Shaka “Yeah I Compete” Browne cuts an imposing figure. He’s the first one up to greet me when I walk into the Jazz Gaming practice facility to interview the team. He’s not only the team’s first round draft pick and point guard, you can tell immediately that he’s a natural leader, someone from whom everyone takes their cues.
And now he has his team in the middle of a desperate race towards the playoffs in the inaugural season of the NBA 2K League. This season means a lot to the league—it is, after all, the first one sponsored by a major sports league. And it means just as much to Compete and all the players who finally get to play the game as professionals.
It won’t be an easy road for the Jazz, who currently sit at 5-7. But as they told me, “If we play our game, we can beat anybody.”
From local tournaments to the big time
For Compete and his teammates on Jazz Gaming, the NBA 2K League has been a whirlwind experience over the last three months. They’ve flown all over the country representing Utah in one of the hottest new gaming leagues.
The opportunity to play 2K as professionals is a dream come true for the players. Compete has one of the best stories in esports, going from driving an Uber to starring as the Jazz’s best player.
“We’ve been playing this game for years and years,” Compete told Dot Esports. “To play as a career, can’t beat that.”
Compete is hardly the only unique story on Jazz Gaming. His teammates hail from all over the country. Most of the have played in local tournaments for years, dominating their neighborhood scenes. This is the first time they can show how good they are in front of a national audience.
“Everyone’s used to playing this for free in their spare time,” said forward Michael “Stambreezy” Stam. “To get this opportunity was once in a lifetime.”
Stambreezy would know about life-changing experiences—he’s a cancer survivor and the league’s oldest player. He’s been through a lot and knows that this was a chance he couldn’t pass up, even if it meant leaving his family in Charlotte, North Carolina to come to Utah.
Where is Utah?
Utah is one of the NBA’s lesser-known franchises, and it has historically had a hard time attracting players. After the draft, many of the Jazz Gaming players had questions about where exactly they were heading to. “What’s Utah and where’s it at” joked forward DeMar “Deedz” Butler.
“I didn’t have many expectations [about coming to Utah],” center Malik “MrSlaughter01” Leisinger said. “Just coming out of school, knowing I was going to Utah, ‘Well, it’s gonna be a lot different from Cleveland, Ohio.'”
Utah might be a mystery to some players, even those in the NBA. But as far as fanbases go, it doesn’t get much better than the Jazz’s. And some of that love has translated to the esports team.
“There’s definitely a growing interest,” Stambreezy said. “The longer we’ve stayed here the more recognition we’ve received.”
“Especially in Utah because there’s so many people who are Jazz fans,” Slaughter said.
“Die hard fans,” Deedz said.
As the team has continued to play in Utah, they’re getting more and more opportunities to build that fan base, from events at the local Microsoft store to Salt Lake Gaming Con, where fans could play on the 2K League settings.
But as good as Utah has been to the players, it still doesn’t compare to the real stage in New York, at least not yet.
Every week, teams from all over the country fly to New York to play in the 2K League Studio. The studio is small and intimate—the crowd is extremely close, which provides a ton of energy and atmosphere.
“You have to be there,” Stambreezy said.
One unique aspect of the stage is that it’s arranged so players sit around a circle, facing their opponents. They can almost reach out and touch the players they’re going against. And they can definitely hear them.
“There’s no hiding,” Slaughter said about the arrangement. “In a normal game, you’re not seeing your opponent, you’re not even listening to your opponent. But when I’m across from you and I’m talking to you, you can get in their heads.”
Players have to learn how to tune that out, just like in a real NBA game. A bit of technology in the form of over-ear headphones helps.
“If your team is down a lot and you guys don’t have energy and aren’t talking, you’ll hear [the other team] all day,” Compete said. “You can tune it out though. You can turn the volume all the way up. I like to blast it.”
Vying for the playoffs
Jazz Gaming got out to a hot start on the New York stage, going 5-2 through six weeks of play. But things have been tougher recently after they dropped five straight matches. A big mid-season patch really messed with their rhythm.
“We tried to do too many things.” Compete said. “Before the patch it was a mirror match. Everyone was using the same positions because that was the ‘winning lineup.’ [The league] wanted some more diversity so they changed a lot of different things. We really started to slide down when the patch came out. We tried to switch a lot of different things.”
To get back into winning form, the players believe they just need to focus on the basics.
“We gotta go back to what got us to 5-2,” Deedz said.
As long as they accomplish that, the team still has confidence for the playoffs. The league has been full of upsets in its first season. The second-worst team just won a mid-season tournament to steal a playoff spot. So even at 5-7, Jazz Gaming are far from finished.
“This league has shown that anyone can be beat,” Compete said. “Be ready to play on game day and if we’re the better team on game day, we’ll beat them.”