Esports has entered the conversation and captured the attention of a leaning-younger demographic. Knicks Gaming’s recent victory at the inaugural NBA 2K League finals felt like a prophetic beginning to the Association’s foray into gaming.
In 1972, Basketball was released on the Magnavox Odyssey, the first commercially available video game console. Fast forward to 2018, and more than 25 million people watched Knicks Gaming sweep Heat Check Gaming in the first NBA 2K League Finals. We’ve come a long way.
It’s not the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but a team wearing orange and blue, a team that wasn’t supposed to even sniff the finals, was the last one standing. Only in the playoffs thanks to a 4-0 run through the Ticket Tournament in July, Knicks Gaming completed their unlikely run and etched their names into the esports history books.
After watching the team claw back from a double-digit deficit in the second game of the series and seeing the confetti fall, one could be forgiven for forgetting they were at Brooklyn Studios in Long Island City in August and not the Garden in June.
Players stared intently at their screens, blocking out the yells from the crowd and the cameras around them, all the while looking more like they were playing chess than basketball. Until a key block or a three. That leads to a yell from Adam Kudeimati, aka iamadamthe1st, or a stomp from Dayvon Curry, aka Goofy757, and suddenly you’re reminded that many of these guys would normally be preparing to go back to college in mid-August. Instead, they’re minutes away from a $300,000 prize. And they’ve gotten to where they are by playing a game they likely first picked up in their bedrooms before they were old enough to drive.
Knicks Gaming's Adam Kudeimati on the esports team's mentality going into the final stretch of the championship: pic.twitter.com/UTwWiXIABb
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) September 5, 2018
The 2K tournament isn’t basketball. They’re not trying to be basketball. Plenty of people dismiss the concept out of hand, and while I approached the event with an open mind, I really didn’t know what to expect. I’ve covered a lot of very different events during my relatively short time as a journalist, but I had no idea what to expect at a professional gaming event.
When I started as a reporter, I’d have to fight off a rapid heartbeat and a stone-dry mouth before every interview. For the most part that’s faded, but as I entered the unfamiliar territory, and saw the trophy sitting in the center of the room, I felt those butterflies return a bit. I took this assignment because I was free and I thought it could be fun, but despite the cramming I had done in the days prior, I knew almost nothing about the world of pro gaming.
I was surrounded by reporters from various outlets, all of whom seemed to know much more about esports than I did. Nonetheless, I stood there with my questions written in my iPhone’s notes app.
After letting a few other reporters go, I hop in with a question our editor Reid Goldsmith suggested: “Have you guys picked up any superstitions over this run you’ve been on?”
It’s a hit (thanks, Reid), and all of the gamers respond at once. Goofy goes so far as to pull up his sweats to reveal green socks with white shamrocks—his lucky socks, he called them. He calmly remarked that he had been wearing them for the duration of the winning streak. They reminded me too much of the Celtics for my liking, but Goofy evidently knew better than I did.
Follow the NBA and you’ll see tons of clips of players featuring them and the tops of reporters’ heads. These guys clearly weren’t professional athletes, no one would look twice if they saw them walking down the street, but here they commanded everyone’s attention as if they were seven feet tall.
Interviews end and the audience files in. There’s just over a dozen seats in the back row of one side reserved for press. I camp out in one near the aisle so I can get in and out, but shortly after tip-off I abandon it to see how long I can stay on the floor taking pictures. The answer was apparently one full game as I’m asked to return to my seat shortly after Game 2 gets underway.
Game 1 was almost never in doubt; Game 2 less so. It took a late-game run and a go-ahead three from Eric Ward, aka YEYnotgaming, to clinch the championship. The Knicks had been down by six with 1:22 to go, and it was only even that close thanks to the defense of Nate Kahl, who unlike his teammates that have a flair for the dramatic in their usernames, simply goes by NateKahl.
Finals MVP Nate Kahl (center right) on how his teammates and him elevated their play to championship-level heights: pic.twitter.com/O7fPaLrhky
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) September 5, 2018
Kahl was tasked with guarding Miami’s Juan “Hotshot” Gonzalez, who was living up to his name, averaging 50.3 points per game—yes, more than 50 points—in the Heat Check’s five-out system during the playoff. Kahl held Hotshot to 44 and 38 points, respectively, and was named Finals MVP for his efforts, similar to the NBA-equivalent recognition Andre Iguodala earned in 2015.
The underdog capped off their Cinderella run with another unlikely win, and the studio exploded. Friends, family, and fans cheered, the players hugged, and photographers scrambled to capture it all.
What I saw wasn’t a sport, but it was more than a game, and it was the future. Esport events are drawing massive crowds across the world. The finals of the Overwatch League sold out the Barclays Center. Esports are here, and in addition to leagues like the NBA and NFL getting involved, companies like Comcast and Coca Cola, along with athletes like Shaq and A-Rod, are all hitching their wagon to it. Esports are here to stay, like it or not.
Internet curmudgeons will slander esports—just read the replies any time ESPN covers an event. Maybe they’re right about it not being a “sport,” but who cares? They’ll be left behind in the ash heap of history. It won’t be long until the NBA has their own esport Joel Embiid. Embiid famously played volleyball, not basketball, until he was 15. I’m calling it, by 2021 there will be a rookie who was more interested in 2K than actual basketball, at least until they hit a growth spurt.
This experience converted me. Will I be staying up to all hours of the night to watch the League of Legends tournaments in South Korea? No. But will I check up on Knicks Gaming, being sure to tune in on Twitch for a big game next season? You’re damn right.