Changing the Game: The NBA 2K League is Just Getting Started 🎮

by • May 03, 2018

I used to be the Executive Editor of SLAM Magazine. Now I work for an NBA team as a General Manager. What a time to be alive.

You’ll notice I did not say I work as “the” team’s general manager. That’s because I’m not the GM of an NBA team. No, I’m the GM of Grizz Gaming, the Memphis Grizzlies’ team in the NBA 2K League, which tipped off its inaugural season this month.

How exactly did I get here? We should probably start with the NBA 2K League, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: An esports league built around the video game NBA 2K. And by this point, if you don’t know what an esports league is, you are probably older than me. The esports industry, which is basically competitive leagues built around video games, is expected to see over a billion dollars a year in revenue by 2019. Companies and sports franchises from all sectors are getting involved, so when the NBA announced the founding of the NBA 2K League during 2017’s All-Star Weekend, it made sense.

(It is worth noting here that the original SLAM Dome was the birthplace of what many experts consider one of the world’s first esports leagues. One summer, while struggling to fill the months of mostly hoops-less content on, Sam Rubenstein and myself launched what we called the Madden Bowl, which was essentially an excuse to allow us to play Madden in the office and write about it. Unfortunately, many of those earliest records have been lost to time.)

The 2K League works like any other sports league: teams play against each other, and someone wins and someone loses. Five gamers will rep Grizz Gaming, each playing a position on the court, and we’ll square off against five other gamers, in what will look fundamentally identical to any other actual basketball game. Seventeen NBA franchises signed up to field entries in the NBA 2K League’s inaugural season, including the Memphis Grizzlies.

Which is where I get involved: Back in October, the Grizzlies asked if I’d be interested in moving to Memphis to be the General Manager of their 2K team. I knew pretty much immediately that yes, this was something I wanted to do. After spending two decades as a journalist who primarily covered the NBA, I was ready for a change. I was excited to trade New York City, where my family and I lived for 17 years, for some wide open spaces. So I loaded up a truck with my wife, son and dog and everything else we owned, and we moved to Memphis.

As it turns out, constructing an NBA 2K team from scratch is a lot like building an actual NBA team, or at least what I assume it’s like. We built a state-of-the-art practice facility, filled out the Grizz Gaming staff, met with potential sponsorship partners, sat through meetings with architects, created content to help spread the word about @GrizzGaming, printed up t-shirts, stickers, tattoos and lapel pins and pretty much created an infrastructure.

By the middle of March, I was embarking on the scouting process, trying to identify the players we wanted to build around. During the inaugural NBA 2K League Draft Lottery, we drew the 15th pick of the first round, but because it was a snake draft, we also got the third pick of the second round. I did my best GM-speak and spun it positively by telling people we landed “two of the top 20 picks.” We ended up using that first-round pick on a point guard named Larell Mitchell, a former truck driver from Richmond, VA, who plays with the gamertag Winner_Stayz_On.

As I write this, we are about two weeks out from our first game. Our players arrived in Memphis a week ago and moved into their new apartments. We took them out for incredible barbecue that first night and have tried to show them some of what makes Memphis so special—from the music to the history to the cuisine to the people. Mostly, we’ve been bunkered down in our practice facility, getting to know each other’s virtual games and getting ready for the season to tip-off.

When I set up my desk in the Grizzlies’ offices, one of the first things I brought in was a print I received for Christmas a few years ago. It’s a submarine, cruising underwater, with the caption, “This is an adventure,” a quote from Bill Murray’s titular character in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, from one of my favorite directors, Wes Anderson. I keep it just within eyesight, a constant reminder that we’re all on this ride together, as a team.

Now we just need someone to press start.

Follow Lang Whitaker on Twitter @langwhitaker.

Photos via Getty Images.