Sabrina Patton, a 5-foot-5-inch former community college basketball player from Fremont, worked as much as 40 hours a week in pursuit of her goal: getting drafted as a 6-foot, 11-inch power forward for the Golden State Warriors.
Nidal Nasser, a 6-foot San Francisco State business major who played basketball in high school, competed as a digital 6-11 center.
Patton, 32, and Nasser, 20, weren’t just chasing a fantasy. They and tens of thousands of passionate fans of the video basketball game “NBA 2K18” had a real — albeit razor-thin — shot to become professional e-sports players representing the Warriors, Sacramento Kings, Cleveland Cavaliers or 14 other NBA teams. It’s an entirely different world, where women compete alongside and against men, 50-year-olds can hold their own against 20-somethings, and tall and short players battle on equal terms.
Within a month, 102 players will be drafted for the inaugural NBA 2K League, an e-sports league that tips off in May.
The stakes are very real: Players will receive a minimum $32,000 salary, $35,000 if they are a first-round draft pick of teams like Golden State’s Warriors Gaming Squad.
They’ll receive paid travel, housing, food, medical and retirement benefits, and access to the same training facilities as the basketball stars. For members of Sacramento’s Kings Guard, that includes fresh kombucha and nitrogen-infused coffee.
The six-member teams will play a three-month regular season, followed by about a month of playoffs, to decide winners of a prize pool worth $1 million.
“It’s crazy — I never thought a video game would get this big,” said Nasser, who learned last week that his per-video game averages of 24 points and 14 assists per game were good enough to make it to a final round of tryouts. For Nasser, a former guard for the basketball team at San Bruno’s Capuchino High School, the chance to play for the Warriors or any other team in the league “would mean the world to me.”
“Not only would I be playing something I love, but I’d be playing something I love for money,” he said.
This is the first time a regular sports league has created a video game version. NBA executives are keenly aware of how popular e-sports — a subset of the broader video game craze — have become for both for players and spectators. Industry research firm Newzoo projects that e-sports revenues will grow to nearly $1 billion this year, from $325 million in 2015.
Online viewership for major tournaments featuring battleground video games like “League of Legends” or “Dota2” can rival that of the NBA Finals or baseball’s World Series. And the rise of e-sports is coming at a time when TV ratings for last month’s 2018 Winter Olympics slid to a new low.
“How can you as a sports league reach an audience that is watching fewer numbers of hours of television?” said Joost van Dreunen, CEO of research firm SuperData Research and an assistant professor of video game economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. For the NBA, he said, the 2K League “is one answer.”
League hopefuls interviewed for this story were among 72,000 players who survived the first round of tryouts in January by winning 50 games in an online tournament featuring “NBA 2K18,” a basketball simulation game published by Novato company 2K Games. (2K Games’ parent company, Take-Two Interactive Software, owns half of the league with the NBA.) The game was the second-best selling video game in 2017, behind “Call of Duty: WWII,” according to research firm NPD Group.
The second round was held Feb. 2-21. For this round, contenders had to win at least 40 games lasting 24 minutes each, playing a five-on-five game with and against other contestants. They chose on-screen players from different styles, such as a slashing, shot-creating point guard or a sharpshooting, rim-protecting power forward. The game lets players customize their digital selves with their own faces.
For Patton, who grew up in San Francisco, basketball has been a lifelong passion. Her father was a referee, her brothers played in high school and she was a small forward for San Bruno’s Skyline College. She modeled her digital player after NBA great Tim Duncan and Golden State’s Draymond Green.
“I’ve always dreamed about playing professionally,” said Patton, who works as an audio-video technician. “If I could get drafted by the Warriors, that would be a dream come true.”
The tryouts became almost a second job for her — though unlike some other contestants, she did not quit her job to concentrate on them.
The potential of “NBA 2K,” first introduced in 1999, began emerging several years ago, when a tight community of players began earning money in smaller tournaments that grew out of a grassroots Facebook group, said Ricco Thinisee, 37, of Glendale (Los Angeles County), who is working as an analyst and coach for one of the 2K League teams, which he declined to identify. Those players have built followings on Twitch, Twitter and YouTube and have been considered top prospects for the NBA league.
One was Josh Humphries, 20, who in real life plays for the men’s basketball team at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College. For the video game, he played 40 games each as point guard and a shooting guard to increase his chances.
“I’m a big Warriors fan, I love Stephen Curry, I love KD (Kevin Durant),” Humphries said in an interview. “Just to say you play for the Golden State Warriors, how cool is that?”
The video game measures a variety of skills, including shooting accuracy. League managing director Brendan Donohue said officials used data from the games to whittle the list of prospects down to 1,000, then examined answers submitted in an online application to assess the players “as people and potential teammates.” Last week, 250 players learned they’d survived to the next round, which includes individual online video interviews.
Like some who didn’t make the cut, Humphries was bitter. Patton was disappointed, but vowed to come back next year.
Nasser’s dream is still alive.
“Right now, it’s just a waiting game for the next two weeks seeing if I get into the 102,” he said in an email. “And yes, I am very excited. Not trying to get too excited, though. I don’t want to get my hopes too high.”
Kirk Lacob, vice president of GSW Sports Ventures, which is running the Gaming Squad and a pro team with the video game “League of Legends” that is named the Golden Guardians, said he and other NBA 2K League officials will soon start assessing which of the remaining players have the skills and temperament to fit their teams, just as the Warriors do with any athlete. He said he’s not surprised there were tears of joy and sadness last week among the video athletes.
“That’s professional sports for you, not everyone can make it,” Lacob said. “Dreams get crushed and other dreams get fulfilled.”
San Francisco Chronicle