NEW YORK — The lobby of the Hulu Theater, inside Madison Square Garden, had been turned into a makeshift stage for the inaugural NBA 2K League draft. Here, gamers were to be recruited by 17 NBA teams to be a part of its new competitive league for the NBA 2K video game series.
In the world of esports, or competitive video gaming, an in-person draft is odd. Most esports teams in games such as League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or DotA 2, recruit players based on their online performance. They tend to negotiate a contract over the phone, and will fly players out to their headquarters in Los Angeles. But here, the NBA did what it knew best. And that was turning the task of crossing names off spreadsheets and number-crunching into a spectacle.
The most recent NBA draft, which took place at Barclays Center in Brooklyn in June, was a packed house with players in dapper suits being called on stage as fans held up signs and chanted their names.
Other than the suits, there was none of that at the NBA 2K League draft. It was closed to the public, meaning that attendees were either media or family. And because this is esports, the draft wasn’t broadcast on television, but rather on Twitch.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver was there to present the first draftee, Artreo “Dimez” Boyd — often called the LeBron James of the NBA 2K world — who joined Mavs Gaming. Silver then jumped offstage after the first pick and had NBA 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue take it from there.
The NBA 2K League draft had six rounds, as teams here were setting out to create complete five-player squads, with one for backup. And toward the end of the draft, claps started to wane, much like people called up to the stage at the end a high school graduation.
Around the corner was the media scrum, where players would jump from one camera to the next and answer questions by reporters like “What does it feel like to be a part of X team?” and “What kind of music do you listen to?” These players were being treated as celebrities mostly from news publications that were unsure of how else to treat them.
The players themselves didn’t tower over everyone else either. Players were of all shapes and sizes. Some tall, many short, some skinny, some wide, and two European. It shows the power of competitive gaming. For many of these players, they’ve watched and played basketball all their lives. At some point, they realized that a professional career in the NBA was out of reach. But through gaming, they had an opportunity to go pro, and represent an NBA team. In many ways, it felt like the great equalizer. That anybody with enough skill had a shot at making it into the 2K League. Even if during the inaugural draft, no women qualified. Granted, Silver, along with Oris Stuart, who is the head of diversity and inclusion at the NBA, have created a task force to tackle the lack of female competitors.
Past the Hulu theater, up a flight of escalators, were a few dressing rooms that had been converted into makeshift war rooms, areas where teams could pow-wow over which player to draft.
Of the three was Jonah Edwards, 23, the head coach of Mavs Gaming. He’s from the competitive NBA 2K community, and dropped out of Ball State University in his senior year to join the Mavs. As he was watching the picks, he was surprised at some of the players teams were leaving out on the field. Of the 17 teams in the 2K League, about eight had taken in coaches from the community itself. That’s probably why many teams were possibly picking players based on their relative location rather than skill set.
As the trio inside the room were on the conference call, they were crossing names off spreadsheets, and calling the team back in Dallas. Mavs Gaming has its eyes set on the championship.
The question on everyone’s mind is: Will fans actually come to watch a competitive basketball video game? That fear was put to rest for Sumit Arora, the senior director of strategy at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the umbrella organization for the Maple Leafs, the Raptors and Toronto FC, when they held a fan event for Raptors Uprising Gaming Club.
Arora said that Raptors Uprising GC held an event for fans. He really wasn’t sure what to expect, but was stunned to see the turnout. The team has been running tournaments to create a practice squad. And for players in Toronto wanting to be a part of next year’s 2K League draft, it’s probably the best practice any aspiring pro gamer could get.
By about 4 p.m., journalists started to trickle out of MSG. There wasn’t an after-party or any other major celebrations. The teams had picked their players, packed up their equipment, and went off for dinner.
An in-person draft is a first for esports, but a staple for traditional sports. It’s a welcome change, that will help elevate gaming further into the mainstream. And the NBA wants the 2K League to be everlasting. If marketed correctly, players will grow in fame and eventually the draft will be open to the public.