It can be somewhat difficult to wrap your mind around the fact that playing video games is now, for some, a full-time job. The NBA 2K League, an esports league founded in partnership with the NBA, started earlier this year with much fanfare. Adam Silver was on hand to announce the first overall draft pick. Seventeen franchises—with four more joining next year—took part in the inaugural season, that ultimately saw Knicks Gaming crowned as champions after an up-and-down season. The grandiosity of this entire exercise is not lost on those participating.
“I can’t believe I’m playing video games for a living,” Dayvon Curry, a power forward for Knicks Gaming, told The Crossover. “I’m getting paid to play NBA 2K, not many people can say that. It’s a dream come true. I’m doing everything I love. I’m out there trash talking, screaming, and yelling. I can’t ask for anything better.”
Curry and a handful of his teammates spoke to The Crossover during an appearance at the NBA Store in New York City earlier this month. The stop was just one of many for Knicks Gaming, who’ve achieved something of a celebrity status after their Finals run. At the NBA Store, they signed autographs and played 2K against any willing challengers. (Myself included, and I quickly found out why I’m not a professional esports player.)
The esports concept has already proven successful in some regards. Hundreds of thousands of people will watch streams of highly dedicated Super Smash Bros. players unleashing devastating combos on one another. The NBA 2K League was not quite as popular, with regular season games topping at about 15,000 viewers, according to ESPN. (The Finals did see a nice bump in viewership.) To be frank, on one hand, there is certainly some market that exists for esports, and the NBA seems bullish about being on the forefront considering their investment in the product. (The league paid the players a salary, and also housed them from May to August.) On the other hand, the NBA’s involvement seems partially the result of some high-level corporate meeting meant to tap into “what the teens are up to these days.”
However anyone feels about the idea of paying people to play video games, it was apparent that the Knicks Gaming team was having the time of their lives.
“I love doing this, I couldn’t ask for a better job,” Eric Ward, the team’s shooting guard, said. “I never imagined living in New York. It didn’t hit me until I actually moved here. It was a culture shock. I wasn’t used to being around so many tall buildings. The convenience. I lived in Wisconsin my whole life, it was a big change.”
“Being able to wake up and doing something you love everyday, words can’t explain it,” said Finals MVP Nate Kahl.
“Even days like today, when we’re at the NBA store, it’s really cool. It speaks to the NBA’s involvement, they’ve really taken us under their wing,” said point guard Adam Kudeimati.
As happy as the team was to win, it was also the product of quite a bit of preparation. Each member of the team discussed watching hours of film in between games to pick up on competitors’ tendencies. Players would study upcoming opponents vigorously to pick up on even the smallest patterns, and skills were honed through intra- and intersquad scrimmages.
The entire experience wasn’t necessarily a thrill for Knicks Gaming. The team finished 14th during the regular season, and only qualified for the playoffs thanks to a play-in tournament called The Ticket. In the postseason, it took a string of upsets for the squad to reach the Finals, in which they dispatched the Heat 2–0. It was bad enough when the team was losing multiple games in a row. It was worse when they would all have to return to the same apartment complex, where the six players were living in three two-bedroom apartments.
“It took some time for us to get used to, for sure,” said Kudeimati of the living experience. “We didn’t really know each other at first. It was a culture hit. It was a matter of understanding where people are from. But it got to a point where it was really fun, and we’d get home from work and all hang out.”
“It was a crazy experience,” said Kahl. “We went through a lot of adversity. But as we grew closer, it eventually translated to some on-court success.”
It was one thing for the Warriors to integrate Kevin Durant into a lineup with potentially three other Hall-of-Famers. It would be another obstacle entirely if Durant also had to put up with Draymond Green’s clothes lying around the house. For Knicks Gaming, one teammate was a particularly messy roommate.
“It was Eric,” Kahl said without hesitation.
“I’ve been to his apartment a few times and that was a few times too many,” said Kudeimati.
“Dishes, the bed, the living room, the bathroom. The guy is just messy,” said Curry.
“No argument,” said Ward with a laugh. “I’m just lazy.”
The future of the championship roster is a bit hazy. Kahl said it hasn’t been made clear to the team if they will all return to the same squad next season. With an expansion draft in the works, it would be a surprise if the six-man team were exactly the same for Year 2.
For now, Kahl, with his status as Finals MVP, is trying to figure out what to do with his offseason.
“I think I may drive Uber.”