Making it in NBA 2K: How to Become An Esports Professional

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(by: David Grandison, Director of Instructional Design)

The Esports industry is exploding in the absence of professional sports. Compared to last season NBA 2K League noted there was a 76% increase in unique viewers per stream on Twitch. The 23-team NBA 2K League, which is operated in part by the NBA, has reported one of the biggest boosts in viewership since for the first time it aired games on terrestrial television. In the 2020 season, the league was aired on ESPN2, eGG Network in Asia, and Sportsnet in Canada for the first time. 

Going pro in the esports industry is tough. Since the industry is growing at an exceptional rate the odds of finding success as a pro player is exponentially tougher, so you need to do your homework to break into this fast-growing industry. Let’s take a look at one of the most challenging routes into the industry and follow the path of the #1 Draft pick in NBA 2K20 Jack “JBM” Mascone.  Mascone admits he did not play video games much as a kid. He only picked up the sticks and started playing NBA 2K at 17, a couple of years before being drafted into the league.  

The rapid ascension of Mascone into the top ranks of this professional sport was not without challenges. While at Irvington High School in NY, he was an athlete and he played both tennis and basketball at the varsity level. He was betting on playing collegiate tennis when an injury sidelined him in his senior year. 

After his senior year, Mascone took a “Gap Year” and traveled to Florida to train. He planned to train and work on his injury to continue playing tennis on the collegiate level. But during the time he had off his feet due to the injury, he started playing NBA 2K more seriously with his friends and the rest is history… Mascone had developed a strong understanding of sports strategy that he could apply to his gameplay and it showed in his rapid mastery of NBA 2K. 

Some say NBA 2K may be slightly different from other video games because the learning curve is not as steep as many other Esports. Many video games require a mastery of the complexities of the button and stick combinations on the controllers. For some, NBA 2K can be a quicker sport to pick up because being a successful player requires a strong understanding of basketball and the strategies that go along with this basic knowledge of the sport. 

“It’s not like a ‘Call of Duty’ where the skill gap is in the controls,” Mascone said. “Regarding me not playing for so long, I think ‘2K’ is the one game you can get away with that, because I think a lot of the skill gap comes with intangibles off the game. Kind of just decision-making and just situational stuff that’s not necessarily so controller-related.” (Washington Times)

There is no simple road to the pro ranks in NBA 2K league for a prospective Esports player. Players and coaches like Hip Hop Gamer, Ivan “OG King Curt” Curtiss, and Graham Borden describe the progression to success playing NBA 2K in the FIT Gaming and Esports Industry Essentials certification. In this certification program they offer a wide variety of insights on getting into the league, and they agree it can take 10 hour days on the sticks and the discipline to train consistently as you master the sport. You also need to take the time to watch pro streamers videos and to study your competition’s playing styles. Next, you need to earn your rankings and “draft stock” by competing in Pro Am mode and making it to the Combine with a high Combine Gameplay Score (CGS) in your desired position. This enables you to rank high and play against the best players online to make the “draft pool”. Finally, you need to network and play with other top players in tournaments. 

Playing in NBA 2K League team-sanctioned amateur Pro-Am tournaments or in leagues at the high school, or collegiate level are vital. One important aspect of competing in tournaments that is many times overlooked, is the importance of networking and interacting with a wide variety of players. Any pro team that considers you will want to know, not only that you are in the “draft pool” but that you are a team player, you are pleasant to be around, that you have good communication skills and that you will gel with the other players on your team. You also need to have a tight “personal brand”. This means your social media presence is “clean” and free from issues (things that could embarrass the league) and that your “personal brand” not only looks good, but you are a positive individual, you understand community engagement, you are articulate, and positive personal branding is consistent across all your social media platforms. While CGS scores are of prime importance, people need to know who you are, they need to know you are going to rep the league well and they need to have played with or against you to be comfortable playing with you on their team… a big part of you “draft stock” is your reputation among other players in the sport and on social media. Your reputation and professionalism matters!

I met Mascone at the NBA 2K Draft where he was selected as the #1 Draft Pick by the Wizards District Gaming. In my interview with him he was modest, understated, yet it was clear he has a serious dedication to the sport and a focus on training. Mascone played Point Guard in High School and he was drafted to play point in for the Wizards District Gaming in NBA 2K (press play on the interview above). 

The NBA 2K League invested in a state of the art studio in New York for its third season but due to the coronavirus pandemic all the league’s games were held remotely. After a tough season, Mascone led his team, with Ryan “Dayfri” Conger on defense, to the top spot in the NBA 2K Finals tournament.  

The finals tournament was between Washington Wizards’ NBA 2K League affiliate, Wizards District Gaming and the team backed by the Golden State Warriors, the Warriors Gaming Squad. The prize package for the tournament was $900,000. The Warriors kicked off the series with a win, but the Wizards recovered and dominated the final three games. In the end JBM led Wizards District Gaming to victory over Warriors Gaming Squad, 70-55. The Wizards dominated the Warriors to win the tournament 3 games to 1. Wizards District Gaming took the purse, winning $420,000 in prize money. 

MVP finalist and Defensive Player of the Year Ryan “Dayfri” Conger and Rookie of the Year finalist Jack “JBM” Mascone led the charge. The Wizards had a middle of the road finish last season but they bet on Mascone to help them move up in the rankings and he delivered.   

So what does a professional Esports player like Mascone earn in his first year? Let’s talk about the numbers… as a first-round draft pick he was given a 6-month contract of $35,000 + prize money. Returning pros earned a base salary of about $37,500.  Players can win additional prize money from mid-season and end of the year tournaments. Players are also provided opportunities for salary increases if Wizards DG moved up in the standings. They also can make a lot of money off of endorsements and advertising work. 

This article focuses on the case study of a top player, but remember that there are a wide variety of roles in the Esports industry outside of the coveted pro-Esports player role. Remember, there are a number of roles that create content, like the game designer, UI designers, streamers, broadcast team members and shoutcasters. There are also roles that support the league from the management of teams, to the management of events. And then there are the entrepreneurial roles that support amateur gamers like the people who own and operate Esports venues, or even local game centers.

Making a living as a professional in Esports is challenging but if you don’t limit yourself, you are a lifetime learner, and you put in the time to build the experience, skills, and network that is necessary, you can find success in any aspect of the Esports industry you choose. For information about how you can find out more about a career in the Esports & Gaming industry, visit Yellowbrick.co/gaming.

Explore all areas of the gaming and esports industry with this new 100% online program from Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), featuring leaders from across the gaming and esports world.

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