By RACHEL BRADY
Saturday, June 23, 2018
TORONTO -- The guys from Raptors Uprising Gaming Club swing open the door to their remarkable six-bedroom house in Toronto's Beaches. It has a stateof-the-art video gaming room, including a lounge area for studying film on their opponents.
There's a big designer kitchen, tables for pool and Ping-Pong and a party deck out back with a hot tub and a sweet view of Lake Ontario.
Six professional video gamers in their 20s now call this dream house home. They were drafted to Raptors Uprising, the Toronto contingent competing in a new e-sports league launched by the NBA and Take-Two Interactive, which features the world's best 102 players of the popular basketball video game NBA 2K.
These six teammates - who all played real-life basketball growing up and still dabble - all fell in love with NBA 2K years ago. They tell their unique stories of how they got so good at this game, of the hours spent playing in parents' basements or college apartments with friends or parents hollering at them to go do something else. There are tales of sneaking downstairs as a boy to play it in the middle of the night, throwing a blanket over the screen so as not to get busted by the glow of the television set, or of sidestepping a mom's pleas to get a part-time job. They've met lifelong friends from far-flung places in NBA 2K's online community, and some have experienced the adrenaline rush of winning huge cash prizes playing the game in competitive tournaments.
Now, gaming away for hours at NBA 2K is a paid job, and these guys play for the newest team to join the Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment family. They're part of history - the NBA is the first sports league to bring the franchise model found in traditional sports to e-sports, and many other professional sports leagues are watching with great curiosity.
For the NBA 2K League's debut season, currently running from May to August, 17 of the 30 NBA teams wanted in, including the Toronto Raptors. Each operates a team of six gamers who travel to New York every weekend to compete in 5-on-5 gameplay against squads affiliated with other NBA teams. They use unique characters built by the gamers, rather than ones in the likeness of real NBA players.
The NBA 2K League draft took place on April 4 in New York and looked like a smaller-scale NBA draft - with gamers decked in suits and waiting nervously for their names to be called so they could run up on stage and slip on a team cap. Each team selected six players, all gamers who stood out in online tryouts, a combine and shone in personality tests and interviews - a thorough audition process that initially began with some 72,000 hopefuls.
First-round draft picks are paid US$35,000, and the rest are paid US$32,000 for that four months of gaming, and there is lots more prize money up for grabs in competitions. Their NBA teams house them during the season and provide their practice environment. The two teams play inside a studio with a live audience, while broadcasting on Twitch, the live streaming video-game platform owned by Amazon.
This Toronto house shows how serious MLSE is to help the Uprising succeed. Their basement gaming room, where they practice NBA 2K for six to eight hours a day, includes a huge mission-control style table with monitors and consoles for 10 players - so the Uprising could call in practice opponents.
Across the room, white leather sofas surround a projection screen for scrutinizing video of their past game or study their next opponent.
"Every day when I wake up and come down here, I think to myself 'wow, I'm actually at work,' " said Raptors Uprising first-round draft pick Kenneth Hailey, a 28-year-old from Memphis, Tenn., well known in NBA 2K by the gamertag Kenny. "I love what I'm doing and I get paid for it. I could never have imagined living in a house like this. It feels like I'm where I belong every time I take the stage to compete."
Hailey, who plays point guard in the game, was working at AT&T before he got drafted. He had started out studying at The University of Memphis, but that wasn't for him. He was part of a five-man team called Still Trill that won a US$250,000 grand prize in the NBA 2K tournament staged during the 2017 NBA allstar weekend. After receiving their prize, they got to play NBA 2K against real-life basketball stars Kevin Durant, Paul George, Aaron Gordon, Kyrie Irving and C. J. McCollum at NBA 2K - and they trounced the real-life basketball stars.
The first-rounder has the biggest bedroom in the house, with walk-in closet and ensuite bathroom. Two of his teammates from that Still Trill squad play for the Uprising, too - second-round pick Christopher Doyle (a power forward in the game who goes by Detoxys) and fourth-rounder Trevion Hendrix (a small forward known as All Hail Trey).
