Chiquita Evans has been a professional esports athlete for barely a month, and yet she already sounds like a seasoned veteran when she’s talking to the media.
“The first few days, everybody’s moving in, is getting to know each other, hanging out and stuff like that,” Evans tells Polygon of the transition to Oakland, California. “And then it’s straight to work, straight to business, you know, trying to make sure that we’re getting the team chemistry that we need in order to be successful in the league this year.”
Evans plays for the Warriors Gaming Squad — the esports affiliate of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors — in the league’s esports organization, the NBA 2K League, which is partway through its second season. On a half-hour phone call in early April, just before the regular season, Evans is game to discuss a variety of topics when asked: living with her Warriors Gaming Squad housemates; the challenges of being a sneakerhead in the Bay Area; the differences between the retail NBA 2K19 game and the version used in the 2K League; and yes, the fact that she’s the first and only woman to make the league.
But the overriding theme — seemingly every other word — is the team. Her answers always come back to competitive play, and working on her game so she can help her teammates in any way possible. It’s the kind of stuff you hear in most sports interviews: putting the team before the individual, focusing on the game rather than off-the-court distractions, just trying to do one’s part.
With Evans, it doesn’t come off as a media-trained athlete relying on easy cliches rather than risking a controversial comment. But even if it did, it’d be understandable. As the first female player in the NBA 2K League, Evans has something to prove. And the best place to do it is on the court.
There are generally no substitutions in the NBA 2K League; the starting five on each team must finish the game. It isn’t until the second week of the season, in a matchup with Blazer5 Gaming, that Evans is slotted into the starting lineup. Playing as a center, she puts up six points with three rebounds and two steals, although the Warriors fall to the Blazers 64-53.
In our preseason call, Evans says she doesn’t worry about when she’ll get the opportunity to play. She’s only thinking about how to keep improving her game and support her team, even if she’s sitting on the bench.
“At the end of the day, for me, it doesn’t really matter,” says Evans. “As long as we get it done as a team, if I’m on the court or off the court — as long as we’re getting the W, I’m fine. And when my name is called and when it is time for me to play, I want to make sure that I’m doing what I need to do as a teammate so that we can get the win.”
Chemistry is key in every sport, but particularly so in the five-on-five game of basketball. Of course, since few NBA players have the stamina to be on the court for all 48 minutes in a regulation game, it’s important to have people who can come off the bench and contribute. In fact, the league recognizes this role with its Sixth Man of the Year Award.
Not everybody can be in the starting five, but each person has a role to play. Evans, like any good team player, understands this, saying she’s “completely fine” with her spot.
“I was drafted as a sixth man, so I was prepared to be in this situation, and it was never to me about whether or not I was going to be starting,” Evans says. “I just wanted to play, and do what I needed to do to get into the league to be the best person and the best teammate that I could be.”
Evans says she and her teammates are “all relatively close,” which is important, because they spend a lot of time together. Practice can last for eight to 12 hours in a single day, and the seven members of the team sometimes partake in leisure activities as a group, like exploring Oakland and going to the movies.
For as much as Evans talks about supporting her teammates, she emphasizes that she’s gotten an outpouring of support herself from the league and from fans. She dealt with plenty of adversity on the way to being drafted, whether it was naysayers on social media or men refusing to pass her the ball in online play, and her increased visibility now that she’s an esports pro brings a bigger spotlight with it.
“It hasn’t gone anywhere,” Evans says, when asked whether the criticism has abated now that she’s made it into the league. “But I will say this: The positive outweighs the negative.”
Even before being drafted, Evans heard from women — and men, but mostly women — in the NBA 2K community telling her that she inspired them. She hopes they’ll feel encouraged to try out for the league in the future; many of them have told her they will give it a shot. Evans says that she knows plenty of female NBA 2K players, but that many of them feel that “they may not be wanted,” or “they may only think about it as being something that they do for fun.” Her advice to them is to “keep grinding and perfect their craft — and along the way, develop some tough skin.”
Since the NBA 2K League’s inaugural draft in April 2018, which featured 102 men, the organization’s administrators have said they’re making ongoing efforts to increase diversity of gender and national origin in the league. Of course, in some circles of the heavily male NBA 2K community, you’ll hear people saying that diversity initiatives violate the principles of a meritocracy — that if there are women who deserve to make it, they will.
That’s what makes Evans’ relentless competitive focus so understandable. When you’re the only woman in a league of 126 players, some people will inevitably wonder whether you really belong there, especially if you’re not immediately dominating the competition. (Evans is averaging 5.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, having played in three of the Warriors Gaming Squad’s eight games so far.)
“I thank everybody that’s been supporting me as much as I can,” says Evans. “A lot of people say that I inspire them. But just people telling me that I inspired them kept me going, kept me pushing, because I didn’t want to let anyone down. So as much as they feel like they need me, I need them. So I never let negative energy outweigh the positive.”