Playing video games for a living sounds like a childhood fantasy, but these days, it’s becoming more and more of a reality.
From Twitch streams that garner millions of viewers, to pro competitions like League of Legends, Counterstrike, and World of Warcraft, there seems to be no limit to how big eSports can grow to be. That’s part of the reason the NBA decided to put together the NBA 2K League, the first eSports league run by a United States pro sports league.
Although the players in the NBA 2K League don’t actually set foot on the basketball court when they compete, the difference between pro gamers and “real” athletes isn’t as big as you might think. Gamers deal with a season-long schedule, train at NBA facilities, watch game film, and prep for opponents every week the same way NBA players do.
“We take the game seriously, and we prepare week in and week out just like pro athletes do,” said Shaka Brown (“Yeah I Compete“), who was taken with the third pick in the first round of the NBA 2K League draft by the Utah Jazz 2K team. “Everyone who made it into the league had to give it their all just to qualify for the draft, putting in long hours and giving up jobs and stuff like that. We’re ready to help the league grow into something bigger.”
The league has 17 teams run by different NBA franchises, and the first season includes 12 weekly team matchups and three tournaments, along with two weeks of playoffs. The 2K League is heading into Week 7 of the schedule, and by the end of the regular season, eight total teams will make the playoffs—the top seven regular season teams and the winner of the third tournament. The inaugural season has been quite an experience for many of the 2K players so far.
“I know it sounds cliché, but it’s been an unreal ride, a rollercoaster of emotions since being drafted,” said Alexander Bernstein (“Steez”) of the 76ers Gaming Club. “I come from a college football background, so being competitive has always been a big thing for me. Everyone here is passionate and comes here to compete. The games can be mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting, but we all love what we get to do here.”
Men’s Journal spoke with Bernstein about his start in gaming, what it’s like to play in the NBA 2K League, how the 76ers Gaming Club practices, and why pro gamers are more like athletes than people think.
How long have you been gaming competitively, and how did you first get into playing NBA 2K?
I’ve always had to have a competitive activity going on, whether it was baseball or football. So once my football career was done when I finished with college, and I was working as a financial advisor, the competitive scene for me kind of faded away. But I still lived for that competitiveness, so I needed to find a way to do that. It wasn’t through football anymore, so I got into 2K. Crazy enough, I only started 2K last year, so I’m a one year wonder I guess [laughs]. I saw so much potential in the game, and I had some much fun with it and with the competitive angle of it. So when I heard the league was starting, I decided to go for this whole hearted, and if it worked out great, and if not, at least I could say I gave it my all. It worked out well.
What’s a practice session like for you and your teammates?
Like traditional sports, we like to get an early start to the day when we practice. We get up around 8 a.m., we do maybe a 45-minute to an hour workout in the gym, something that gets you started right during the day. Then we’ll head over to the actual 76ers facility, where we have the training center with computers and games, and we’ll try and get some matchups against other teams in the league. We’ll organize scrimmages with some of them. Playing the computer is beneficial in many ways, we can build chemistry ourselves, but there’s nothing like playing another team in the league, so we try and round up as many teams as we can. We’ll do that for about three or four hours. Some days, usually Tuesday and Thursday, are film days for us, we’ll look at our weekly matchup and look at how the team did against their last opponent, and we’ll break down the film of the games just like the traditional athletes do.
What’s it been like moving from California to Philadelphia?
I’ve been in California my whole life, and my college time was in South Dakota. So, I’ve been West Coast and Midwest, and when I first started doing the 2K League, I was hoping to experience something new if I got drafted. When I was drafted by Philly, I was really excited to head to the East Coast. I’ve visited a couple times when I was younger, so I knew it was a great place. It wasn’t exactly a culture shock for me, but it was different in a good way, getting away from California for a while. Yeah, it might be a little colder, but the Sixers are great, the community has been great, and I feel at home here so far.
What’s something that people who aren’t that into gaming might find cool or interesting about the league?
A question we always get from people is: “Why would people want to watch other people play video games?” That’s always one of the top questions, and my answer is that we’re really passionate about what we do. We like to bring energy—there are times when you have to be serious and locked in, but it also can be fun. It also can be relatable for people, because unlike some of the other shooter games or fantasy games, our game is a traditional sport that a lot of people recognize and know.
For basketball fans, the 2K League is something they can get into after the season ends. It brings a different look and energy, and it’s something different to watch. We try and show our personal sides on Twitter and Instagram, and we like to interact with the fans and show what we do here. It’s more than just video games for us. We’re very passionate and we take it seriously, but we also have a lot of fun with it. The emotions in a game are incredible, and when you’re done, you’re just mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. But every time a game is over, I’m ready to get back out there and play again. I don’t feel nervous or comprehend the pressure—it’s one of the best feelings in the world, and I’m so lucky to be in this position.
What’s the day-to-day like when you’re all in New York City competing in the 2K League studio?
Those are fun days, and usually we’re all staying in the same hotel as the other teams. Sometimes there’s some trash talk here and there, but it’s all in good fun. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re all one big family in a sense, but it’s fun to do that when we’re heading to a tournament to the studio. Then when you get there we lock in and compete. The feeling up on that stage is so amazing. Everything disappears when you’re up there, and you’re just focused in and trying to get a win together with your team. The atmosphere at the studio is unbelievable.
You guys train at the Sixers’ NBA facility and have access to a lot of great stuff there. What’s the whole experience been like for you being in the league?
It’s been unreal, it literally is a roller coaster of emotions. I actually was speaking with my mom recently, and I was saying, “Did you ever think I would be at this point?” And she said, “I stood by you through it all because I saw how serious you were about this.” It was so stressful at that time trying to get into the league because of the unknown and you didn’t know what was going to happen or if you’d make it. But now looking back, it’s unbelievable. I get to wake up and do something that I love, something that I’m so passionate about. The people in the 2K League and the Sixers organization have been amazing, and I’m blessed to be a part of all of it.