There’s Raptors basketball being played in Toronto again. Only it’s not happening in the Scotiabank Arena. Or at the Paramount or OVO Centres. It’s happening in the basement of the Bell Fibe House, an otherwise unassuming six-bedroom house on a quiet residential street near Lake Ontario—that just so happens to be the home (and training facility and remote home court) of the hottest team in the NBA 2K League: the Raptors Uprising GC.
Currently on a 7-0 run to start the 2020 season, the official Raptors eSports squad is riding out the COVID-19 pandemic like many of us right now: sheltering in place, working from home, and playing a whole lot of NBA 2K. Only in their case, those last two are one and the same.
“We’re trying to make the best of it. We’re just staying safe, staying healthy. Trying to give y’all some good games to watch,” said Kenneth “Kenny Got Work” Hailey, the Raptors Uprising’s former No. 1 draft pick and all-time leading scorer, in a call with Complex during the team’s bye week.
Originally launched in 2018, the 2K League had been scheduled to kick off its third season on March 24th… until March 11th, when the NBA shut down operations in response to COVID-19—and every other professional sports league in North America quickly followed suit. Including the NBA affiliate 2K League.
“I think gamers in general were more prepared for this,” said Shane Talbot, manager for the Uprising (as well as the rest of MLSE’s eSports initiatives, including Toronto FC FIFA and Leafs Gaming). “I tell people all the time, I’ve barely been bored, despite being stuck at home, because my preference on a Friday night would be to stay in and play whatever game I happened to be playing at the time.” Which, right now, happens to be Call of Duty: Warzone—a definite favourite in the Fibe House as well.
Now, they’ve been forced to adjust to the pandemic same as any other sport, electronic or otherwise, although the 23-team 2K League was able to get back up quicker than most. That meant instead of playing their games on the big stage in Manhattan, a shift to remote gameplay while the teams self-isolate in their home market. It was designed as a six-week solution to start—though it’s hard to say exactly when/if the Uprising will be able to travel for gameday again. Especially after the NBA just recently approved a plan to resume its own season starting July 31st.
“The discussions are obviously happening at the NBA level and they keep us up to date,” explained Talbot. “At this point, no, there's no indication as to whether or when we'll be getting back to the studio in New York.”
Which is fine by the Uprising players, who don’t mind the extra rest that comes from cutting back on travel. “I feel like it plays in our favour,” Hailey told Complex. “We can just wake up here and go straight to the basement and get to work.”
"You could argue that they are the best point guard, the best lockdown defender, and the best center in the world right now, all playing on the same team."
Playing and practicing on the same gaming set up also means a more consistent gameplay environment, explained Jerry “Sick One” Knapp, the Uprising center, who along with Hailey were the team’s lone holdovers from last season. “Last year, and the previous years, we’d practice and scrimmage, and then you get to the studio and the game is just a little bit different. Your jump shot’s not exactly the same. This is exactly what you practice.”
“Because we’ve had the guys living in the same team facility, the Bell Fibe House, for three seasons now, we were pretty well setup to be able to embrace a remote gameplay model,” said Talbot, acknowledging that the adjustment may have been harder for some of the league’s newer teams, or ones with players who are moving between different apartments each year instead of having a dedicated home base.
And while no one could’ve predicted the start of the 2K League season to look like this, no one’s surprised to see the Uprising at the top of the standings, after they spent the preseason beating up on other squads in scrimmages. “Teams were hoping that we were gonna come out Week 1 and not be as good as we were in practice,” laughed Knapp.
After losing out on a playoff spot last year in the final seconds of the play-in tournament quarterfinals—against the Warriors’ affiliate, coincidentally enough, the day after the IRL Raptors beat Golden State to win their chip—these Raptors went back to the drawing board, focusing on building a better squad through chemistry.
“It started in the offseason. Me and Jerry worked our tails off. In the draft we picked up Timelycook. A guy that was hungry. He missed last season and we knew he was going to be a dog this year,” said Hailey. “Put the right pieces around me and Jerry and now we’re 6 and 0.”
