Watching a game of eSports basketball on Twitch is a lot like watching regular basketball on TV, except that the players are not real — ten irradiated giants sprinting up and down the court. And instead of commentary from sports announcers, the audio consists of gamers yelling at each other through their headsets: “Guard the cutters!” “Yo, keep your hands to yourself!” “GET BACK ON D!”
But this particular game of NBA 2K is different: the players are hoping they do well enough to catch the eye of the real-life NBA itself, and David Armstrong, a 29-year-old AT&T sales rep from Dallas, hopes the nearly eight years he’s spent playing NBA 2K — and the 20 hours per week he currently spends practicing — will be enough to get him past the final cut.
This month, the National Basketball Association will draft 102 gamers into its first-ever NBA 2K League. These gamers will receive six-month contracts worth $32,000 to $35,000 to play NBA 2K. The job includes housing, medical insurance, a retirement plan, and the ability for players to sign their own sponsorship deals. Matt Holt, the NBA’s vice president of global partnerships, told Engadget last year that he considers the new eLeague to be their fourth branch, comparable to the minor G League, the WNBA, or the NBA itself.
Other than salary, the benefits on offer to eSports players are consistent with those offered professional basketballers. But to be completely clear, these are gamers competing via Playstation or Xbox consoles. It’s yet another example of the increasing popularity of professional eSports — broadly defined as any competition using video games — and the first instance of a major U.S. sporting organization introducing a professional video gaming league.
Seventeen NBA teams will play each other in the inaugural season of the NBA 2K League, including teams associated with popular franchises like the Golden State Warriors, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Boston Celtics. Eventually, all the regular-season NBA teams are expected to have an eLeague counterpart. The idea is for them to complement each other: NBA 2K games will begin in May and run through the summer during the NBA’s off-season. The league hopes that fans will watch these video-game matches on live internet streams similar to how they watch traditional games on television networks (the NBA notes that media rights are still being finalized).
Before someone like Armstrong can be drafted, they go through the player combine, an intense three-week tryout in which participants were required to play a minimum of 40 games. Over 72,000 gamers qualified for this year’s tryouts. The eLeague’s official representatives promised to closely monitor statistics such as points scored, assists, rebounds, shot release time, and block efficiency.
Armstrong’s busy schedule during the combine made it challenging to schedule an interview with him. On top of his day job, he played NBA 2K for an average of three hours a day; weekends were for longer sessions of about eight hours. I prepared by watching several of his games on his Twitch channel. Armstrong is not one of those gamers with millions of followers on the streaming platform Twitch (very few are), but during the combine, he provided a Twitch link to supporters — mostly friends and family — to watch his games live and cheer him on.
It was never hard to locate Armstrong’s avatar onscreen: He plays as a 7’ 1”, 260-lbs white guy with blonde hair (imagine a more jacked Dirk Nowitzki). Armstrong is a defensive powerhouse, using those long virtual arms to swat down shot attempts and guard the paint. Sometimes the players he was matched against would resign and restart in the hopes of being sorted into another combine game with an easier defender. But Armstrong is also a serious offensive threat with a beautiful jump shot. One of his favorite moves is to fake out his opponent with a hesitation-dribble, then step back and release the ball in a nothing-but-net swish.
Finally, Armstrong and I sat down last month at one of his favorite casual restaurants in Dallas: Jersey Mike’s Subs. Armstrong bears zero resemblance to his avatar; he’s 5’6, biracial, and admittedly a little pudgy (he jokes that he might be drinking too much Dr. Pepper).
I brought up the contrast between him and his virtual counterpart. “I’ve honestly never cared what my av looked like,” Armstrong said, laughing. “I’ve always gone with the generic look of a white blonde guy. Now that’s what I’m known by.” As for choosing to specialize as center, that was a decision he made years ago. “Nobody else wanted to play big man back then. Players wanted to be point guard, shooter—the flashy roles.” Armstrong saw opportunity in the void.
Then again, he admits his decision was not purely based on strategy. A large part of it was wish fulfillment. “The dream was always argh, I wish I was taller. Once I started playing as the big man, there was no going back.”
