May 08, 2020
If you're like most sports fans out there, you're probably going through some pretty serious withdrawal right about now. And despite no way of knowing when the majority of professional sports league will return to action as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, all hope is not lost.
We've all become accustomed to working from home, attending virtual meetings and happy hours alike, and essentially living life digitally. So why should our sports be any different?
While the world of esports continues to grow, the shuttering of traditional sports provides the industry, and organizations like the NBA 2K League, with a unique opportunity to make the jump from niche to mainstream. And there's really no reason you shouldn't give it a shot. After all, aren't you tired of watching replays of games where you already know the outcome, especially when there's a local team you can root for and is playing live games a couple of nights a week?
And there are plenty of storylines. Like, for example, a coach who recently missed the birth of his child while stuck in quarantine with his entire team (but more on that in a bit).
Philly has one of the best 2K League teams in the nation — 76ers Gaming Club lost in the championship last season, have the reigning Coach of the Year in Jeff Terrell, and boast an MVP finalist at point guard in Ethan "Radiant" White. They've also been voted by league GMs as the second-most likely team to win it all this year. And unlike in past years, you won't even have to log on to a computer or gaming system to get your first taste.
"It's something new. At first, it might be a little weird, but give it some time, keep watching and you might find something you like." —Ethan 'Radiant' White
On Tuesdays through May 19, the NBA 2K League will air games on ESPN2 in addition to Twitch and YouTube. ESPN will announces its broadcast plans for the remainder of the season in the near future. Currently, the league schedule is running Tuesday through Friday nights, with just the first night being nationally televised. On Saturday, however, NBC Sports Philadelphia will air the inaugural "Mid-Atlantic Showdown" between 76ers GC and Wizards District Gaming, which will also be the first-ever NBA 2K League game to air on a regional network. And, for those looking for a smoother transition from real basketball to the virtual version, Mark Zumoff will be part of the broadcast team.
It's the perfect chance for all those starving for live sports to find a new team to rally behind.
"I think with us being on TV now, the whole world is shut down and everyone wants a taste of sports," says Alex "Steez" Bernstein, who has been with 76ers GC each of their first three seasons. "And not only are we just like tradition basketball, we're an esport version of it so you'll see different things, you'll see more highlights, and it's something new. I think it's cool because there are so many different personalities that fans can fall in love with. So if it's your first night watching the 2K League, you might fight a favorite player right off that you haven't known about them your whole life. And now it's someone new you can look forward to seeing every week. That's the cool thing about the experience we're about to have this season."
Unfortunately for the team, their first time on TV didn't go as planned, with them dropping their series against Raptors Uprising, 2-0. But they were together in defeat, just like they have been for the last two-plus months.
Unlike the professional athletes you're used to, members of the 76ers GC team, including the coach, live in the same house in South Jersey, which allows them to practice and play together even when they're not at the 76ers team facility in Camden. This year, more than ever, that's been key, as the players have been quarantined together since the coronavirus pandemic forced stay-at-home orders around the nation. It's part of the reason the 2K League is still able to hold games, despite their players coming from all over the country.
But that also comes with a price, as the team has now been away from their families for several months, forcing them to not only miss their wives and girlfriends, but in the case of some, the birth of their children.
Earlier this week, head coach Jeff Terrell's wife gave birth to their third child, and Radiant is expecting their second baby later this month. It's difficult, sure, but they're just happy to be able to help provide for their families during this tough time.
"It's been harder," admits Terrell, who is in his third season with 76ers GC and is one of the best coaches in the league. "I missed the birth of my child, you know? And not being with my kids every night — a lot of people right now are quarantined at home with their kids and family. They're having a lot more time with them, which is something that's awesome. ... But yeah, it's something that crosses my mind and I know crosses the players' minds, because they still have families that aren't around. It's definitely different, it's tough at times, but we make the most of our situation. We know we're extremely blessed."
Prior to their first game on Tuesday, the players were surprised with good luck messages from the families their currently missing while working, in some cases, thousands of miles from home.
While they may not be playing in the fancy new studio the league built up in New York to host games, the players, like the rest of us, are trying to turn lemons into lemonade. Being stuck in a house with your coworkers sounds like the premise of the worst reality show ever, but these aren't typical co-workers. It also helps that the majority of those on the team are returning from past years, providing a familiarity that can be comforting while being quarantined.
"It's easy. We have a lot of team chemistry here and have known each other for years now," says Steez. "Are there times when we want to get away and go back home and see our families? Of course. But that's just not the cards that we're dealt right now. Like I said, we have an obligation, especially to our organization and the league, to do our part and play our role in this whole process. And our role right now is to get better every day and also put out content and give people an escape. When they need an escape, they can come watch the 2K League or any of the content we put out. That's kind of why we put out the podcast and people get engaged in our lives other than the gaming side of it. So just doing our part is mostly what we're focused on right now, as a team and as a league."
"Are there times when we want to get away and go back home and see our families? Of course. But that's just not the cards that we're dealt right now." —Alex 'Steez' Bernstein
One of the other main differences for the 2020 campaign was the lack of a season tip-off tournament. And that's especially big to 76ers GC, the two-time defending champions of THE TIPOFF. That helped the team gain some confidence heading into the regular season, and without that, the lasting image for the returning players heading into the 2020 campaign was that of their 2K League Championship loss to T'Wolves gaming last year.
