KRAVITZ: Welcome to the future: The NBA and Pacers step into the digital world of gaming

The team prepares to make their picks in the NBA gaming draft.
Published:
Updated:
Bob Kravitz

When I think of video gamers, I think in terms of stereotypes. I see pasty-faced, lumpy guys sitting on a secondhand couch down in their mother’s basement, a bong to the left of them and a bag of Cheetos to the right. I see them wearing ratty pajamas while sporting the faraway look of a person who has not had human contact, or a shower, in several weeks.

So when I arrived in the Pacers’ Gaming draft room Wednesday, I packed all the snark I could fit into my computer bag and prepared to make light of the fact that the NBA has begun a league of NBA2K enthusiasts (check that: experts). And when the excitable host of the Gaming show on Twitch.com, Jamie “Dirk’’ Ruiz, suggested these young men are professional athletes, I almost lost my lunch before remembering that I didn't have lunch.

But let me tell you something: This is dead serious. This is big-time. And this, much to the amazement of a 58-year-old relic whose last video dalliance was with Galaga, is the future. I won’t bore you with all the details, how many people actually play and watch others play; how much money is in this digital sport; why it’s the next big thing, but spend a couple of hours around Pacers Gaming chief, Cody Parrent, and you can’t help but think:

Wow.

On this day, each of 17 teams — all affiliated with NBA teams — would select six players from the field of 102 players who survived the pre-draft Combine. (Yes, there’s a Combine, but Mike Mayock does not attend. I’m guessing that instead of 3-cone drills, they do 3-button drills). Five players, all of whom will play a different position, point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center, will play against teams from other organizations. The sixth team member will be available in case of sickness, or carpal tunnel.

It should be noted that Mavs Gaming picked first in this draft, which shows that the basketball team AND the gaming team both tanked.

I’m sorry, there’s that snark again.

This, though, is serious. Really serious, and if you’re of a certain demographic, males 18-to-34, you understand it in a way I couldn't begin to fathom. When these players come to Indy, they will have all the support system at their disposal that the Pacers and Fever enjoy: A nutritionist. A weight room. A sports psychologist. Etcetera.

“We’re making history,’’ said Fever President and COO, Kelly Krauskopf, walking around the draft table and squeezing the shoulders of the draft team as the clock began on Mavs Gaming.

The draft team is led by Cody Parrent, a 27-year-old Evansville native who is something of a gaming legend and now holds the title of director of eSports operation. He has his own lab, where he uses all the same analytics that Kevin Pritchard and his staff use. He knows how efficient players are on the pick-and-roll, spot-up jumpers, finishing at the rim, the whole bit. Parrent and his crew are ready, having spoken in person or by phone with all 102 potential draftees. He knows their skill sets. He knows their personalities. He knows who can work well with other players, most of whom play the game in a single-player mode.

“Chemistry is important,’’ Parrent said, and I feel like I’m listening to Pritchard or any other pro-sports general manager. “Culture is important.’’

The players are not referenced by their names; they are referenced by their gaming handles. For example, PalmOilPlease, SavageDoWerk, I’mSoFarAhead and AuthenticAfrican. And Parrent and his pair of assistants, Matt Ellis and Shawn DeWitt, know every last one of these players, what they offer on the digital floor, what they might bring to the organization on the couch and off.

Just as former NBA commissioner David Stern spearheaded the move to make basketball an international game, his successor, Adam Silver, is dead set on commandeering the digital arena.

And so, with the first pick, he announced that Mavs Gaming had selected DimeZ who, as we all know, was the no-brainer top selection in this draft. He’s a do-it-all point guard, though in real life, well, he doesn't appear to be a fellow capable of finishing at the rim like Kyrie Irving — or getting up and down the floor without an oxygen tank. He looks like the stereotype, except without the bong in tow.

With the second pick, the Celtics select oFab who, in a post-selection interview, said, “A couple of months ago, my family told me I’d better get a job.’’

I told Krauskopf, “He doesn’t look like a point guard.’’