Armstrong attributes his passion for video games to being the middle of three brothers. Growing up in New Jersey before relocating to Dallas, they loved video games and were very competitive with each other. I asked if he was always the family’s video game prodigy. He grinned. “Pretty much.”
His parents used to call games a waste of time, and he doesn’t blame them.
But his parents were not always on board with his video game obsession. “I played a little too much in high school and that probably got in the way of grades,” he admitted. If he disobeyed in class, his parents knew taking away games was the most effective punishment. Other than playing drums in his school’s marching band, video games were his primary extracurricular activity. His parents used to call them a waste of time, and he doesn’t blame them. “Back then, you couldn’t make money with it. There was no future incentive,” he said.
At age 20 he was still living at home, working part-time at Toys R’ Us and spending the rest of his waking hours playing video games. That’s when his parents decided they had had enough. They sent him to live with his brother, who was attending college in Virginia. Armstrong was hurt at the time, but today credits the decision with forcing him to become financially independent.
His parents are now his biggest fans. They livestreamed all of his combine games. “I am proud of how David’s succeeded in doing what he loves,” his dad, Chris, told me by phone. “If he has the opportunity to play NBA 2K professionally, I say: Go for it. Knock ‘em down.”
A gamer drafted by the Lakers, for example, would need to move out to L.A. Wouldn’t it be possible to stay here and play for any team? He answered with a single word: “Latency.”
Although Armstrong would love to be drafted by any team, he told me he was especially excited about the prospect of the Dallas Mavericks eSports team, to stay near family. A gamer drafted by the Lakers, for example, would need to move out to L.A. This led me to ask an unintentionally dumb question: Wouldn’t it be possible to stay here and play for any team since 2K is an internet-based video game?
He answered with a single word: “Latency.” Ironically, professional eSports might be one new job in the digital economy that isn’t well-suited for telecommuting. If players are not all logged in from the same ZIP code, there would be a delay in network connectivity; a little lag time can make a big difference in match-ups between highly skilled gamers. The NBA is also planning to build eSports arenas it describes as "central studios" that look like a cross between an indoor soccer stadium and a European discotheque. For matches taking place in eSports arenas, players will sit down and play much as they would at home, except they’ll be surrounded by spectators watching from the bleachers.
Sometime in 2010 Armstrong began playing NBA 2K seriously. Normally, he plays with four others, guys from New York, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Florida. He has only met one of them in real life (they used to work together at a Best Buy); the rest he met through the game itself. After sizing each other up in a random match, one would send the other a chat message suggesting teaming up.
They are a tight-knit squad that can by now anticipate each other’s movements. They use nicknames; Armstrong is “Pop” after beloved San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, because he’s always coaching them on defense. Each of the guys tried out in the combine individually, and they texted each other how they were doing each day.
In his day job, Armstrong works for AT&T selling phones, cable, and internet. He says the position allows him to combine two of his interests: technology and interacting with people. The pay is good, from his perspective. He said he’s glad he didn’t go to college and take out burdensome student loans. He actually likes his job a lot; there’s just no comparison to playing video games professionally.
He actually considers NBA 2K to be a test of basketball intelligence: when to pass, when to cut, when to take your shot.
I asked Armstrong if he considered himself an athlete. At first, he laughed off my question. But he admitted there might be an element of mental athleticism to what he does. He actually considers NBA 2K to be a test of basketball intelligence: when to pass, when to cut, when to take your shot. “It’s all about basketball IQ,” he said.
He contrasted this with games like StarCraft and Overwatch that emphasize reaction speed. First-person shooters are all about fast fingers. Professional StarCraft gamers might pull down six figures, but they are also forced to retire around 24 when human neurological ability begins to naturally deteriorate. It appears that weapons-based video games are for the young, while basketball can be a lifelong activity, at least in eSport form.
The most challenging part of the combine was also its great equalizer: each gamer competed individually. Instead of playing with his squad from the past several years, Armstrong was randomly assigned four internet strangers a few seconds before the game. This elevated the importance of communication skills. He’d yell “GREEN!” to let players know that he released the basketball at the top of the green bar, meaning he would almost definitely make the shot, and his teammates should hurry back to the other end of the court and play defense. An added benefit of shouting the color was that it’s commonly known by non-English speakers, in case he was sorted into a group with international players.
