Ronnie Singh is the Digital Marketing Director at 2K, but among basketball fans, he's known as Ronnie 2K and serves as the public face of the wildly popular NBA 2K franchise. Sports Illustrated's Andy Gray caught up with Singh by phone to discuss his early career, how he became associated with 2K and his reaction to players who dispute the rankings.
Sports Illustrated: Let's start at the beginning. Where are you from? What did you study in school? What were your early 20s like?
Ronnie 2K: I am from The Bay and have lived here since I was about seven. Its kind of funny that I full circle ended up in this job, which is 10 minutes from where I went to elementary school and high school. Sports is a super passion of mine. I played all of them, I watched all of them, I was just obsessed with them so I went to college at UC San Diego. I played basketball there and graduated with a management science degree and a minor in law. My plan was to become a sports agent like Jerry Maguire.
I went to work for a law firm to see if I would it. At the same time got a job working for a minor league women’s basketball team. I was getting paid really well at the law firm and really badly at the basketball team. But the law thing was not working for me, so I decided to full time work for this women’s basketball team. A little while later, I went to work for the San Diego Surf Dawgs, a minor league baseball team. I’d say my first big viral marketing campaign, which is what I’m really responsible for here at 2K, was in 2006 or 2007. I was working for this baseball team and they’re like, 'Oh, we would love to have a couple more stars in this league.' I was like, 'Well, I used to know Jose. We could bring him on.' This was at the height of this whole steroid thing and he had just written his book so I thought it might be a good marketing thing for him. So, I called him up, got him signed and he played for us for a few days. But he had a daughter in Long Beach, and asked if we could trade him to that team so he could spend more time with her. So we traded him.
A week later, he was coming back here for a home game and I was like, 'I really got to mess with him.' So we went to a grocery store and bought all these grape juice boxes and printed out stickers of his face. Then we stuck them to the juice bozes and delivered it as a game day giveaway the next day. It got picked up by SportsCenter and was everywhere. That was my first grassroots, kind of campaign.
SI: How did you end up at 2K?
R2K: I’ve played 2K since the original but I really started picking up 2K5 because I'd have a lot of free time when the team was on the road. I also went on the message boards and wrote about the game. The people at 2K noticed a little bit and asked me to come in for an interview. The job was to run their forum and I was unsure because I knew forums weren’t going to be a thing forever, but figured I should give it a shot. Over time, social media developed and I got my first big break. It was 2K11 and we had Michael Jordan on the cover. This was a major cultural move for us. We had a launch party and actually had legitimate celebs there. My bosses knew we needed content and were like, 'Hey Ronnie, go interview these celebs. Here’s a microphone, go see what you can get.’ I guess I was the most logical person to cover it. So I went, got a bunch of cool athlete and celebrity interviews from there it grew. There became more opportunities to do marketing, get content and develop these relationships with players and celebs, which is now a big part of what we do here at 2k.
SI: It seems like you’re a bit of a celebrity now. Do you ever get recognized?
R2K: It happens almost every day now. I was at the Giants game last week and went to ask a security guard for help and he asked to take a picture with me. I'd say one of my funniest moments was when I was coming back from the All-Star game in Toronto. I was supposed to go to New York for some meetings at our corporate office but my plane got diverted to Boston because of the weather. So I was having the worst day because driving from Toronto to New York takes about four or five hours, but this trip took like 12 hours in the air. Ao I was going through TSA in Boston to get back on to my third flight of the day and the entire TSA crew recognized me and decided to start asking for pictures. And, you know, I’m always happy to do that. So these kids started to take pictures and the head of TSA came down and started yelling at them.
Another fun time was at Harrison’s [Barnes] wedding a few months ago. There was this group of kids that found out where the ceremonies were happening and were following the wedding party. But they weren’t looking for Steph [Curry] or Kyrie [Irving] or any of the guys that you would think they should be looking for. They were looking for me, and showed up at the wedding. The security guard told them they couldn’t be there and they said they were looking for Ronnie. The security guard was like ‘I don’t know who that is’ and asked the event planner, who didn’t know either. They eventually texted Harrison and he explained it all to them.
SI: So I have to ask you about that wedding. Was it weird to see all these NBA players in that context?
R2K: No, because I see them in that context a lot. But the dance floor was pretty hype. They’re in the limelight so often that when they’re around each other, when they can just let loose and be themselves and be together, they’re just like regular people who want to blow off some steam. We all had a really nice moment where we toasted Harrison at the bar outside. It was pretty amazing. It was a very nice wedding, Harrison is one of the nicest guys in the league and his wife is a darling, I’ve spent a lot of time with both of them. But I think they just wanted to enjoy it, like a normal couple getting married.
SI: Obviously the ratings come out and some players start to give you a lot of grief. Do you care? Do you look at it as good publicity?
R2K: I definitely care. I think that this is our 19th version of 2k and its been an amazing ride for this company. There’s so many brilliant people that work here and work really hard on it. But 19 years – a lot of the rookies are that old and have literally been playing their whole lives. It's as big of a badge of honor to get their rating and it be good as it is. If you read some of the rookies who got their first rating, it means a lot to them because it’s a dream for them to be in this game. Its not only about making the league. It’s also about being in a video game which is very cool for these guys who grew up on gaming. I mean, gaming has blown up over the past couple decades so they don’t really know anything other than that.
SI: So you must get noticed exclusively by guys. Correct?
R2K: I'd say 90-95%. There are girls that come up though and know and say hey my boyfriend loves your game and I have to get him out of there. And they joke, saying 'I wish your game didn’t exist.' I’ve actually heard a lot of stories about girls picking up games in this particular launch and not just for their boyfriends. I think Neighborhood, our new feature, really made the big steps because its not just about basketball. There’s a new town to walk around and we have Pop-a-Shot. There's clothes store, too, so our attempt to make it more accessible has increased our demographics, which means I guess I'll get approached by more girls now.
SI: You mentioned your co-workers. How pivotal are they to the process?
R2K: I can't praise them enough. I’m one of 400 employees. While I am the public face that interacts with the athletes and celebs, I have to give a shout out to the developers that make our game. They work extremely hard. In the summer, they’re working 20 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a grind but it’s a labor of love for these guys, too. I mean, for us to create an open world in this game in a calendar year when there’s many other companies that don’t do that in multiple years. I'm just blown away by them. Their brilliant minds put together one of the best video games in the industry.