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SALT LAKE CITY — With just five games left in the regular season, the Jazz are fighting for their playoff lives.
OK, not literally. Virtually.
Jazz Gaming, the Utah Jazz's franchise in the NBA 2K League, is currently in a five-way tie for fifth place in the standings. The top eight teams make the playoffs, so the Jazz are on the knife's edge as to whether or not they'll make the league's postseason in August.
And they're dealing with an unexpected game changer.
For the uninitiated, here's how the NBA 2K League works: 17 NBA teams bought into NBA 2K League franchises for a reported cost of $750,000 each. In April, each team drafted six players among a player pool of 102 gamers: a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, a power forward, and a center, plus one bench player.
They're all paid $32,000 salaries from the league itself (those players drafted in the first round make a little more, $35,000). The league makes money through sponsorships.
"We play video games for a living," DeMar Butler, a Jazz Gaming player known on the game as "Deedz" said. "When I say that to people, they're like 'Are you serious? Get out of my face, you play video games for a living? That's not fair.' It changed my life."
Every week, those gamers watch film, practice, and participate in community events, then fly to New York City to the NBA 2K League studio for their scheduled game. This week, for example, Jazz Gaming takes on Pacers Gaming at 2 p.m. MT. Those games are streamed live on Twitch, where fans from around the world can watch.
That part was a little bit of a problem. The league launched during the NBA playoffs to relatively disappointing viewership numbers. During the league's Tipoff Tournament, the NBA 2K League averaged 6,500 concurrent viewers, according to The eSports Observer. Those numbers pale in comparison to popular eSports games.
For example, the Overwatch league averaged 213,200 concurrent viewers in its opening week, and Fortnite viewership has gotten up to about 1.4 million people watching at once, according to Statista.
And worse, viewership for the NBA 2K League decreased over the course of the tournament: the debut broadcast averaged about 10,600 concurrent viewers, but the final only had about 5,400. In week one, the league averaged 4,100 viewers, in week two, just 2,900. In other words, not only were not many people giving the 2K League a chance, those who did seemed to change the virtual channel in huge numbers.
I can't say I blame those people. Watching the NBA 2K League, especially the early games, is like a trip to the basketball version of the uncanny valley. NBA 2K18 is a good game that spends a lot of effort to mimic the animations used in the real life NBA. The broadcast, the commentary, and the visuals are all great, too. But because the game introduces an element of randomness in how it chooses which animation to use, the action on the screen doesn't always look clean. And because it's a video game, there are glitches. Some are just flukes, like this sequence when a team couldn't inbound the ball.
But bigger problems were just due to NBA2K being stretched to its breaking point by professionals looking for every edge. One common NBA2K League strategy is to force the ball inside to a center, who can catch his opponent unable to complete the animation in time to prevent an easy dunk or layup.
This play is a good example of all of the above: "Yeah I Compete" (Real name: Shaka Browne) passes the ball to "Deedz" despite two defenders in the way, both of whom are stuck in their steal animations way late. Then, Deedz passes up an open shot to feed "MrSlaughter01" (real name: Malik Leisinger), who somehow finds himself on the inside of his defender's block animation for the "highlight reel" jam. It's just jarring.
Another issue with the league is the game's blandness. Each point guard in the version of the game the league uses has the same height and weight as every other point guard, as is the case at each of basketball's five positions. All of the NBA stars' animations have been removed: no one in the league can dribble like Kyrie Irving or shoot like Steph Curry.
There are 25 positional "archetypes" to choose from (for example, a center can choose to be a "Pure Rim Protector" or a "Slashing Stretch Five," among other choices), but after a few weeks, it was pretty clear that a few archetypes were best, and the others were worthless. The result: every team looks pretty similar.
"There's really no signature move or any of that. I would love to see something like that come in future years," Josh Barney, director of eSports for the Jazz, said. "If you could have a chance to build your character up, that would be kind of a cool element I think."
Jazz Gaming was actually quite good at taking advantage of these quirks, though. "MrSlaughter01," playing as a Pure Rim Protector, was regarded as one of the best centers in the league; he's the league's fifth-highest scorer in regular season play while also being a fearsome defender. They played these advantages to playoff positioning and to being regarded as one of the league's best teams.
And then on July 4, the game literally changed.
On that date, the NBA 2K League introduced a patch that sought to "increase the variety of archetypes chosen and create more variety in the offensive and defensive play styles and strategies chosen by the teams." The biggest change: "The Pure Rim Protector will find it more difficult to convert shots across the board, be it from inside or from the perimeter."
In other words, one of Jazz Gaming's biggest competitive advantages was diminished overnight. Since the patch was released, they've lost both of their games, though they don't necessarily blame the patch for those losses.
But what might have been bad news for Jazz Gaming has been good for the health of the league. Besides the patch, the league also changed the game's camera angle — from the typical TV broadcast to the "2K" camera that puts the viewer behind the play head-on. And critically, they've added the player camera to the top of every broadcast, showing how the gamers are reacting to the on-court action. The viewer's experience has greatly improved.
"The players have outperformed anyone's expectations," Brendan Donohue, the NBA 2K League's managing director, said. "Their engagement level, and how intense they are, it's made for amazing content and amazing competition."
Focusing on the humans behind the games has been a very successful strategy for the league.
With those changes, the patch, as well as some of the league's biggest markets having success, concurrent viewership of "The Ticket" tournament last weekend reached 25,000 viewers and 700,000 total people. That's the eighth consecutive week in which the number of viewers has grown, and it seems like the league has a real future. The league will expand next year as more NBA franchises buy in to get an eSports counterpart.
And Jazz Gaming, for what its worth, is confident in its ability to make the playoffs despite the congested standings. If Jazz Gaming are able to navigate the playoffs and win, they'll get a prize of $300,000, giving each player an additional $50,000 to go with their salary above.
"There's pressure there. We know the consequences of losing another game," Butler said. "We understand what we've gotta get it done. We like our matchup this week, and we think the rest of the schedule might work in our favor."
Jazz Gaming, like the NBA 2K League itself, is looking to end the season on a high note.