Before the combine, Armstrong had been playing with San Antonio Spurs player Rudy Gay’s jump shot because of its beautifully-timed release. But player customizations weren’t allowed inside tryouts, so people missed a lot more shots than normal because they were being restricted to generic moves. Rebounding stats went through the roof. Armstrong practiced a lot with the more generic shooting style to make sure he was good at it. There is no real world analogue to having your skills wiped on the eve of your biggest sporting event.
Armstrong provided his private Twitch link to family, friends, and a small group of players. At the end of the combine, he had logged 84 views. By contrast, big-name gamers have built up huge followings on YouTube with millions of views. But that’s really only a popularity metric. Turns out, most popular streamers had a very poor showing in the combine. Like everyone else, they struggled to pull W’s with teams of randomized strangers, especially if they lacked Armstrong’s special ability to quickly befriend and win games with seemingly anyone.
He was originally concerned that big-name streamers would receive preferential treatment in the draft... he decided that the eLeague would probably select on merit because they would want to “do right” by the 2K community.
During the combine, Armstrong told me that he was originally concerned that big-name streamers would receive preferential treatment in the draft because they already have built-in fan followings. But then he changed his mind and decided that the eLeague would probably select on merit because they would want to "do right" by the 2K community.
The NBA’s eLeague expansion seems like a smart, forward-looking move. eSports are already incredibly popular in Asia, so there’s an opportunity for the NBA to increase global interest in traditional basketball by adding a video-game component. The NFL, typically considered to be behind the times in the eSports scene, is also planning to replicate the 2K eLeague model using its beloved Madden video game series.
Even the Olympics might get in on the eSports parade — a 2017 International Olympic Committee report suggested that the organization was seriously considering eSports for future Olympic Games. The committee noted: “Competitive ‘eSports’ could be considered as a sporting activity, and the players involved prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports.” Some observers believe eSports could appear in the Olympics as soon as Paris 2024.
When I mentioned the possibility of eSports in the Olympics, Armstrong brought up the explosive popularity of professional video-gaming globally and the millions of fans who regularly tune into the streams. From his perspective, it doesn’t really matter if eSports ever join the Olympic Games. They have already achieved so much. He grinned and said, “We’re already there, boy.”
In the first week of March, Armstrong received hard news: he was not one of the final 250 players selected. He knows that he was at least in the top 1% of players because he can see that a scout opened his combine application; the eLeague announced that they only reviewed applications for the top 1,000 candidates. Still, he’s bummed he won’t be playing professionally this year.
Armstrong would never say it, but popular 2K sites like The Ballgamer have suggested that his relative skills may never have actually mattered, and that the entire tryout process was predetermined in favor of big-name streamers on Twitch and YouTube. One of the chosen gamers was MrStylez, a recognizable figure in the 2K community with nearly 8,000 followers on Twitch. MrStylez allegedly tweeted out to his fans that he had not been selected, only to receive a surprise congratulatory email from the league a few minutes later. This led many in the 2K community to believe performance was not the overriding factor in selecting the Top 250. In a statement to a Forbes contributor, an unnamed NBA 2K League spokesperson offered the following in answer to the accusations:
Players were selected based on a range of factors, including performance from the combine and an online application detailing their knowledge of the game of basketball — for example, running a zone defense and executing a pick-and-roll — as well as their understanding of the NBA 2K video game and reasons for why they want to play in the league.
I watched several of Armstrong’s combine games. He was clearly among the best in terms of communication skills and overall ability; at times he was gaming like a god among boys. A few days after the announcement, I asked Armstrong how he was taking it. He seemed upbeat. “I have a great job which lets me continue to pursue my passion and there is always next year,” he said. He told me he can’t imagine giving up 2K because of how much he loves the game. Like all top athletes, he’s completely focused on the future. “Now I have an idea of what they are really looking for and will adjust accordingly.”