She smiled. “Well, his archetype does.’’

At this point, Fever coach Pokey Chatman leaned over and told me, “I have a friend whose son dropped out of medical school to become a professional gamer.’’

That sounded patently absurd at first blush, but honest, there’s money, good money, to be made in this sport. First-round picks will earn a six-month, $35,000 contract with full benefits and housing. Second-rounders and beyond will make $32,000, again with all the perks. And there’s more money, a lot more money, to be made during the postseason and in other competitions.

At this point, you’re wondering, “Who would watch people play a video game?’’ Well, not me, but I’m not the league’s target audience. Maybe I’ve been living in a cave, but it turns out that an ordinate number of people will watch others compete in a video basketball game. The digital world is not a place with which I’m terribly familiar, but then, I’m ancient. It’s a miracle I know how Twitter works – more or less.

The draft is like the NBA Draft. Players are selected, they step up to the podium, don a team hat, hug the NBA representative, do a quick TV interview and then talk to the assembled media, where their interviews are dutifully transcribed by ASAP. It should be noted, these are not ready-made media darlings. Again, we’re talking about a general lack of human contact , but they don’t have to be. As Parrent was telling me the day before the draft, these players have such huge social media followings, they don’t need dopes like me telling their story in the established, old world media.

As the draft-day host, Ruiz, talked about upcoming picks, he mentioned a gentleman who goes by the handle “WoLF,’’ and everybody in the entire room moaned. “Noooooo,’’ they said. See, they want WoLF. They have options, plenty of options, but WoLF, a defensive-minded small forward, is their guy.

Then comes another pick. And another pick. And another pick.

“No shockers,’’ Ruiz said. “This is how I had it in my mock draft.’’

Yes, they have gaming mock drafts. Your move, Mel Kiper Jr.

As the draft continued with each team getting three minutes to select, Wizards District Gaming made its selection, the 12th overall, and with that, the high fives began.

“We got him,’’ Krauskopf said, who, it should be noted, goes by KDeuce when she plays NBA2K and once accidentally did a 360-degree jam without actually trying.

“He’s a team leader,’’ Parrent said of his draftee, who was selected with the 13th pick. “He’s the best defender in the game.’’

WoLF, whose real name is Bryant Colon, is a small forward from Queens, N.Y., though there’s nothing small about this former college offensive lineman. Out in New York, Pacers representative Eddie White was giving WoLF an XL Pacers Gaming T-shirt, but there’s a problem: He needs a Triple-XL. If there’s ever a video brawl, I like the Pacers’ chances.

“I bring defense,’’ Colon/WoLF said. “That’s what I pride myself on. I’m able to shut down those guys and allow my teammates to get extra possessions…I’m excited to build a culture there, for sure.’’

An hour or so later, the draft team was watching the TV coverage, shaking their heads as Ruiz and former WNBA star Swin Cash suggested Pacers Gaming might be thinking point guard or big man with their second round pick. “Nope,’’ they said.

With their second-round pick, they took a shooting guard from California named Nicolas Grech but goes by “Swizurk,’’ or “Swiz,’’ as Parrent called him.

“He’s a flamethrower,’’ Parrent said later as the picks were introduced on the team’s social media.

Later, Parrent and his aides took a long look at the two draft boards on the oversized media board. Then Parrent called his first-round pick, WoLF, and asked him about players with whom he might like to play. An aide quickly wrote down names on the dry-erase board.

Again, most of these guys play the game alone, using the single-player mode. Now they will have to play as a team, so Parrent reached out to WoLF the way the Cavs’ front office might confer with LeBron James.

“That’s a good start, guys,’’ Parrent told the room after the second-round pick. “A good start.’’

Welcome to the brave new world, although, in fairness, it’s not that new, really. It’s just new, and strange, to those of us who don’t fill the gamer demographic. This is the future, and the NBA, forward-thinking as always, has planted a flag in the burgeoning landscape.

If only they had Galaga leagues when I was a kid…

Filed under: