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SALT LAKE CITY — It wasn’t until Shaka Browne’s family and friends saw the prize money that they began to take his chosen profession seriously.
He had entered an NBA 2K tournament for $250,000. That made some jaws drop a bit.
“They were like, ‘Man, maybe this is something that you could really do,’” said Browne, the Jazz Gaming point guard who is better known by the gamer tag Yeah I Compete.
That realization is coming to more and more people as esports continues to break into mainstream media.
Richard Tyler Blevins, more commonly known by his online alias Ninja, made close to $10 million in 2018 by streaming his gameplay on Twitch and YouTube.
ESPN has deals to broadcast “League of Legends” and “Overwatch League” tournaments with last weekend’s Overwatch League’s Stage 1 being broadcast on ABC. And earlier this year, Turner Broadcasting announced an agreement with EA Sports to stream “FIFA 19” on Twitch and Bleacher Report Live.
The Washington Post reported that esports global revenues reached nearly $906 million in 2018. So get your jokes out now, because esports is becoming quite the moneymaker.
On Level 5 of Vivint Arena, there’s a new room that features bright artwork with a mural reading “Jazz Gaming.” There are tall windows looking out to the Union Pacific Depot. And of course, there is a long table with monitors, headsets and consoles. The room is the newest addition to the arena — a gaming lounge for the Utah Jazz’s own NBA 2K League team.
The six-player squad is based in Salt Lake City and competes as unique characters in 5-on-5 play against the other 2K League teams. They aren’t playing as Donovan Mitchell or Rudy Gobert, they are competing as their own avatars.
The Jazz Gaming players have heard all the subtle (and not so subtle) mocking words. And they know the negative stigma that surrounds their profession. But they also know that, yes, it is a profession. And it’s a pretty good one at that.
The four Jazz Gaming players who were drafted this year will earn a base salary of $33,000 for a six-month commitment; the two retained players (Browne and DeMar “Deedz” Butler) can earn up to $38,000. And the league will also have a $1.2 million prize pool for tournaments throughout the season.
Jazz gaming has a head coach in Jelani “Comp” Mitchell. There’s traveling, film study, individual and team practice sessions. There are scouting reports, plays drawn, plays practiced. The players have to develop chemistry and timing with each other and they have to know each other’s tendencies.
It’s more than just pushing X. In a lot of ways, it's like being on any other sports team.
“Watching film, seeing the mistakes that you are making, your teammates are making. It’s easier to hold people accountable when you watch film,” Browne said. “There are a lot of things that really feel like regular sports.”
But they are in fact playing a game. And that’s what has made the experience so surreal.
The team flies to New York for tournaments and games. The players have had gaming sessions with Donovan Mitchell, Dante Exum and Raul Neto — with Neto even topping one unnamed Jazz Gaming squad member. And they now have their own lounge in an NBA arena.
Browne sometimes sees kids and teenagers (and even some adults) walk by during Jazz games and glance longingly inside. The new space is a gamer’s dream. And Browne is currently just living that dream.
“Sometimes I don’t even believe it,” he said. “I get up and I laugh. I get paid to play a video game for a professional NBA franchise. That doesn’t sound real. The fact that I get to do this is just a blessing. I grew up thinking, ‘Man, this would be my dream job if it ever were a thing.’ And now it’s a thing.”
And it’s only getting bigger. The NBA 2K League has already expanded from 17 teams in its first season to 21 heading into this year (the league opens up on April 5).
Jelani “Comp” Mitchell, the new Jazz Gaming coach, said he believes the league will soon be expanding overseas, too.
The NBA 2K League has a challenge that “League of Legends,” “Fornite,” “Rocket League” and many other popular games don’t face: There’s a real-life product to go against. So what is the appeal of watching the 2K League over an NBA game?
“When people buy into a personality, they buy into a person,” Mitchell said. “It’s more than the gameplay that people are watching it.”
People like to hear the trash talk, the celebrations, and to see the interactions. And they also like to see the best perform their craft.
“I’m on television, I’m on NBA TV — for a video game,” Browne said. “Now my family and friends are like ‘What do you do again?’ They can’t believe it.”