"It was pretty tough," Steez says of that season-ending loss. "We put so much effort and so much work into that, and on top of that you have so much passion and fire that goes into this game. Coming up short like that, it's tough, especially going home in the offseason, you don't get to be with the guys anymore. It just marinates in your head for so long and so it's rough. And when you get back here for season three, things are different. So you always have that in the back of your head but you've always got to keep moving forward and realize that you don't want to be in that position again. So that's kind of the mentality we've had coming into this year."
This year, they have their sights set on returning to the championship and have been voted as one of the favorites to make it back. So who is the best team in league? The team voted ahead of 76ers GC in that GMs poll, Blazer5? The defending champs? Someone else? Do the players even pay attention to these polls?
"I don't think the T'Wolves are the team to beat," says Radiant, who in addition to being a perennial MVP candidate was voted as the preseason favorite to win the award in 2020. "I think the Raptors showed that they're the team to beat, after beating us and then the Wiz, because the Wiz are also a contending team that's really good. And, yeah, we pay attention to that stuff, but at the end of the day, I mean, it's just content. It doesn't really mean much. We have to go out there and play the games, so we can be ranked second and go out there and lose every game and it doesn't mean nothing. So, yeah, I feel like after these first two games, the Raptors have shown themselves as an up and coming team that we're going to have to deal with."
In addition to Radiant and Steez, 76ers Gaming Club is returning two other players from the 2019 season: Christopher “BreadwinnerLA” Lafanette, who made the All-Rookie and All-Defensive teams last season, and Rashann “ZDS” Petty, a core member of the team since its first season in 2018. They also have two new additions this season as well: Mike “USERPICK” Albiter and Tucker “TuckerLocksUp” Henry
"They've been fitting in pretty good," says Steez. "You know, each of them we knew before we drafted them that they had a role and a task that we needed them to achieve for us. And I think that both of them have done very well at doing that. Mike [Albiter], also known as USERPICK, he's a more defensive-minded person so we needed him to come in and anchor down the defense for us. And he's been doing that very well for us. He's very hardworking and even putting in work after hours to hopefully help propel our tema to the next level.
"And then our second player that we took, Tucker Henry, also known as TuckerLocksUp, is a very high-character, high-energy guy. He brings a different kind of mood to the team and helps keep the spirits really high, which is awesome. And he can also play, like, whenever we need to plug him into a certain spot, he can do that for us. It's good to have a team where all six of us can play at any moment. I think we put together the right team on paper and now we just need to put it to the test and get these wins."
Their next chance to pick up a win will come on Friday night, when they take on Hornets Venom GC at 7 p.m. (Twitch and YouTube), with their next appearance on national TV coming on May 19. And they'll also have that exhibition against Wizards District Gaming on Saturday at 10:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
While the remote gameplay setup has limited the players ability to talk trash to their opponents, something Terrell pointed out while noting the unique challenges of this season, the broadcast element of it provides the league a chance to grow its audience at a time when people of all ages are looking for any kind of live sports. And just seeing these games on actual television could provide some credibility and elevate the esports to a new level.
"...the pressure's always been there with us to be a successful team. Obviously, it's going to be in the back of your head that you're on ESPN2 right now, but I just look at it as an opportunity." —Alex 'Steez' Bernstein
"I definitely think it brings more awareness," says Terrell. "Just to be honest with you, Twitch and YouTube, that's something that younger generations use, so you're still going to have people there. But when you put it on national TV, I mean, you're having people that don't even know what Twitch or YouTube is or how to use it. So, obviously, awareness of the league is going to help us continue to expand and grow. I also just think it's another platform for families to tune in and be like, 'Hey, we're on ESPN2 tonight!' It's something that's very cool and is going to help our league continue to grow. I also think it's going to help our players grow their fanbases and obviously obviously our organization's [fanbase] as well. It's definitely exciting times."
With more awareness of the league and a larger audience comes added pressure. But that's a trade the players are more than willing to make, especially since they're already putting a ton of pressure on themselves. It's nothing new.
"I think, especially, being from Philly and being so successful the past two seasons, the pressure's always been there with us to be a successful team," says Steez. "And if you think of that pressure too much, about being on national TV and all that kind of stuff, then it'll get to you. We have a job to do and we've been very good at that job for the past two seasons. As long as we keep that same mentality that we're going to accomplish a goal for our organization and for our teammates, we'll just let the chips fall where they may, whether we're on national television or not.
"Obviously, it's going to be in the back of your head that you're on ESPN2 right now, but I just look at it as an opportunity. Obviously you don't want to go out there and lose, but win, lose or draw, [being on] national television is good for the league, the players and the organizations."
There's no doubt that more exposure can only help a league that is still in its infancy and hoping to grow during a time in which there isn't much else to compete with.
"You know what I say? I say, I know ya'll are tired of watching them old games on TV that you already know the outcome of," adds Radiant. "So turn on something that you don't know what's going to happen. It's something new. At first, it might be a little weird, but give it some time, keep watching and you might find something you like."
There's a lot to like, from the players' personalities to the action itself — there's actually some pretty good basketball, and the 76ers were one of the teams early on in the league to use more traditional offensive sets in a league that predominantly features one-on-one play. So before rewatching a game you've already seen or binging your favorite sitcom for the fifth time during quarantine, consider flipping on the 2K League. It might not be for, and that's fine. But you might just find a new team to root for.
And that's something we could all use right about now.
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