It took the Toronto Raptors 24 years to win their first-ever championship. The cliched blood, sweat and tears consisted of a complicated ownership structure to start, creating a bond with the Vince Carter era, losing relevancy with his departure, before ushering in a new era with a We The North campaign and roster decisions that reflected a functional NBA franchise.
As an expansion franchise, there was plenty of catching up to do. Teams like the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers had trophies in the double-digits, the Raptors were learning to just be part. The challenge for NBA 2K league franchise Raptors Uprising GC is a bit different, with them being a part of the process right from the get-go, but that brings along its own set of challenges — primarily, finding ways to create some separation while being in the same boat as everyone else, just figuring things out as they go along.
The Uprising were one of 17 teams to join the 2K league in its inaugural season last year and have fallen short of the ultimate goal on both occasions. Knicks Gaming won the first championship while Wolves Gaming came up with the goods on the second time of asking. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, even bad NBA teams can get a fresh start here.
With the competition only growing and the goal to build to a point where all 30 NBA franchises have a 2K team, Raptors Uprising have teamed with partner IBM to create as much of a competitive advantage for themselves and work their way to a title.
Shane Talbot, Esports manager at MLSE, Kenneth Hailey, a player for the Uprising and Farhang Farid, Associate Partner and Practice Lead at IBM iX Canada were kind enough to chat with Yahoo Sports Canada on the keys to competing in a newly evolving league.
Just as the case is with traditional sports, having top-tier talent comes at a premium in the 2K league. The Raptors just showed what a difference a talent like Kawhi Leonard can make, and the Uprising are determined to find their own superstar later in the draft just like Leonard went 15th overall once upon a time.
“Our Esport is unique to the industry as a whole because we build through a draft, every other kind of organized league is more of a free market, you can go out and sign existing teams of people if you’re the highest bidder, whereas ours is all structured draft like the NBA,” Talbot said.
“And I think the really complex aspect comes in when you look at the way that we actually play the game. Our pro guys actually play on a custom build of the game that’s not available in the retail version.”
Approximately 72,000 players entered a draft combine in the first season to become eligible for what was eventually a 102-player draft. That’s a tonne of information and players to whittle down with time being of the essence. That’s where IBM comes in. They’ve stressed the importance of working collaboration with the Uprising, an artificial intelligence platform named Watson, and the sheer history of success they’ve had in implementing their analysis into other sports.
“We recognize that folks like Shane are the experts at what they do, they have the expert knowledge ... they’ve been observing these players,” Farid said. “So, for us, our role is to look at areas where we can augment their intelligence, not necessarily dictate what needs to be done but provide over and above insights that can support their decision making process.
“A lot of our focus is on providing that insight, how they look at these players and the various factors and whether they’re necessarily being weighted properly.”
That includes understanding usage rates, how much more involved a point guard is in gameplay in general and sorting results by position accordingly, and — in the case of the first season — being on call as a staff for the eight-plus hours the draft lasted.
Yes, it’s a thing for the Uprising in the 2K League, too. The team’s players live at what’s called the Bell Fibe house where the basement holds 10 gaming stations plus a live streaming station where gameplay can be broadcast from and so screen time can become an issue. The Uprising pride themselves on always looking for scrimmage time, even scheduling practices with west coast teams outside of their pre-arranged time with teams from the east coast.
“Once the season kicks off around March, you’re with your teammates 24-7: So they travel together, they compete in the NBA 2K league with lots of high pressure and high stakes and then you travel home together under the same roof as well all throughout the week until you get back to New York for your next match,” Talbot said.
“So, making sure that there’s a strong balance of the personalities in the house, making sure we’ve got the right ego or lack of ego on the team, everybody’s got sort of a similar mindset when it comes to preparation, those are all super important in what we do.”
The Uprising needed a different set of eyes to understand the importance of how much is too much not just from a health perspective but in terms of maximizing the intensity when it’s time to perform as well. In a rare mid-season trade for the league, the Uprising exchanged Trevion “Trey” Hendrix for Gerald “Jerry” Knapp and he was quick to point out that he felt they were practicing too much.
The team quickly held a meeting and fielded responses from the entire group before cutting down on scrimmaging.
“That level of ‘performance readiness’ in professional sports has been hugely impacted by sports science and has become a centre of attention, similar concepts are being applied to Esports,” Farid noted. “We leverage different measures like their speed of reaction and such data to create better insights and help Shane.”
Creating and connecting with a fan base
The Raptors were an established brand courtesy of Carter’s time in Toronto but needed a bit of a touch-up to hit differently as they ushered in a new era. Just as they found ‘We The North,’ the Uprising have quickly discovered what works and what doesn’t.
Initially, the Uprising focused their content on gameplay results and highlights, which failed to endear themselves to fans. They quickly pivoted towards creating a connection by showcasing their gamers and their backstories, even using a format very similar to the Raptors’ Open Gym, with a documentary series called North Code.
“We see the community growing and what’s great is the number of returning faces,” Talbot said. “We do a lot of live in-market activations, whether it’s viewing parties, tournaments, or pro-challenges where Kenny (Hailey) and his teammates are competing against local teams and the team that’s the best against them wins a cash prize and then they come up to me and they say, ‘Hey, I’m so-and-so from social media,’ and I recognize their handles right away because these people are engaging with our content, I see their comments, they’re getting to know our players.”
Hailey is from Memphis, Tenn., and despite gaming ever since the 2K series began, he knew there was going to be a learning curve in terms of actually being a professional. The league helps with that by providing classes that are, for all intents and purposes, a rookie transition program to teach new professional gamers what to and what not to do.
“I see how Kyle Lowry and other professionals carry themselves and I try to follow that example,” Hailey said. “Me being a professional, I know that I have fans now and supporters and kids look up to us and I was once in a position where I was looking up to professionals like Kevin Durant and now I’m the one being looked up to and people asking to take pictures with me. To have someone come to me and ask for a picture is something words cannot express.”
What’s cool about this is that the aspect of connecting with the fan base is not lost in all the numbers of the draft process. Just like the Raptors who play on the court, the Uprising make it a point to look for high-character individuals who can mesh well not only with their teammates, but their community as well.
The Uprising issue personality assessments which they map against what they believe to be the ideal prototype depending on whether they’re looking for leaders or role players and proceed accordingly.
“I feel like we’re the best organization in the league,” Hailey said. “I’m not just saying that because I’m playing for them, but just being around all the guys, because we go to New York, we basically live in the same hotel so you’re hanging around other teams and you get to see what these guys are like and they talk a lot, so just by that I know the Raptors are one of the best organizations.
“It’s different for me because I’ve never really been a professional but Shane and the guys showed me what it’s like and they helped me along the way and how to carry myself. They put you in position to better yourself on and off the video game.”
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