"I played basketball my whole life and had dreams of playing in college, but during my sophomore year in high school, I hurt my knee badly, tore my ACL and MCL and had surgery. That's when I got into 2K," said Doyle, 20, from Hampton Falls, N.H. "Before I got drafted, I was at the University of New Hampshire, one semester shy of graduating.
It was tough to not graduate with my friends, but this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. My parents are super supportive, and I'm going to go back and finish school as soon as the league finishes for the year."
Hailey and Doyle flew to the draft. Yusuf Abdulla, a 25-yearold Scarborough native, decided last-minute to catch a bus to New York, and was thrilled to hear the Uprising call his name in the third round. The other three watched the draft online at home, where they erupted into celebration while surrounded by friends and family, just like many NBA players do on draft night.
For Abdulla, the lone Canadian on the Uprising, this house on an upscale street near the picturesque Bluffs is unlike the Kingston-Galloway neighbourhood where he grew up in Scarborough. Playing NBA 2K kept him inside and away from crime.
The huge Kobe Bryant fan played lots of basketball, too - in high school and at Centennial and Seneca Colleges. He's on summer break now from University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, where he's studying criminology, and wants to be a police officer.
"Right before the draft, I showed up at a local NBA 2K tournament in Toronto, and I wasn't eligible to play because I'd already been selected to the group of 102 that was going to be drafted, but I love it so much, I wanted to go watch others play," says Abdulla, known as Yusuf_Scarbz in the game, an avatar he built as a 7-foot-1 centre with a Mohawk who wears gold sneakers.
"Because I couldn't play, I grabbed the mic and did play by play. I was commentating, talking smack, and the fans really liked it. That's when the Raptors noticed me." The guy to notice Abdulla's personality and high IQ for the game that day (and cross-reference that with his combine stats) was Shane Talbot, MLSE's newly hired e-sports manager. Talbot is someone with a deep résumé in professional gaming who would become a sort of general manager and visionary for Raptors Uprising GC. Talbot had surrounded himself with experts in the NBA 2K community who would advise him on the top talent. Abdulla showed both talent and marketing potential.
Although his family lives nearby, Abdulla stays in the gaming house. They keep long hours.
MLSE pays for workout sessions with a personal trainer for the guys downtown twice a week.
They play late into the nights.
They rarely cook in that designer kitchen, but they do often gather there to chow down on their Uber Eats.
Hendrix, 21, the fourth-round pick, was working restaurant jobs back home in Hot Springs, Ark., and wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do for a career until he heard about a league forming for his favourite video game.
"My parents did not like me playing the game, they didn't get it at all, never believed the events were real until I qualified for the US$250,000 tournament," Hendrix says. "My family loves it now, they're all in and they watch all my games."
Fifth-rounder Joshua McKenna, a shooting guard called TSJosh, acknowledges that he kept his goal of making the NBA 2K League a secret until the late stages. He can recall having to tell his mom he'd have to miss an open house for a job opportunity because he had an important tryout in the game.
"My mom is proud of me now, tells people 'Josh has a new job up in Canada,' and when I tell them that job is playing a video game, they're like 'Seriously?
Man that's crazy! I wish I could do that,' "says McKenna, 22, from Decatur, Ga. "I was young when my dad passed, but he never loved his actual job as much as he loved to his hobby, coaching basketball. My mom says my dad used to say he was proud of her for doing what she loved, being a teacher. Now, she says, I have found a job that I love."
Their sunny, wide-open living room has a big-screen TV over the mantle and an oversized sectional sofa where they've shared many a life story. That's where lively table-tennis matches often erupt when they come up from the basement for air, with the guys whooping and trash talking as they shuffle around the table in matching Raptors Uprising sandals, each personalized with his name.
So much high-tech hardware has come into the house that MLSE had to ease minds in the neighbourhood.
"We had to communicate with the neighbours; they were a little nervous at first," Talbot says.
"They probably thought we were some kind of crypto-operation."
MLSE's corporate partners have fingerprints all over the space, from Bell Fibe's naming rights to the house and the lightning-fast internet needed to power 10 gaming stations, to the fully stocked Coors Light beer fridge, to an abundance of Axe toiletries all over the house and ad wraps on their bathroom doors.
