The inaugural NBA 2K League draft takes place at 1pm on April 4, 2018, at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. 102 players are about to see their lives change. And that’s a small change compared to the precedents the league will set as the first serious intersection between a Big 4 pro league and a video game esport.
The league has already made waves. Shaq is the GM of KingsGuardGG. Adam Silver is taking part in the pre-draft press conference along with NBA 2K League Marketing Director Brendan Donohue and Take-Two Interactive CEO Strauss Zelnick.
I’ve waxed eloquent (or perhaps not as eloquent as I’d like to think) about a lot of the big issues surrounding the league and what precedent it will set, the role that fabled “marketability” will play, and much more. I haven’t offered a mock draft, because I think there’s impressive talent parity in the inaugural draft pool.
Sure, some players stand out more than others, but teams have had more access to gameplay footage and behind-the-scenes statistics than ever before. I could throw out names like Dimez, Mootyy, and more, but that’s based solely on past performance. Their value lies more in the future. The full draft order, with MavsGG leading the way, can be found here. Dimez is the leading candidate to go #1. The remaining 101? More uncertain than the Suns’ point guard position has been for years.
Will most of these players return for season two? It’s a stark reality in an unforgiving world: it’s unlikely. There’s be more players to choose from next time around, more than proportional to new teams added. Teams will learn from their mistakes. It’s up to players to do the same—professional NBA 2k League players and amateur Pro Am players alike.
There’s uncertainty galore. We chatted with Will Beverina of DIMER about some of the big questions surrounding the draft.
WB: Should we start with an obvious one? Dimez vs. Fab.
AJ: Personally, I’m of the opinion that this draft will determine the character of teams more than their talent. Character helps with branding, and if branding’s the goal, then Dimez has to be the immediate favourite due to his established name in the community and his reach in the wider esports world (see the ESPN bracket for that). MavsGG may want to mould his or her own identity, where the player isn’t bigger than the team… but Dimez is big enough that he could elevate MavsGG’s popularity right away. Unless someone else absolutely blew their team away—which is possible due to the depth of the combine scouting—he gets the top pick.
WB: I agree for some of the same reasons. Whether or not you feel Dimez or Fab is better, the gap in skill between them isn’t that large. The biggest difference between the two comes from how they’ve marketed themselves, and in that aspect Dimez is one of the best out of anyone in the draft pool or even the Pro-Am community. MavsGG already has the most Twitter followers out of all the teams by a good few thousand and their profile in the esports world would only rise with the addition of the only NBA 2K player who made the ESPN Esports poll. The Celtics (or any team) will still be ecstatic to have Fab drop to them, but these organizations have other things they have to worry about than just their on-court performance and Dimez checks off every box.
AJ: What’s better—having picks 1 & 34 or 17 &18?
WB: I think you’re going to get great players in the first two to three rounds no matter what position you’re picking, but if I had to choose it would be 1/34 mostly because it’s a lot harder to acquire the best player in a league than it is to acquire the 17th best player in a league. At the 34th pick, you can also find a number of players that you could help to build your team around a player like Dimez, whether it’s a lockdown defender or a dead-eye sharpshooter. Warriors Gaming at 17/18 can get two great players, but they won’t get THE best player, and that’s the difference.
AJ: I’m going to disagree with you on this one. I’m not sold on any sizeable gap in player parity. I think having two top-20 picks nets you two top-tier players. League gameplay is going to be more equal than any Pro-Am gameplay. More of a team effort—more good players that you have will be more important than before. 17/18 isn’t ideal, but I think I’m a league where gameplay will develop over time, it’s not bad. The game itself places limits on players—two top-tier trumps one marginally better player.
WB: Here’s a good one, I think. Will the draft be the number one factor in how successful a team is on the court this season?
AJ: I don’t think so. The draft will net each team six of the top 102 players as determined empirically—they’re getting good players no matter what. But what will be seen is how well teams come together off the court. None of these guys have lived with all their Pro-Am teammates, eaten with them, worked out with them, competed with them knowing that one guy of six won’t be playing. They’ve never had serious coaches and regimens. The team that best adapts their players to living the NBA 2k League life, and all that that entails, will be the team that succeeds. Not the team that appears—again, the draft is very subjective—to have come out on top of the draft.
WB: I see coaching as being the biggest factor. Guys like Jonah Edwards, Cody Parrent, FamousEnough and a few others are going to find a way to win games with the six players they draft no matter what. Learning offensive sets, nailing down defensive rotations, in-game adjustments, those are all things that will separate the good teams from the bad. It’s a new league and there’s no established metagame. The well-prepared and flexible teams are going to rise to the top. That does tie in a little bit to the point you’re making since those guys are also going to be in charge of their players’ off-court well-being so to speak, but the coaches’ biggest impact will be on the court I believe.
AJ: What kind of impact will the league have in its first season?
WB: I’ll focus on the community with my answer. I think an unfortunate fact is that there’s some divisiveness within the community for a few different reasons at the moment and I think the league can help to bring everyone a little more together again. Once people see the actual league product come May and it becomes a reality of how far this game and the Pro-Am community has come, I’m hoping it’ll not only reinvigorate the community but remind people of why they love this game and get them committed to it again. Even if it doesn’t happen in 2K18, I think 2K19 can be incredibly competitive because of the league.
AJ: Absolutely. It’s all about marketability, and growing the league that way, but marketability is predicated on good gameplay. The league will improve the NBA 2k community—people will watch and learn—but it will also expand the NBA’s reach even further. Pulling in big names like Shaq enables the league to not only affect how games play 2k, but also how sports fans view gaming.
WB: How much will marketability play into how teams draft?
AJ: You know what’s marketable? Winning. There’s certainly been a lot of hype about players needing to marketable, but that doesn’t mean they already are. Winning players are more marketable than losing players. Teams will mould their players in terms of marketability—they don’t necessarily need the whole package right away. So few players are known quantities outside of the NBA 2k community. It’ll be the teams shaping them. The top 102 are the top 102 for their in-game skill, and how teams evaluate skill is going to play a far bigger role in drafting than marketability. It may be a factor in deciding between players in later rounds, but contribution to a winning culture is far more heavily weighted.
WB: As far as I’m concerned, the marketable players are Dimez and Mootyy. That’s the entire list. No one else has put the effort in to market themselves and build a brand like those two have. So, in this first draft at least, it won’t matter too much when almost everyone is equal. Some players will have a higher ceiling when it comes to earning potential through brand building, sure, but you’re right in that these guys are pretty unknown. I hope players both in and out of the league are going to take more initiative to market themselves when it becomes apparent how important your personal brand is when it comes to maximizing how much you make as a professional NBA 2K player. I can see marketability being a bigger factor in future drafts, however.