In the absence of sports and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, fans have been left stuck at home with a viewership void. The NBA suspended its season on March 11 when Rudy Gobert tested positive for the disease. In the ensuing days, nearly every other major athletics league across the globe, including the NHL, MLB, NCAA, and EPL, pressed pause on their seasons, or canceled them outright. It’s unknown when we’ll regain any sense of normalcy, but to help pass the time, a handful of basketball players turned primetime ESPN into a college dorm room and did what so many have done the past few weeks: fired up their game consoles and jumped on the sticks.
The NBA 2K Players Tournament tipped off on Friday. Broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2, the contest—hosted by Ronnie 2K—pairs 16 pro ballers, from Kevin Durant to Trae Young, in a single-elimination bracket for the right to call themselves the champion (and pick a charity that receives the $100,000 prize). Friday’s action featured four of the eight first-round matchups: Durant vs. Derrick Jones Jr., Deandre Ayton vs. Zach LaVine, Young vs. Harrison Barnes, and Patrick Beverley vs. Hassan Whiteside.
The results were ... mixed. Some competitors, like Young, clearly had experience playing the game. Others, like Whiteside, complained that their players were missing shots because they were tired after a night out in L.A. The obvious disparities led to a few lopsided victories. Here’s what you missed if you didn’t tune in to watch four (!) hours of grown men play video games on television:
Patrick Beverley Is a Gem
Pat Bev has worn many hats over his eight seasons in the league: He’s a competent ball handler, a defensive stopper, a consistent winner, and a pest to every foe unfortunate enough to cross his path. Even if Beverley is bested in competition, he never concedes, preferring to continue waging war verbally. The same is true for how he plays video games.
Beverley, streaming from his home in Houston, set up shop in front of a signed picture of himself, because two Pat Bevs are more intimidating than one. The Clippers guard picked the Milwaukee Bucks, and quickly—and quietly—jumped out to a humble lead. It’s when that margin grew that his trademark boisterousness emerged. Up 10, Beverley started talking shit. A bucket that put him up 13 unleashed his own attempt at the Longest Yeah Boy ever.
“YEAH, I SMELL IT,” Beverley yelled. “I KNEW IT. I WAS TOO LOCKED IN. I TOLD PEOPLE. I WAS TOO LOCKED IN.”
It got worse for Whiteside from there. By halftime, Beverley had uncorked a 23-2 run and led by more than 30. It was all classic Pat Bev. He yelled, and screeched, and stood up more than once to celebrate, leaving his fixed-position web cam focused on his midsection. He even managed to get a shot in at LeBron.
Watching 2K isn’t nearly as exciting as watching an actual game, but any showdown including Beverley is worth, at least, a cursory glance.
NBA Players Aren’t Good at 2K
Look, I get it. These are professional athletes. An impossibly small number of people are athletically and cerebrally gifted enough to play in the NBA. It’s not something to brush past. Unfortunately for most of the contestants on Friday, that same talent did not translate to the sticks.
Durant, a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, played Jones Jr. in front of what can only be described as a green-screen-like New York backdrop. He then proceeded to clank more open jumpers than I could count and let Jones waltz to the rim the entire game.
Jones, evidently playing from his shoe closet, took advantage of KD’s lapses to cruise to a 78-62 win. Elsewhere in the bracket, Ayton bullied his way past LaVine, using the Rockets to down the Heat in a low-scoring 57-41 affair. And Beverley, the third competitor to play as Milwaukee, eviscerated Whiteside in an 84-54 rout. The real star of the night, however, was Trae Young.
The Hawks All-Star was matched up against the Kings’ Harrison Barnes and didn’t hold back. While a Bucks-Raptors showdown in real life would likely produce compelling basketball, the same cannot be said for what transpired Friday night. It’s unclear whether Young is an exceptional 2K player, Barnes is abysmal, or some combination of the two, but when the dust settled, Young had toppled his foe 101-59. Eight more players will fight for 2K supremacy on Sunday, so there’s still plenty of time for another contender to emerge, but for now, Young is the favorite to take the crown.
Please, Hire a Moderator
You know what’s more fun than watching two people play video games poorly in near silence? Almost anything. Maybe 10 total sentences were uttered in the Durant–Jones Jr. matchup. LaVine-Ayton was a little better, with the two trying to spark some conversation. The pair talked about their favorite players to face off against on the court and whether LaVine thought he could beat Jones in a dunk contest.
Do you agree that no one could match LaVine in the dunk contest his first two years in the league? pic.twitter.com/j5WF5Onyq0— NBA 2K20 (@NBA2K) April 4, 2020
Young and Barnes did their best to keep things relatively lively, talking about what it was like to play with stars like Dirk Nowitzki (apparently a jokester) and Vince Carter (a big fan of Dirk’s comedy). Still, other than Beverley, none of the contestants seemed to register that they were playing as a form of mass entertainment. So I beg you, 2K, ESPN, and whoever else is calling the shots here: Hire a moderator to keep the conversations flowing.
As Los Angeles Times columnist Arash Markazi remarked, the highs of esports come when the players understand their roles as entertainers as well. Without it, they’re just strangers playing video games poorly.
These NBA 2K20 Player Tournament games really need a moderator/caster type to get the players talking if they're not. (I think my man @JeffEisenband may be available.) They can sit back if the players are engaging organically but that's not happening now. This is brutal to watch.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) April 4, 2020
Day 1 Superlatives
Best Decor: Harrison Barnes and his stylish yet homey living room.
Worst Aesthetic: Trae Young, who set up his console in a room decked out with rich-person IKEA furniture.
Place I’d Most Like to Live: Durant’s aforementioned apartment with a view of the Manhattan skyline. This is what the kids are talking about on Instagram when they hashtag GOALS.
Best Surprise Guest: Zach LaVine’s dog, Grizzly, who briefly appeared at the beginning of the stream but left his stuffed animal on the floor in the background so we’d remember he was still around. Good dog.