T-Wolves Gaming comes to the Twin Cities with NBA 2K

Millions of viewers and thousands of dollars at stake in professional gaming

Lindsey Peterson
March 22, 2019 - 4:14 pm

Mike Stobe / Stringer / Getty Images

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Nacho is 26 years old and he’s from Ohio.  He described himself as “smart but lazy…I never really tried hard in school but I loved video games”.  He started playing NBA 2K several years ago and he thought he was pretty good.  “I didn’t know if I was good enough to be one of the best in the world.  But I was good enough to try out.”  He was drafted by Orlando and spent 2018 playing video games for money.

He plays Shooting Guard for the T-Wolves in the NBA 2K League.  He makes a base salary of $34,000 with a chance to earn well over six figures if they can win some tournaments and the league championship.  Nacho is one of 126 players for 21 teams competing between April in August playing video games for NBA franchises.  There is some big money at stake.  That money is growing and millions are watching. 

When Nacho got a call from the T-Wolves Gaming League last month, he was not expecting to be back after that season in Orlando.  He was one of around 50 players who were dropped by their teams following the season.

“My cell doesn’t work where I live in Ohio so I had to head out into the snow to take the call”, said Nacho (real name is Brian Traynor).  “I was watching the draft with my brother but since I had made it one year, I was figuring I wasn’t going to make it back.  But, I had so much fun I figured I couldn’t just be one and done”.  He’s now back for year two, and he is considered quite old for NBA 2K at 26. Most players are barely out of high school.  

Professional Esports have arrived in the Twin Cities. 

The NBA 2K League launched in 2018 for gamers who were 18+ years old and owned NBA 2K18 on a Playstation 4 or Xbox One.  Players competed in Pro Am’s and submitted an application that January before finally competing in a combine.  It functions like higher profile athletic combines such as the NFL does each winter.  Players get rated on their game skills instead of athletic ability.  The top 102 players out of the 72,000 that qualified were then drafted to compete in the first season.

The T-Wolves did not compete in year one, but are ready to go in year two following an expansion draft.  Players were rated on skill, game analytics, and interviewed before each team decided who they wanted to draft.  Sound familiar?  This is the same process as Scott Layden and Ryan Saunders will go through with the NBA franchise.

"I thought Brooklyn might take me.  I had a really good interview there", said Nacho.  "When they didn't take me with the pick right before the T-Wolves, I thought it was all over.  Then my phone rang."

There are a lot of similarities between NBA Gaming and the regular NBA.  As T-Wolves Gaming Head Coach and General Manager Shawn Vilvens said, “There are a lot commonalities between the two. You still run offensive sets, defensive sets in pro am just like you would on a real basketball court. A lot of the fundamental things in real basketball translate to pro-am as well. How to play defense, where to position yourself, understanding where a mismatch is, how to manage the clock. All of those things translate between the two really well. The difference is that you’re not putting the same type of practice in. In real basketball, you’ve got to physically get up and get out and run and do that thing. It’s a grind in the physical sense where the pro-am side of it or the E-Sports side of it is, it’s definitely a mental grind.”

T-Wolves Gaming top draft pick was BearDaBeast23 aka Michael Key, a point guard who is considered one of the draft’s top players. Key is a graduate of Piedmont University with a degree in Christian Ministries with a minor in coaching. 

If you’re wondering how this differs from some kid just playing video games in mom’s basement, it’s as easy as explaining the difference between shooting hoops in your backyard from being an NBA player.  The competition is extreme.  These are players that compete at levels the average player could never match. 

In the NBA 2K League, teams consist of six players.  Five play at one time with an extra available (although you can’t sub in during a game, coaches can change players out).  The actual Avatars, or the computer-generated players, are built based on skill level and a scanned photo of the face of the actual person is added.  Each Avatar has 90 points that can be used in various skills: shooting, passing, rebounding, shot blocking, etc.  The coach/GM will determine what skill level players use based on how they play the video game. 

Advanced stats play a huge role.  How they manipulate the game sticks is measured.  A good shooter has about 9 milliseconds to click the correct button for a “perfect” jump shot according to Vilvens, saying, “It’s a really difficult skill”.  Some players are better with a center or power forward then they are at point guard. 

There’s also intense practice sessions in between the actual games or tournaments.  According to Nacho, they’re practicing, watching film and scrimmaging 8-10 hours a day to get ready for their first game on April 3rd versus Washington.  Vilvens told us that the practices get heated.  “If someone doesn’t play the pick and roll properly, or if they’re setting a pick too low, we get loud”.  Players wear headsets in order to communicate with each other.  During games, there is a lot of trash talking between opposing teams as they sit across from each other. 

The players that are drafted are moved to their team’s home city a couple of weeks before the first game and stay through the entire season.  All T-Wolves Gaming players are housed in two-bedroom apartments that are shared in downtown Minneapolis.  They’re given a base salary with a chance to win a lot more. 

RELATED: Five straight losses for the Timberwolves.

The Timberwolves franchise is investing a lot of money in the gaming franchise too.  Ted Johnson, Chief Strategy Officer of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx explained to WCCO that, “This is just the start.  We’ve spent significant funds with the thought that as this grows, it will pay off as a business.  Even if that means we lose some at the start.”

On the Skyway level of Mayo Clinic Square, a full state-of-the-art training center is being built.  “The training center is going to be amazing,” said Vilvens. “Having a state-of-the-art space to bring the team together in as we work toward and through the season will set the tone for years to come. It meets and exceeds every need we could possibly have. We are extremely lucky to have access to such an amazing facility and personally, I could not be more excited about putting it to use.”

The training center will have glass walls.  As you're walking through Mayo Clinic Square (directly above Kieran's Irish Pub), chances are you'll see T-Wolves gaming hard at work in there once the training center is finished.

The games themselves are mostly a social media event.  On platforms like Twitch, YouTube and Twitter, millions of fans watch the games and tournaments live from a studio in New York City.  All teams fly to New York for the games and tournaments.  There's no "home field advantage" in this sport. 

Sponsorship has grown in just a year.  As more money pours in, more players start competing and gaming stars are being born. 

“There hasn’t been that one big star to come out of Esports yet,” Nacho told WCCO.  “Maybe that star will be one of us?  Wouldn’t that be cool?  They could make a ton of money!”

Next time you tell your kids to stop playing video games and get outside, you might hear this: “But I want to be a professional gamer!”

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