Cover the virtual Valley of the Sun with pixelated confetti: The Phoenix Suns are the closest thing we’ll get to an NBA champion for awhile, as Suns guard Devin Booker defeated Suns center DeAndre Ayton in the finals of the NBA 2K Players Tournament broadcast live on ESPN.
Going into the tournament, it was clear the real-life teammates were contenders—I picked Ayton to win the whole thing, due to his public history of spending hours upon hours playing against random gamers as a virtual version of himself, while Booker was the betting favorite according to oddsmakers. Both Suns dominated in the early rounds, setting up a matchup against a pair of Clippers teammates in the semifinals: Booker played LA’s Montrezl Harrell in the first matchup, and Ayton played Patrick Beverley in the other semifinal. Booker, Ayton, Beverley, and Harrell were the only two sets of teammates in the 16-player field, and yet somehow they were the final four contestants remaining. The two Suns dominated the two Clippers, setting up a Tatooine showdown between double Suns in the finals.
You would assume that Phoenix must have a team-wide obsession with video games, but I didn’t get the sense that Ayton and Booker frequently play together—Ayton got on Booker’s nerves for using his full allotment of timeouts in every game, and spending every second of them making various substitutions or strategic adjustments. The big man defended himself by explaining he usually plays as the Suns—something I assume Booker would’ve known if they played together—and needed extra time to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the other teams he was using. It didn’t end up helping: Booker dominated the matchup to prove himself the NBA’s greatest gamer—but you probably knew that if you’ve watched him on Twitch before.
I’m sure somebody out there wants to make fun of the Suns for dominating a video game tournament. “Maybe if they spent less time playing video game basketball and more time playing real-life basketball, they’d be in the actual playoffs!” Listen, first of all, it’s not Ayton or Booker’s fault that the Suns used top-5 picks on Alex Len, Dragan Bender, and Josh Jackson over a five-year span. Second of all, there is no real-life basketball anymore. Video games are all we have now, and the Suns are the best in the world at it. Congratulations to the Phoenix Suns on their greatest accomplishment since they almost came close to nearly making the NBA Finals back in the mid-2000s—they’re the league’s undisputed champs, at least until basketball comes back... or at least until we get bored and decide to have another one of these tournaments.
We’ve Discovered The Best Way To Learn About Teammate Disrespect
To be blunt, ESPN’s presentation of the 2K tournament sucked, spoiling an opportunity to potentially convince casual NBA fans to get interested in 2K and the culture around it. The gameplay was dull. The players are less skilled than pro gamers and less entertaining than pro streamers. I also could’ve used a third-party announcer to highlight the odd choices and funny mistakes players were making, and to liven up the dead spots when neither player was saying anything. (Plus, none of the games were particularly close—only two of the 18 games in the tournament were decided by five or fewer points.) And the interstitials were dreadful—I hope Ronnie2K is good at… whatever it is he does, because he’s the sleepiest person I’ve ever seen attempt to host a TV show.
But the games did deliver in one critical way: It was legitimately compelling to watch NBA players control virtual versions of their real-life teammates and rivals. An NBA player will rarely flat-out say “[X player] is trash” to the press, but we can see them play 2K and yell “WHAT?!?!?” when virtual JaVale McGee unleashes an effective post move to score in the paint.
There were dozens of examples of this across the tournament, but I think the most interesting instance came in the semifinal between Booker and Harrell. Harrell plays for the Clippers, but Booker played as the Clippers, one of the strongest teams in the game, forcing Harrell to reveal some of his opinions on how to defend his actual teammates. At one point, he says he’d live with any shot by a player besides 13 and 2 (Paul George and Kawhi Leonard), which, wow, huge self-own. Watch this play, where virtual Beverley gets the ball against Harrell’s Rockets:
Harrell dares Beverley to take a three, ordering P.J. Tucker to drop off Beverley. He’s elated when Beverley shoots, yelling “that’s what we want!” and imploring Booker “shoot those!” This is wild! Beverley is a 38 percent three-point shooter! He should shoot those! But Harrell apparently doesn’t trust him.
If pressed, I’m sure Harrell would say that he trusts PatBev’s shot in real life, but that 2K doesn’t accurately represent PatBev’s shooting ability. I’m not buying it. Harrell can’t think Beverley shooting a wide-open shot is a worst-case scenario for the Clippers in a video game but have confidence in Beverley shooting a wide-open three in real life.
DeAndre Ayton Is the Only Loyal NBA Player
Despite my prediction that Ayton would win the tournament, he got thoroughly thumped by Booker. There’s no disputing that Booker is the better player—Ayton played the two finals matchups with the Bucks and Lakers, the two best teams in the game, while Booker had the Rockets and Nuggets—fine teams, but a step down—and won by double digits both times.
But I feel like Ayton would have pulled it out if he could have used his best team: his own. In the closeout matchup of the semifinals, Ayton chose to play as the lowly Suns. Of the 16 players in the tournament, only three opted to play a round as their own squads, but Ayton was the most surprising: Harrell and Domantas Sabonis squared off in the first round as the Clippers and Pacers, but the Clippers and Pacers are much better 2K options than Phoenix.
Beverley was impressed by Ayton being confident enough to play as his own crappy team—”oh, you’re a gangsta gangsta,” he said—but seemed to assume it would be an easy romp. Instead, Ayton crushed him, using his deep understanding of his own real-life teammates to his advantage. Here he is stunning Beverley by revealing that Suns backup point guard Jevon Carter is a knockdown 3-point shooter:
He shocked the world by going to work in the paint with Aron Baynes—apparently known as “ValleyBoy 46:”
Animated Aron (controlled by Deandre Ayton) put Nikola Jokic in the spin cycle pic.twitter.com/bneaP7wczV— SunOfficial Aron Baynes Fan Club (@BaynesFanClub) April 12, 2020
And he absolutely dominated down low with… the virtual version of himself.
They didn’t show the box scores at any point in the games, but I feel like e-Ayton had at least 15 points to power IRL Ayton to the win and knock Beverley out of the tournament.
When trying to handicap the event, we noted that Ayton seems to spend hundreds of hours playing as himself, and as he told Booker, he only plays as the Suns. He simply gets how to use them, in part because he spends seemingly infinite time playing as them in 2K, and in part because he intimately knows their actual skills. Then again, he probably wouldn’t have had a chance against Booker no matter who he chose—they’re Devin’s teammates, too.
We Didn’t Need Best-Of-3 Series In A 2K Tournament
After two rounds of single elimination, the semis and finals switched to a best-of-3 format. This choice was likely made to ensure the best player won the most important stages—the same reasons the MLB playoffs go from single elimination in the wild-card to best-of-5 and best-of-7 in the later rounds.
For the purposes of this event, it was completely unnecessary. All three series were 2-0 romps, as the better player in the first game of each matchup also turned out to be the better player in the second game. The only people who benefited from this were the execs at ESPN, who were able to fill extra airtime during the Long Sportless Night.
But they messed up: These games were prerecorded, and pretty quickly, I figured out that whoever won the first game would also win the second—ESPN didn’t put enough time in each broadcast window to show three games of 2K. So I guess the joke’s on me—I watched six hours of noncompetitive video games instead of three.