After more than a year of buildup, yesterday the NBA 2K League took the biggest and most important step yet in its formation: conducting a draft to set up its teams of professional gamers.
The esports organization has had a somewhat rocky road to this point, and its officials seem to be aware of the challenges that lie ahead. The draft wasn’t just going to be a coming-out party for the incipient league and its 102 all-male esports athletes. It was going to set expectations for this joint venture between the NBA and Take-Two Interactive — two very established players in their respective fields, stepping into an arena in which they’re the new guys.
The inaugural NBA 2K League draft, which was held in New York City at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, probably didn’t lay everyone’s concerns to rest, including those of its organizers. But it was an impressive event, handled with a level of care and professionalism that bodes well for the future of this nascent competitive gaming league.
The NBA 2K League is the first professional esports organization run by an American professional sports league. Its maiden season, which is set to tip off in May, will feature teams that are the competitive gaming equivalents of 17 NBA clubs — more than half of the league’s 30 franchises. In case that didn’t indicate that the NBA is taking its esports venture seriously, Commissioner Adam Silver laid out the league’s investment in remarks to the media during a predraft press conference.
“From the NBA’s standpoint, this is our fourth league,” said Silver. In addition to the NBA, the organization operates a minor league that is now known as the G League, as well as the WNBA for women’s basketball.
In addition to saying the NBA is treating the NBA 2K League as “one more professional league,” Silver referred to its competitors as “NBA players.” That designation may seem like a small thing, but in a world where even many gamers scoff and roll their eyes at the idea of gaming professionally, it’s another sign of the respect NBA officials have for esports.
“I see them as athletes because I think [competitive gaming] requires a unique combination of physical and mental skills to excel. And I think it’s not that different than in the NBA,” said Silver, pointing out the dozens of hours a week that NBA 2K League athletes spend playing the game and watching footage of other competitors.
While physical conditioning may not be the highest priority for esports athletes, the mental strain of competitive gaming can be intense. To that end, Silver said that the NBA 2K League is “already working on how we can avoid burnout among some of these athletes because they go at it so hard.”
Mitchell Franklin plays NBA 2K as a power forward under the handle “Mootyy.” He made a name for himself in the community by leading his team to the championship match in last year’s NBA 2K17 All-Star Tournament, and he told Polygon that he puts in a lot of work to stay in competitive form.
“I wouldn’t compare gaming to the athletic perspective as far as physical goes; I mean, we know that’s not close,” said Mootyy. “But mentally, I feel like gaming [...] arguably takes a bigger toll on you and is more draining.”
In addition to sitting in front of a TV playing for hours on end, Mootyy said he is often awake “watching film” — learning how his opponents play, and figuring out strategies to counter them — at “6, 7, 8 a.m.”
Mootyy, 24, hails from Yorktown, Virginia, and he’s moving across the country to sunny California. Kings Guard Gaming, the esports team for the Sacramento Kings — which is run by general manager and NBA Hall-of-Famer Shaquille O’Neal — selected Mootyy with the fourth pick in the draft yesterday.
While there may not have been as much fanfare around the NBA 2K League draft as there would be around a traditional sport’s draft, it played out in much the same way. For the first four rounds, teams had three minutes to make their selection; the allowance dropped to two minutes for the last two rounds. Silver introduced Artreyo “Dimez” Boyd as the No. 1 overall pick, chosen by the Dallas Mavericks’ Mavs Gaming. Brendan Donohue, managing director of the NBA 2K League, came out to announce each of the other 101 picks.
The atmosphere in the room was friendly and loose; after all, everybody was guaranteed to get chosen at some point. And the thrill of the moment was immediately obvious in every interaction with the draftees. Most of these individuals — 102 of the world’s best NBA 2K players, whittled down over the winter from a pool of about 72,000 qualified applicants — could hardly have dreamed of attending a glamorous event in New York City as the stars.
Now, most of them will sign six-month contracts and move to new cities (or even a new country — nine come from outside the U.S.) They’ll live with their teammates in free housing, with salaries of $35,000 for first-round picks and $32,000 for all others, along with benefits including medical insurance and a retirement plan. And they’ll train every day to prepare for the NBA 2K League’s first season, in which they’ll compete for their share of a $1 million prize pool.
Yesterday’s draft was the first real step on that journey. It was a promising start, but just that: a start. Silver said he expects that all 30 NBA franchises will field esports teams by the third year of the gaming league — another sign that the NBA and Take-Two are in this for the long haul. But that’s a long way off.
“Things aren’t going to be perfect in the beginning, but we’ve just got to get out there,” said Silver during the press conference. “We’ve got to begin operating, and we’ll learn as we’ll go.”
The rubber will meet the road next month, when regular-season competition in the NBA 2K League begins.
Correction (March 4, 2019): The inaugural draft class for the NBA 2K League contained nine players from outside the U.S., not seven. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.