The LeBron James of ESports Has His Stage at Last
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because pro sports leagues are going big with virtual counterparts.
By Tal Pinchevsky
Professional basketball offered one of the few viable escapes from the cycle of crime and poverty in the downtrodden section of Cleveland where Artreyo Boyd grew up, so the courts were where you proved yourself. NBA video games, on the other hand, were never seen as much more than a way to kill time.
This week in New York, Boyd’s name was called out as the No. 1 draft pick by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who offered a handshake and wide smile as Boyd stepped to the podium clad in a dapper blue suit and bow tie. Back in Dallas, owner Mark Cuban and team staff erupted in applause as they watched Boyd’s coronation live. But the player known as Dat Boy Dimez is not your typical prospect. It’s his thumbs that Mavs Gaming cherish most, as Boyd is the face of the brand-new NBA 2K League — an unprecedented esports undertaking. And though his paychecks aren’t the same size as his NBA brethren, Boyd is blazing a legitimate career road map for gamers. “This is what I’ve been playing for all these years,” Boyd said leading up to the draft. “Now we finally have a professional league in the esport and I’m ready.”
After dominating the tournament with eye-popping statistics such as 55 assists in a single game, Dimez was officially a star.
The NBA 2K League, which tips off its inaugural season in May, is the first competitive gaming league fully sanctioned by the NBA, and similar leagues are coming that will partner with FIFA, MLS and the NHL. Of the NBA’s 30 franchises, 17 own teams in the league, which will hand out $1 million in prize money. First-round draft picks earn $35,000 for a six-month contract; other players will receive $32,000. Players will also be allowed to secure endorsements and will receive paid housing and relocation expenses, along with medical insurance and a retirement plan.
Boyd, 23, conquered similar odds to flesh-and-blood ballplayers to get here. The talent pool, hand-picked by league organizers, started with 72,000 players around the world. Through a series of online competitions, that total was whittled down to 250. The remaining players were then interviewed by NBA officials, culling the final field to 102. And Boyd was the consensus — yes, this league had mock drafts too — top pick, to the Dallas Mavericks. “When they say he’s going to be a 2K elite star, I can totally see that. I’ve seen so much greatness going on with what he’s doing,” says Alex Bernstein, a teammate of Boyd’s on his Breakout 2K team.
An avid NBA 2K player for close to a decade, Boyd steadily established himself as one of the best players in the world. In the games, which feature individual players going online to engage in five-on-five competition, Boyd’s self-described style is equal parts Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul — the perfect point guard. But Boyd, suitably for a top-pick Clevelander, cites one player in particular when describing the focus and intensity he brings to the game: LeBron James.
Long a dominant player with a knack for identifying greatness in others and building elite teams around that talent, Boyd broke out in February 2017. That’s when his Team Trill captured the Road to All-Star championship, collecting a $250,000 prize and earning a trip to the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans. Team Trill disbanded shortly thereafter, but after dominating the tournament with eye-popping statistics such as 55 assists in a single game, Dimez was officially a star. “I’ve watched that tape of him winning probably five or six times just because it’s honestly inspirational how he was able to do that for his team and step up to the plate,” Bernstein says.
Boyd has been practicing roughly 12 hours a day since then in anticipation of the 2K draft and season, something he could not have dreamed as a kid. Boyd recalls his father constantly badgering him: “Trey, you have to do something else. You can’t just play video games.” Well, now he can. And he says his parents have come around to their son’s unorthodox career, even showing signs that they are impressed.
Just got my Suit for the Draft 😎 pic.twitter.com/7qnMkBZCzL
— Dimez (@DatBoyDimez) March 28, 2018
With the NBA’s marketing machine behind it, the 2K League should have a big launch. But the broader esports world remains skeptical that 2K can rise to the level of leagues built around more popular video games, such as Fortnite and League of Legends. “I would love to see it succeed; I just think people should temper their expectations,” says Mark Deppe, acting director of the esports program at the University of California, Irvine. “There’s a lot of games out there that are all trying to be megahits and make a lot of money and get a lot of viewers.”
Boyd appears to have no such reservations. In fact, he is already contemplating a future in the game as a team manager, grooming younger players. An obsessive hobby has now become a career, and he’s bursting with excitement — even addressing his new boss by his first name on draft day, calling out to the billionaire of Shark Tank fame: “Hey, Mark, man, let’s go get this ring.” Reflecting his sport’s rise in an interview in the weeks before his name was called, Boyd displayed a similar bravado. “I feel the sky is the limit,” he said. “There is no stopping it.”
- Tal Pinchevsky, OZY Author Contact Tal Pinchevsky