While the Toronto Raptors’ season remains on pause with no clear indication when, or even if, it’ll resume, their video game counterpart is set to hit the virtual hardwood.
Raptors Uprising GC, Toronto’s NBA 2K League team, will begin their third season Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. ET with a matchup against 76ers GC on Sportsnet ONE and Sportsnet NOW.
While the Uprising were one of the original 17 teams when the league launched in 2018, the 2K League has since expanded to 23 squads, comprised of 22 teams affiliated to real-life NBA clubs and one team from Shanghai, China called the Gen.G Tigers.
In their first two seasons, the Uprising have been an OK squad, making the playoffs in the inaugural season after a furious 7-1 end to the season, but then getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs and missing the post-season entirely last season with an 8-8 record and a 12th-place finish.
The Uprising have yet to really find that consistency required to be an elite squad, but are hopeful that this season they will find it. Here’s a quick look at three storylines to keep track of as the season gets started:
Built around Kenny
Kenneth “Kenny Got Work” Hailey was the Uprising’s first-ever draft pick, taken 11th overall in the inaugural 2K League draft in 2018 and retained for each subsequent season.
For the first two seasons, while Hailey has certainly been the team’s best player, the club’s looked to build a more balanced roster with Hailey only a part of the puzzle.
This season, however, the Uprising have changed their thinking and have looked to create a roster centered around their star player and his inherent strengths.
Hailey made it into the 2K League as a point guard, but due to a combination of the shifting meta of NBA 2K during the first two seasons of the league, as well as experimentation on the Uprising’s part, Hailey ended up playing primarily out of position in those first two years at small forward in an effort to try to convert him into a point forward.
That plan’s been scrapped entirely this season, and Hailey’s back at point guard, something that was a major point of emphasis for him to get back up to speed with during the 2K League’s off-season.
“We had spoken heading into the off-season and I told him, ‘I really just want to see you take point guard really seriously this off-season and lock in on it,’ and he did,” said MLSE esports manager Shane Talbot over the phone. “He went crazy in the off-season and really just mastered the game.
“This year we have built the roster around him at point guard and … so far our online scrimmage results are proving that he is everything we hoped and thought he would be by focusing on point guard.”
Last season, Hailey averaged 16 points per game on 51.6-per-cent shooting from the field and 48.4 per cent from three-point range, while also being named to the 2K League’s “Glitchy 25” list of the top 25 players in the league.
With his change back to his natural position, his production figures to go up even further and with it, the success of the Uprising as a whole.
New, but familiar faces
League rules dictated that the Uprising could only retain players if they forfeit draft picks in the 2020 draft. The Uprising ended up retaining two of their players from last season and then had to fill out their remaining four roster spots by way of the 2020 draft.
The two players they ended up keeping were Hailey and Gerald “Sick One” Knapp, a player they acquired via mid-season trade last season and quickly became the team’s second-best player.
The move to retain Hailey and Knapp was a deliberate one on the part of the Uprising not only because they were the team’s two best players last season, but also because they play the two most important positions in NBA 2K basketball, point guard and centre.
This gave Talbot and his team a lot of room to then construct a roster around his two key cogs in the draft.
“Heading into this draft we had both our starting point guard and our starting centre already locked down,” Talbot said. “So that meant, for the first time, we were going into a draft with high draft picks looking at what you would probably describe as more secondary roles.”
In order to accomplish this, the Uprising ended up making a couple of trades. First before the draft when they traded a player they had yet to decide they wanted retain in Frederick “Doza” Mendoza for a second-round pick, and then afterwards when they used that second-round pick they got from the Mendoza trade to simultaneously trade up and down in the second round of the draft with Gen.G, who also had two second-round picks.
This flurry of draft-day activity ended up netting the Uprising Anthony “Wuan” Rivas, a young power forward player whose statistics during the 2K League combine rated him as the top four man, according to the Uprising’s analysis, and Maurice “Reecemode” Flowers, a player with a lot of history with Hailey.
And with the exception of Rivas, the roster the Uprising ended up building was almost entirely made up of guys who had played with each other and knew each other over the course of NBA 2K’s history.
The team’s first-round pick, Eric “Timelycook” Donald played with Hailey on a team called Still Trill in 2017 that won a $250,000 first-place prize and is part of the same friend circle as Hailey and Flowers.
“We’ve had our eye on Timely from the first season and Timely and Kenny had a keen interest in playing together that first season,” said Talbot. “But you may recall there were draft rules where you could only take one player per position based on the position that they had tried out on the combine. So, Timely and Kenny had both gotten into the league at point guard. So, when we took Kenny, we couldn’t then take Timely.
“…So, we had an opportunity this season now to pick him up and he’s really your lockdown defender. He’s kind of playing a two-way for us, he’s shooting like crazy, as well. But really is known as being one of, if not, the best, defensive players in the league.”
In that first season, Donald was probably the best perimeter defender in the league with Kings Guard Gaming. He was unable to play last season because he was suspended for the season for his “sharing of inappropriate and offensive videos over social media,” but looks to have matured and is ready to redeem his image playing alongside some old friends.
Lastly, the player who figures to be the team’s sixth man, Jake “Legit 973” Knapp, is actually the younger brother of Gerald. The siblings tragically lost their mother just a couple days before Christmas last year, but the opportunity to now be together professionally has helped them deal with their loss.
An online league
A big change from this season to previous ones is the fact that the season will be played all online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though it might sound strange that a video game competition would have difficulties adjusting to an online-only model of play, the league was originally set up to play locally in a studio in New York, making this year a much different experience than how the 2K League is normally run.
“This season there’s obviously been a major adjustment from a game-day operations perspective as we’re playing online,” said Talbot. “There’s gonna be a huge difference as well because of the fact the 2K League studio is often one where there’s a studio intimidation factor. You can chirp each other, banter is lobbed across the stage.”
The psychological impact of what a good chirp can do to your opponent aside, there are advantages to be had in playing online.
“There’s a huge difference between playing online and playing on LAN,” Talbot said. “There’s more of an adjustment required, quite frankly, when we go to play on LAN because they play dozens and dozens of scrimmages online every week.
“So, for the guys, they’re actually super comfortable playing the online version of the game because they’ve played, literally, hundreds of scrimmages since they landed here two months ago. So they’re probably more comfortable playing in this format.”
This might result in better quality of play, something that can only help the 2K League as it continues to try to find a more consistent audience for itself and has a good opportunity to do so without any major North American sports to watch live at the moment.
“I think that there’s a huge opportunity right now, obviously, and we’re seeing that come to fruition online right now,” said Talbot of the chance the esports industry has right now to become more mainstream. “I think the NBA 2K League, even more so than more endemic titles, has an opportunity because all of those NBA fans that play 2K wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves esports fans — because, quite frankly, the 2K League is still nascent and we’re still just getting going with this thing.
“So there’s an opportunity there to put this on their radar and I think, especially if we get support and we put this on TV and the entertainment value is there, we’re gonna be able to convert a lot of fans, or at the very least plant those seeds and generate that awareness.”