 22, a New Hampshire native known in 2K circles as Detoxys. The point guard is Kenneth Hailey, or Kenny, a 28-year-old from Memphis who has emerged as the team’s leader on and off the computerized hardwood.
“Back home, I was a distribution co-ordinator for AT&T. I’d work 40 hours a week there, and I’d get off late nights and I’d grind 2K all morning,” said Hailey, Toronto’s first-round draft pick at No. 11 overall. “When these tournaments and this 2K League came along, I’m like, ‘This is what I love doing, and you’re going to offer a salary for it? This is just for me.’”
Shane Talbot, who oversees Raptors Uprising in his role as esports manager for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, says he rated his club as one of the three to five strongest in the league coming out of the draft, in part due to a competitive advantage he managed to secure: Hailey and Doyle played together on the team that won the 2K tournament at All-Star Weekend last year. For the rest of the group, the two weeks since the out-of-towners landed in Toronto have been a crash course in chemistry. Raptors Uprising is billeting its six players in a shared house in the city’s east end. They’ve spent the run-up to the season attending playoff games at Air Canada Centre, working out with physical trainers, bantering over meals and practising at home for six or seven hours a day on state-of-the-art gaming equipment.
That training, the players say, bears a resemblance to what takes place at any actual basketball practice. The team runs offensive plays that flow through the point guard, Hailey. They remind each other to follow through on the fundamentals: hustling to loose balls, boxing out. They hone individual skills; Hailey, for instance, has taken Abdulla aside to coach him on his defence in the post. And they never stop talking over their synchronized wireless headsets, since unlike in real life, a 2K player can’t rely on hand gestures or other body language to show his teammates what he intends to do.
“We can’t read each other’s minds,” Hailey said. “If you’re not talking on the court, especially defensively, you’re going to blow a lot of assignments.”
On-court experience, be it Abdulla’s collegiate background or Hailey’s preference for pickup, can be beneficial in a simulated setting. Where an NBA player could compensate for a lack of basketball intelligence with athleticism, Talbot says every great 2K player necessarily has a strong understanding of tactics and strategy. He expects most teams will employ a motion offence this season, which prompted him to select Hailey, Doyle and Abdulla — a point guard and two bigs — with his first three picks of the draft. For their part, the players say they’ll push the pace when they have the ball and look to win games with lockdown defence.
“It’s going to be really hard to score on us,” Abdulla said.
Beginning with the start of the regular season on May 11, the Uprising players’ main objective will be to perform well enough to qualify for the 2K League’s eight-team playoffs. But they’ll also be trying to stake out a spot in a crowded local sports landscape, just as the league is attempting to lay the groundwork for what it hopes will be a long and prosperous future. An MLSE spokesman said the company has pumped a “substantial” amount of money into its esports operations, though he declined to be specific. (In addition to his work with the 2K team, Talbot manages Toronto FC FIFA gamer Philip Balke, who signed a pro deal with MLSE in February.)
Much like how the Raptors use social media to highlight the personalities of their players — from photos that celebrate Serge Ibaka’s sharp manner of dress to video clips of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan’s buddy-cop routine — Talbot says Raptors Uprising will make their gamers’ personal stories a focal point of their efforts to connect with the public. The team plans to stream some scrimmages so that viewers can learn more about the nuances of 2K, and about how they, too, could conceivably turn affection for gaming into a career.
“The story of coming from essentially nothing, or not having seen this as a viable career path and then all of a sudden they’re signed to the NBA or a Major League Soccer team — that’s a story that just about anybody can relate to,” Talbot said.
If it is realized, that is the proposition that will keep the 2K League afloat well beyond its first season: that enough basketball fans or diehard followers of esports will find something about the league gripping enough to keep watching. League and team officials are cautiously optimistic, and point to various stats to explain why. NBA 2K18 was the top-selling sports video game of 2017, Talbot notes. When the 2K tournament the NBA held last year came to a close at All-Star Weekend, 1.6 million people tuned into the finals, Donohue says. Besides, he adds, NBA owners were already bullish on esports in general: several are funding teams that compete in games outside the realm of mainstream sports, such as Overwatch and League of Legends.
To the uninitiated, the appeal of esports might seem elusive, and the extent of its popularity staggering. Galen Clavio, an Indiana University sports media professor who has observed esports for the past four years, says they’re often scorned by sports fans who don’t consider video gamers to be athletes. But something innovative is afoot, he thinks: no sports league is as multinational as Overwatch, League of Legends or other top esports competitions, in which professional players face off against opponents from numerous continents on platforms that broadcast their matches to spectators all over the world.
The 2K League isn’t there yet. But given the run of play, one could be forgiven for erring on the side of faith.
“I think that ultimately, those people (who dismiss esports) are probably going to end up on the wrong side of history,” Clavio said. “I don’t see them going away anytime soon.”
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