Unlike most other eSports, where teams tend to sign complete rosters at once, made up of gamers who have played together on the amateur level, the 2K League goes with a more NBA-like draft model. Each offseason, teams get to choose how many players from their six-man squad they want to keep, then the rest go back into the draft pool, which also includes other hopefuls scouted through a Draft Combine, plus various tournaments and invitationals.
This year, the Uprising focused on drafting for chemistry “and familiarity”—picking up Eric “Timelycook” Donald in the first round, who had previously won a $250,000 prize playing alongside Kenny Got Work and fellow 2020 draft pick Maurice “ReeceMode” Flowers in a 2017 Pro-Am tournament. “Shortly after that, the NBA 2K League came about, and I was talking to Timely, like, ‘They making that league for us,’ ” recalled Hailey.
The team also drafted Knapp’s younger brother, Jake, as their sixth man. “You just got chemistry all over,” Donald told us. “You got the brothers, then you got me, Kenny and Reece that played with each other, but at the same time, Reece and Sick played with each other. We all knew each other.”
“I think the common take, when you hear people from around the league is just that we have incredible chemistry and teamwork,” agreed Talbot. Between Kenny, Timely, and Sick, he said, “You could argue that they are the best point guard, the best lockdown defender, and the best center in the world right now, all playing on the same team.”
And, in a weird way, being quarantined together probably helped the squad gel even faster, said Talbot. “The fact that they’ve been in the same space as each other for the last two months has really helped accelerate all the chemistry that we knew that we would have.”
“I think we’ve reached a level where the whole league is recognizing it now.”
Donald agreed, saying having the team all under one roof during this time helped everyone get to know, and trust, each other more. Especially now that they’ve gone from hanging out over an Xbox party chat in the offseason to 24/7 in the Bell Fibe House, part training facility and part dorm.
“The house is amazing. Spaced out. Everybody got their little personal space, but at the same time, we’ve got pool tables, we’ve got ping pong tables. You’ve got a Jacuzzi,” Donald said of the team digs. “It's just a great place to be, man, especially when you're quarantining.”
“So it’s been working out well for us. As you can see.”
They’re even getting national broadcasts now, thanks to a deal with Sportsnet ONE, who are airing weekly 2K League coverage every Tuesday night at 7 p.m.—and the Raptors have been making sure to take advantage of the bigger stage. “When we play on ESPN and Sportsnet, we’re 3 and 0 and mostly all blowouts,” said Hailey. “When they broadcast our game, it’s like we step it up a little more.” (He’s not wrong; after a month’s worth of primetime appearances, Hailey earned Player of the Month honours for May.)
All the added exposure only helps legitimize the fledgling eSport, according to Talbot. “I use this analogy a lot: I look at primetime television and the number of shows that are focused on people who are exceptionally good at weird things, like making steel weapons or baking cakes, or whatever it might be. And there’s an audience for that because it’s on TV. You assume that this is the best of the best I’m watching.”
People want to watch Raptors basketball again. And right now, the Uprising is giving it to them.
The only thing they’re missing is Drake sitting sideline. Or at least showing up in the Twitch chat…
Still, as the closest thing to live ball we’ve got on TV until late July, that puts the 2K League in a perfect position to get in front of a whole bunch of fans who are currently going through serious basketball withdrawal.
Just look at the record ratings set by The Last Dance. Or the 2K Players Tournament the NBA threw in April, which helped ease casual fans into the idea of sitting down to watch a virtual 2K throwdown. Even if, all due respect to Devin Booker, none of those guys have any shot at making a 2K roster. “I don't think any of them are too close to playing in the 2K League...” laughed Talbot. “But it was great to see them embrace gaming.”
The next step? Getting those same players to embrace the NBA’s official eSports league. “I just feel like there could be more they can do to help us as well. Because we are part of their family,” said Donald.
“I feel like they could be more interactive with the 2K League,” he continued. “They ain’t doing nothing right now.”