Winning a game, conquering a mode, and defeating a boss constitute the most exhilarating moments of playing a video game. The problem is, after emerging victorious, there’s usually no one to celebrate with. Like a dream, it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into painting a picture of the experience for someone. They just can’t understand or appreciate the feeling.
On Saturday, when Knicks Gaming defeated Heat Check Gaming to win the inaugural NBA 2K League championship, the team basked in the glory of gaming triumph, with hundreds in attendance cheering them on and thousands streaming (and commenting) online. They were far from alone.
Leading the best-of-three finals series 1-0, the Knicks trailed Heat Check by 11 points heading into the fourth quarter of Game 2. But the Knicks were exactly where they wanted to be.
“There isn’t a team in the world who’s comfortable being in that position,” said Knicks Gaming point guard Adam Kudeimati (a.k.a. iamadamthe1st), who feasts in the team's pick-and-roll based offense. “But we’re just used to having our backs against the wall.”
It’s an identity the squad established during the regular season. They were one of the worst teams in the league, finishing the year with a 5-9 record, good for 14th (out of 17) overall. Luckily, they won a late-season tournament, THE TICKET—thanks in large part to a dominant, 29-ppg performance from Kudeimati—that granted them an automatic playoff bid.
As the eighth seed, Knicks Gaming marched to the 2K League finals, mirroring the run of the IRL 1999 New York Knicks team led by Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell (who knocked off the heavily favored Heat during their run). The parallels end in the finals, however, as Knicks Gaming won the chip, outlasting the Heat in Game 1 and mounting a ferocious comeback in Game 2 to steal a 74-71 victory and the title.
A true Cinderella story, the Knicks were able to extinguish a Heat Check team led by one of the best players in the league. Juan “Hot Shot” Gonzalez absolutely dominated the postseason, averaging 50.3 points per contest. The focal point of the Heat offense, Hot Shot was “held” to 41 ppg in the finals by series MVP NateKhal, who watched "hours" of video game film in preparation for the matchup.
“I came out slow the first game. I feel like that game was on me,” Hot Shot said after the series wrapped. “Now, I’m done until 2K19 comes out. Then I’ll be ready to play again. And I’mma be ready for Season 2.”
In a battleground filled with with trash-talking, Knicks’ power forward Dayvon “Goofy” Curry—the best offensive rebounder in the league—didn’t feel the slightest bit of remorse after dominating the glass.
“They went to the Drake concert last night,” Goofy proclaims. “They didn’t want it. They didn’t want it. We wanted it though.”
ICYMI, the 2K League is a collection of the world’s 102 best NBA 2K players on the planet, divided into 17 teams, with six players per squad, competing in 5v5 matchups for 2K glory and a $300,000 prize. The action takes place in Long Island City, New York, at the NBA 2K League studio—a warehouse-turned-paradisiacal gaming arena, complete with a circular gameplay station where teams face off; LED screens on the near and far walls displaying the virtual action; additional screens hanging from the ceiling that capture player reactions; a commentator booth; and fan seating (tickets are free, by the way).
With over 61,000 people streaming live on Twitch and 150-plus watching from the 2K League studio, the finals represented something bigger than the crowning of a champion. They marked the completion of the first season of an eSports league run by a major professional sports league, meaning the NBA and NBA 2K have created a blueprint that the NFL, MLB, and NHL can follow as they look to develop eSports leagues of their own. For soccer, whose popularity is surging in the U.S., an EA FIFA league may launch the MLS into an even higher stratosphere of interest.
With Year 1 in the books, the NBA 2K League is already set to undergo changes for next season, including the addition of four expansion teams—namely, the Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn Nets, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Atlanta Hawks. Like the current 17 teams, they will be owned by their parent NBA organizations.
“Growth is really the word of the day,” said Brendan Donohue, managing director of the NBA 2K League. “Aside from adding four teams for next season, we fully expect at some point all 30 NBA teams to be a part of it, and then beyond.”
Donohue, who’s essentially the Adam Silver of the 2K League, also touches on the level of diversity in the league. While race and ethnicity are represented fairly evenly throughout the existing teams, there aren’t any female players. The “commish” explains that drawing women is a “major priority for us."
“We have started an initiative to…identify any barriers that existed and to remove them from the second year. We’ve [also] identified some of the top, well-known female gamers.
“Listen, this is a league where it just takes skills. So whether it’s male, female, international, domestic, etc., anybody should be able to do this.”
And just like the NBA, the 2K League takes care of its players. Once the selection committee sifted through the 72,000 gamer applicants (only 10,000 were expected) and teams drafted their players—many of whom are teenagers or in their early 20s—the league put draftees through the same transition program that NBA rookies participate in.
“It is meant to help [our players] with the adjustments to living in new markets, social media, how to handle the media, and then also preparing them for a well-balanced life,” Donohue said. “So we gave them training on sleep, nutrition, and vision, which is extremely important in eSports.” Especially since they practice 12 to 15 hours a day.
The sweeping success of the NBA 2K League—whose viewership steadily increased week by week—demonstrates just how far ahead of the pack the NBA is from other professional sports league. With the global audience for eSports expected to reach 557 million by 2021, and over 1.5 million playing 2K every day, it’s the first to capitalize on eSports’ popularity, while also helping to promote the NBA as a year-round enterprise. Knowing how the Association ticks, it is apparent that the league, whether on a virtual level or IRL, will continue to rise.
For now, the New York Knicks organization will enjoy its first basketball title in 55 years. Team leader Nate Khal—who attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and worked at Milwaukee Country Club prior to joining the league—couldn’t be prouder of his guys.
“The hard work, the persistence, it paid off,” he said with a huge smile. “We went through some adversity when we first met, just to keep it real. We had some issues and problems with each other just trying to get along. We all come from different places and are cut from different cloths. The brotherhood didn’t come right away, it took a little bit. But Rome wasn’t built in one day.”
With the Knicks Gaming empire stronger than ever, there’s only one question that remains: Will they repeat next season?