It's a huge change for the sixth-round pick, 24-year-old Seanquai Harris (a centre called Kingquai614), a native of Columbus, Ohio, who had played football at a junior college in Minnesota before dropping out because of the high bills and low grades.
He was homeless for a while, living out of his car before relying on the generosity of friends as he looked for a job that would help him provide for himself and send money home to his young daughter.
"I was going through the hardest time in my life," says Harris, whose daughter is back in Minnesota with her mother. "And the 2K League saved me."
Harris has to pinch himself while seated in a high-end gaming chair in a teched-out basement that has countless lighting options that simulate what it feels like on that dramatic New York stage where they compete.
While the Uprising has been winning lately, they started slow so they have a 2-5 record and sit 15th out of 17 teams in the standings, well off the pace set by the firstplace undefeated Blazers Gaming, run by the Portland Trailblazers.
Talbot says viewership on Twitch for Uprising games has been as high as 20,000 unique viewers at times, but typically draws 5,000-10,000 per game.
Launching the league during the actual NBA playoffs and using a camera angle that fans didn't like (they eventually changed it) could be some reasons for low viewership.
During their weekly game-film sessions, the Uprising team has a lively discussion with Talbot and some NBA 2K experts it uses as consultants to make big decisions, much as an NBA coaching staff would when game-planning for a playoff opponent.
First, which five of the six team members will start each week?
Second, each of the five positions on the floor has five possible builds or "archetypes" from which to choose. For instance, they must make their point guard either a shot-creating slasher that week, or a shot-creating sharpshooter, a slashing playmaker, a sharpshooting playmaker or a playmaking shot creator.
Each player can scan his own face onto the body of the life-like avatar he controls inside NBA 2K, just one example of this game constantly upgrading annually since it was first released in 1999.
NBA 2K17 sold some nine million copies worldwide, the top-selling sports video game in the U.S. and second-best selling overall behind FIFA. 2K18 is on pace to be its best-selling edition.
Talbot didn't grow up playing NBA 2K, but he has quickly immersed himself in it. The Toronto native grew up playing the multiplayer shooter game CounterStrike and says he even looked down on his brother for playing NBA 2K.
MLSE hired Talbot in January for his different experiences in the gaming industry, from growth strategies to managing teams and gaming houses in wildly popular titles like Overwatch and Counter-Strike. He worked for Unikrn, an e-sports wagering and technology company, and for Luminosity Gaming, a pre-eminent e-sports organization with pro teams in countless titles including Call of Duty and Fortnite, and the current home of Fortnite sensation Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, the world's most popular Twitch streamer.
"I have as much respect and appreciation for pro gamers as I do for pro athletes," Talbot says.
"My past experiences gave me an idea of what these guys would need in a house, and how to get it done, and MLSE made this place top tier. Gamers from other titles were tagging us on social with the eyeball-look emoji, saying 'hey set me up with one of these, that basement looks clean.' It offers a really nice lifestyle and a hardcore gaming environment, too."
The league is expected to get more teams next year. Meanwhile, MLSE is intrigued to learn all it can about e-sports.
"NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called this league the fourth pillar, along with the NBA, WNBA and the G League, and we think there's a version of basketball for everyone, so here in Toronto, we've been given great licence from ownership to scrape our knees a little on this because it's a wonderful learning opportunity," says Sumit Arora, MLSE's Senior Director of Strategy. "I bet we'll start seeing Raptors Uprising hats around the city soon."
The guys from Raptors Uprising GC are part of the Raptors family. They've enjoyed perks like Raptors playoff tickets and pickup basketball inside the Raps' third-floor training gym in Air Canada Centre.
"I always held myself to a high standard and wanted to win," Hailey says. "But now I'm actually representing a real NBA team and I want to win even more."
Team members of the Raptors Uprising GC watch a playback of a previous game on a large screen TV on Thursday in a high-tech gaming house rented for the six- man team by the MLSE in Toronto.
CHRISTOPHER KATSAROV PHOTOS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Kenneth Hailey plays a game of table tennis. Hailey is a 28-year-old from Memphis, Tenn., known by the gamertag Kenny.