The social distancing era has been a bleak time for sports gamblers. The complete cancelation of the sports calendar is an important and necessary measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, yet it’s also left me to bet on Marbula One races. Yes, I know that all the marbles have an equal chance of winning. But man … those orange marbles … I just think they’re faster.
Luckily, this weekend brings a sporting event that will not put contestants in a position to transmit a contagious virus—and that I can bet on! An NBA 2K20 tournament featuring real NBA players, headlined by Kevin Durant, will be broadcast live on ESPN. I wouldn’t dare gamble on actual esports; I assume the oddsmakers know more about esports than I do, so I’d just be throwing money away. However, when it comes to esports events between NBA players, the oddsmakers are just guessing. I suppose their lines are primarily based on name recognition and scraps of information about each player’s gaming ability. Armed with roughly the same info, I have a shot.
Shortly after the NBA season was suspended, the Phoenix Suns decided to play their remaining schedule through matchups on 2K. One of the early games pitted guard Ty Jerome (controlling the Suns) against Timberwolves forward Josh Okogie (controlling the Timberwolves, who the Suns were scheduled to play on March 18). When I told some Ringer colleagues that my online sportsbook had set a betting line for this game, I received a hot tip from Mose Bergmann, a Timberwolves obsessive who works for the video team. “This is funny because Josh sucks at gaming,” Mose said, having watched Okogie stream his (poor) video game performances online. Apparently, my sportsbook didn’t have this intel, as Mose was right: Okogie had absolutely no idea how to get his virtual teammates to play defense, and gave up layups for 48 e-minutes in a blowout loss.
Unfortunately, Mose has not watched the Twitch streams of any of the 16 players competing in the NBA 2K20 tournament. (Alas, the bracket lacks Timberwolves.) But I’ve done deep dives into the gaming histories of all 16 players to identify the best bets.
Some quick info on the tournament: Players won’t be locked into playing as themselves or as their own teams. Instead, each will have a chance to pick eight teams, each of which they can use only once during the tournament. For this post, we’re going off the odds posted by Odds Shark on March 31.
Deandre Ayton (+550)
Ayton is my pick to win this tournament. I’m basing this mostly off of the below Snapchat video from Ayton’s college days, in which the future no. 1 pick screams “THAT GAME IS SHIT!” after losing in NBA 2K18. At that point, it’s revealed that the 6-foot-11 Ayton obliterated his PlayStation controller in a fit of rage:
Sure, this is a clip of Ayton losing at 2K. But it shows that he’s a gamer. If you’ve never destroyed a controller in video-game-induced fury, well, you simply haven’t played enough video games. And when Ayton screams, “’16 and ’17 were THE BEST FUCKING GAAAAAAMES,” it proves he’s been playing 2K for years—and pays close enough attention to the gameplay mechanics to identify the minuscule differences between various editions.
A demolished controller alone would assure me of Ayton’s gaming credentials, but there are also plenty of videos that show Ayton winning at 2K. A quick search brings up dozens of videos and Reddit threads that spotlight people realizing they’re playing against an actual NBA player, and the comments are filled with others noting how they’ve virtually matched up against Ayton. At first, people are surprised by the novelty of going against an NBA player. That’s quickly washed away by confusion as to how Ayton has enough free time to play this much 2K. (Yes, he played plenty of 2K during his suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.) A 2018 clip shows that Ayton’s lifetime record was once 1,093-166—1,094-166 after the video.
Perhaps the funniest part of Ayton’s online 2K career is that videos reveal he occasionally customizes his in-game character to wear an “Ayton 22” Suns jersey. His avatar’s preferred playing style is “pure stretch 4,” even though Ayton himself has never attempted an NBA 3-pointer. This is sort of like Dwight Schrute making his Second Life avatar a tie-wearing paper salesman who is identical to his real persona in every way, except he can fly. Many of us play video games to escape reality; Ayton plays 2K to be himself with a much better jump shot.
Devin Booker (+220)
Booker is the betting favorite in this tournament. The players-only NBA 2K20 circuit is apparently the first good thing to happen to the Suns since they traded for Shaq back in 2008. Booker has earned his favorite status because he’s constantly streaming—in fact, he was playing Call of Duty when he found out the NBA season had been suspended. He was smart enough to crouch to avoid virtual gunfire while a friend showed him the news, but got back to focusing on COD in less than a minute:
Booker is the type of guy who lists all the technical specs of his gaming rig in his Twitch profile. Unlike his Suns teammate, though, he seems to spend most of his time playing non-basketball games. Still, I’m betting his overall video game skills translate into 2K performance. There is video evidence of Booker absolutely demolishing a middle-aged Suns employee in NBA 2K16, but I’m mainly pinning that on the Suns employee either being completely inept or wanting to make Booker look good.
Hassan Whiteside (+2200)
Oddsmakers initially gave Whiteside the longest odds in the tournament despite the fact that Whiteside has been known as a 2K player for the same amount of time that he’s been known as a quality NBA player. After journeying through stints in the then-D-League, China, and Lebanon, Whiteside emerged as a budding NBA star with a 14-point, 13-rebound, 12-block triple-double in January 2015—and joked in his postgame interview that he’d been motivated to perform on the court so 2K’s team would finally boost his in-game player rating:
Like Ayton, Whiteside has popped up to play 2K against randos online, though his 49-36 record in that linked video is a lot less impressive than Ayton’s nearly 1,100 wins. Whiteside also posted a clip proving that he’s good enough to get opponents to rage-quit:
Stop asking me to play 2k pic.twitter.com/tmICi5OQmO— Hassan Whiteside (@youngwhiteside) August 16, 2016
Trae Young (+1500)
While some competitors in this tournament have gaming histories that extend back years, Young’s appears to date back to … last week.
The virus really got me learning how to play all these video games....— Trae Young (@TheTraeYoung) March 14, 2020
Young started “learning how to play these video games” while social distancing. He’s the equivalent of someone who just bought a sourdough starter kit landing a spot on The Great British Bake Off.
Andre Drummond (+900)
Drummond was the subject of a Bleacher Report article about NBA players’ obsession with gaming, which seems like an encouraging sign. However, the article makes it clear that Drummond is as bad at shooting in Fortnite as he is at shooting free throws.
“The funny part about it is I really suck,” says Andre Drummond, a 2018 NBA All-Star. “I’m just not that good” ... He rarely tallies any kills. For now, he says he is focused on staying within himself—and on not dying in the opening moments of the game.
So far as I can tell, it is impossible for characters to die in NBA 2K20, which should be a plus for Drummond.
Zach LaVine (+2200)
LaVine does have gaming experience: He was a participant in this year’s ELeague | NBA 2K20 Throwdown, a four-player tournament held over All-Star Weekend. But LaVine lost his first-round matchup against Cam Reddish. Just look at the humiliation on his face:
The Wild Card
Kevin Durant (+500)
I like Durant’s chances in this tournament based on sheer circumstance. After suffering multiple injuries in the 2019 playoffs, including a ruptured Achilles tendon, he’s been kept off the court for the entirety of this season. While Durant has put the majority of his effort into physical rehab, his year without hoops has left him with ample time to get hooked on new obsessions—like, for example, video games.
I can’t find any evidence that Durant has gone online to play video games: He hasn’t posted at all about gaming, and no fans have encountered KD while streaming. Maybe Durant has been gaming under an alias to shield his actual identity?
Nah—doesn’t sound like him.