West Valley City • Like any good floor general does, the point guard is shouting out instructions to his teammates during practice.
“Over there! Over there! Get that! Get that!”
And when the play ends with a big, one-handed put-back dunk, Shaka Browne jumps up and pumps his fists and shouts with joy. Then he puts down his controller and asks his teammates if they want to grab some In-N-Out burgers for lunch.
Welcome to the NBA 2K League.
With teams from Raptors Uprising in Toronto to Jazz Gaming in Utah, the National Basketball Association has entered the competitive video-gaming world of esports, putting together a 17-team league with paid players competing for $1 million in prize money over the next four months. And if the idea of making a living playing a basketball video game seems unreal to you, you are not alone.
“It’s like you’re dreaming,” said Brown, the Jazz Gaming point guard. “You’re literally asking, ‘Is this really happening?’ Every day I wake up, like, Am I really getting paid to play video games?”
Browne, a 26-year-old New Yorker, started playing the popular basketball video game NBA 2K for fun back in 2006. Over time, Browne and his friends started competing in tournaments for prize money.
Browne finally got his big break this year. After being one of more than 70,000 entrants in the NBA 2K League draft combine, he was among the 102 finalists. Last month, Browne was at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan when Jazz Gaming drafted him with the third overall pick.
Browne has moved to Utah for the summer, where he lives and practices with his five other teammates. The six-man squad travels to New York City each week for league games, vying for a spot in the playoffs come August. Aside from prize money, the players will make between $32,000 and $35,000.
Browne has heard the jokes and he’s ready for the question that inevitably comes up when talking about competitive video gaming: are esports really sports?
“It’s a sport,” Browne said. “We have to do the same thing NBA players do. We have to practice every day, watch film we have to go out there and make adjustments on the court. And you have to be ready: there are other people out there that are trying to take your position every single day. You have to perfect your craft.”
Malik Leisinger agrees. For Jazz Gaming, Leisinger is a center who players under the username MrSlaughter01. But for the Ohio Wesleyan Bishops, Leisinger is a junior point guard.
“We put in the same hours,” he said, adding that his real-life basketball IQ has helped his gaming.
Leisinger’s family wasn’t sure what to make of it when Jazz Gaming drafted him with the 32nd overall pick last month. But after watching his games, which are streamed live around the world, and seeing him lead his team to a 1-1 start to the season, they get it now.
“They can’t wait for the merchandise to be available,” Leisinger said. “You can’t sell a college jersey so being able to actually buy my jersey is going to be sweet.”
The Jazz Gaming players practice nearly every day in a room at the Valley Fair Mall, where they watch film of their opponents, develop their own game plans, and work on the chemistry required for five different gamers to work together on a virtual basketball court.
Each player, like a regular basketball team, plays a specific position and has been assigned certain attributes in the game. Browne is a point guard, whose abilities he likens to LeBron James. He likes to drive into the lane and kick out to open shooters when the defenders try to help. If he gets a one-on-one matchup, “I can go for 40.” Leisinger is a do-everything center. DeMar Butler, a Massachusetts man who started playing NBA 2K during a stint in the Navy, is a defensive-minded power forward.
Butler, aka Deedz, was concerned about his team after draft night. But heading into the second week of the season, those fears have been alleviated.
“I love this team,” Butler said. “I definitely see us going to the playoffs. And once you’re in there, anything can happen.”
That’s how these players view this new esports league, too.
Before this, Browne was making good living driving Uber. “In Manhattan it’s crazy. You make a ton of money,” he said. But he’s not interested in picking up any new riders at this point.
“I’m trying to do this as long as it’s going to be around,” Browne said. “I think this is just the beginning. I think this league is going to absolutely explode.”
UTAH JAZZ GAMING SCHEDULE
The Utah Jazz esports team opened the season last week and will play 15 contests leading up to the playoffs, which begin in mid-August. All games are streamed live on Twitch. Here are the Jazz’s gaming dates, opponents and start times:
May 26 • Grizz Gaming, 5 p.m.
June 1 • Mavs Gaming, 7 p.m.
June 8 • Mid-Season Tournament, TBD
June 15 • Wizards District Gaming, 5 p.m.
June 22 • Celtics Crossover Gaming, 5 p.m.
June 30 • Heat Check Gaming, 3 p.m.
July 7 • Magic Gaming, 3 p.m.
Mid-Season Tournament 2, TBD
July 21 • Pacers Gaming, 1 p.m.
July 27 • Pistons GT, 6 p.m.
July 28 • Blazers Gaming, 11 a.m.
Aug. 3 • Knicks Gaming, 6 p.m.
76ers GC, 5 p.m.
All times Mountain