These days, computer games have moved on from being just a bit of fun to serious, highly competitive sports in their own right. While most players are still just playing in their bedrooms, trying to beat their friends, set a high score or take on other players online, others are stepping up to the next level of competitive gaming. And with a growing range of national and global tournaments, they are being richly rewarded for their efforts.
16-year-old Kyle Giersdorf, better known as Bugha, is a classic example of what you can achieve with enough skill, practice and application. As the winner of the 2019 Fortnite World Cup, he beat some of the best Fortnite players around to pick up no less than $3 million in prize money last summer. Not only that, but the tournament packed out the 23,000 seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, normally reserved for international tennis stars, with no less than two million more fans and fellow players watching live online around the globe.
With such worldwide interest, not only from players but also from spectators too, computer gaming is becoming ever more mainstream. Surprisingly, one of the driving forces behind this e-sports revolution is the real life games organisation, the NBA. They run the increasingly popular professional league for the NBA2K computer game. The NBA2K League features teams from more than half of the NBA franchises, and is growing all the time. So what exactly is the NBA2K League and how does it work?
The NBA2K League structure
The NBA2K League fills a void in the basketball fan’s calendar, as its season runs from April to August, covering most of the close season for the live version. Each team must be affiliated with an NBA franchise, and 17 of the 30 NBA teams put up gaming teams for the inaugural NBA2K League in 2018.
Current favourites to win the NBA Championship, LA Lakers, joined in the second season, along with the Brooklyn Nets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Atlanta Hawks, and a further two teams will be added in season three, including the first non-NBA team, the GenG Tigers of Shanghai.
Each season consists of a regular season followed by playoffs, just like the real game, with three additional tournaments along the way. Teams qualify for the playoffs by either finishing in the top seven, or by winning The Ticket tournament. If The Ticket is won by one of the top seven teams, then the eighth placed team will also qualify.
The regular season lasts for 15 weeks; each team plays a minimum of 19 games, and successful sides play many more in tournaments and post season.
Where do the players come from?
Unlike regular basketball, there are no college players or lower leagues to pick from, so players must qualify directly by winning games in the pro-am setting of NBA2K and submitting an application. Qualifying players then go head to head, with the very best invited to a major league sports style draft.
If successful, players are awarded a six month contract with their franchise. This contract may be worth far less than their real life counterparts earn out on court, but it does include housing, travel, medical insurance and even a pension for the players. First draft pick players are rewarded with $36,000 for their six month season, while other players receive $32,000. Successful players will also get a share of the overall prize pot, which in 2019 was $1.2million.
Gaming for a living might seem like an easy life, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Unlike bedroom-bound players, pro-gamers need to stay sharp and physically fit, and most teams will have a personal trainer on hand to make sure they are in shape.
Pro-gamers live and breathe the game, 24/7. Some teams – such as the Toronto Raptors eSports arm, Raptors Uprising – live together for the season in the same house, so that they can focus solely on their sport.
Just like their live playing counterparts, NBA2K teams spend hours analysing their opponents, looking for even the smallest weakness that can give them the advantage. They study endless archived footage of other teams, as well as going back over their own performances in the smallest detail to see where they can improve. Just like the live game, plans and strategies are created, crafted and fine tuned on paper long before they ever see the light of day on the court.
One of the most exciting innovations of the NBA2K League is The Ticket tournament. As discussed above, this not only has a $240,000 prize purse, but also earns the winners a place in the playoffs. This means that even if your regular season is not going well there is still hope of post-season glory, as the New York Nicks team, Nicks Gaming proved in the opening season. Stranded third from bottom of the league, they won through to the playoffs with a win at The Ticket, and went on to take the Championship outright.
NBA2K uses a special build of the latest version of NBA2K game from Take Two Interactive. It is played on PCs provided by Alienware and Intel, with headsets provided by Hyper X, and controllers provided by Scuf Gaming. The game is played in Pro-Am mode, and all players must choose an archetype with pre-set skills, rather than their own creation or any NBA player from the game. This creates a level playing field in which players can show their own skills rather than relying on the built-in skills of the game itself.
All NBA2K games can be watched live on Twitch, or streamed later via on-demand services.
Figures from the first season show that an average of a quarter of a million fans watched each game live, peaking at 433,000 for The Turn tournament. With both awareness and popularity growing, and a new team from China in the mix, those numbers are only going to go one way.