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The Hyper-Realism of Bucks Gaming: 2K or not 2K?

Alternate subtitle: Whom do we worship? Stretch subtitle: Et tu, 2K?

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2022 NBA 2K League 5v5 Finals - Bucks Gaming v Wizards District Gaming Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

The Milwaukee Bucks have won another championship: The 5th Annual NBA 2K League Championship. Like Giannis before him, Dimez was the Finals MVP.

To us tried and true Bucks fans, this is probably old news. We may have read about the triumph in the MMMR. We may have been one of the 1.7 million folks watching on Twitch. We may even have been in Indy to experience the event in-person.

Or not.

At the risk of alienating our gaming faithful, I’ll be honest. My reaction to the news was: we have a 2K team? Followed closely by giggles: this is newsworthy?

How wrong I was. Having deeply descended down the rabbit hole of professional gaming, I can conclude that it is eerily similar to its corporeal counterpart. Moreover, comments from the General Manager of Bucks Gaming - who actually exists - have me rethinking my aforementioned scorn. I’m grappling with the question of whom we choose to worship. Why do we worship individuals like Giannis, whose exploits are literally impossible for most people based on bodily realities, instead of individuals like Dimez, whose exploits are attainable by merely playing a lot of 2K?

The NBA 2K League launched in 2018 as the first esports league affiliated with a professional sports league. The Bucks got in on the ground floor, with Bucks Gaming as one of the original 17 teams. (They even built Fiserv Forum to be compatible with esports competitions. Alas, for now they play in an “undisclosed” location.) They are now one of the league’s 24 teams, 22 of which are affiliated with an NBA team. A quick gander at their website reveals a surprisingly legitimate organization. They have their own logo, a gaming-inspired rendition of the Bucks logo. They have merch. They have a summer camp for kiddos. They have all of the socials.

And it’s not just for show. As per the League’s FAQ, “Players that are drafted into the league will be offered salaries, housing, gaming products, and other amenities.” They make about $35K and are housed in Milwaukee during the six-ish month season. The gaming products probably include free gaming chairs (probably the gaming equivalent of free Nikes) courtesy of Raynor Gaming, and the other amenities might include medical care from the folks at Froedtert.

And yet, in 2021, the Bucks were one of the worst teams in the league. In response, they resorted to a fire sale. They brought in a new coach, a new general manager, and new players. Then they swung for the fences with a midseason trade to acquire one of the best players in the league...

It’s April 4th, 2018. Adam Silver walks onto the stage at Madison Square Garden and announces that Mavs Gaming have selected Artreyo “Dimez” Boyd with the first overall pick of the inaugural NBA 2K Draft. For Boyd, the reality of the moment doesn’t set in until he receives a congratulatory call from Mark Cuban.

Dimez had a tough background growing up in Cleveland. After winning $20 in his first 2K tournament, he gave the winnings to his father to help feed the family. His success and generosity have only grown since then. The “LeBron James of 2K” has become the face of the league, renown for his 2K skills and for helping the less fortunate.

And yet, despite his arguable GOAT status, he toiled in Texas. With him at the helm, Mavs Gaming did not win a championship during the league’s first three seasons. A midseason trade to Raptors Uprising in 2021 didn’t alter his lack of hardware. For that, he had to be traded to a team that was willing to put everything - even “Plondo,” the rebound machine, former Second-Team All-NBA 2K League, and epitome of his hometown of Boise - on the line...

With Dimez on board, Bucks Gaming surged to the championship, defeating Wizards District Gaming 3-1 and preventing the Wiz from a three-peat. They won half a million dollars (about $75K of which goes to each player) and a really ugly trophy.

Everyone who was anyone came out to pay their respects, including Bucks and Fiserv Forum President Peter Feigin, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, and the threes of people who attended a celebration in the Deer District. Johnson, after calling out his mom for complaining about him playing videos games late at night as a kid, even proclaimed August 30th as Bucks Gaming Day.

Dimez, understandably, was ecstatic:

We’re so excited to bring this championship home to Milwaukee and our fans. Each player on our team played a critical role in this victory and we’re elated to make history for Bucks Gaming. We’re grateful to the Bucks organization and the staff which helped make this possible.”

General Manager Patrick Glogovsky - again, a real person - was ecstatic too. But he also reflected on the differences between 2K and basketball:

It’s taken the world by storm because everybody plays video games. Truly everybody plays video games and people want to be somebody you know. Not everybody can have their physical acumen to compete in a physical sport like basketball or baseball. But they have the mental and emotional strength and knowledge of playing a video game to the very highest level.

There are some bold assertions here. Apparently Bucks Gaming has taken the world by storm; I must not be part of that world. It is also bold, and likely hyperbolic, that everyone plays video games.

Otherwise, though, Glogovsky (or “Glo”) may be onto something. Dimez appeals by being the proverbial everyman. By all appearances, he is a down-to-earth dude; this is a guy, when asked his favorite video game on his player profile, answered “2K.” (I would hope so!) Giannis has similar appeal (see: dad jokes), but does so in a body that could easily fit in a Greco-Roman Sculpture Garden. Epitomizing his flexibility, Dimez switched positions from point guard to center as he transitioned to Bucks Gaming. Giannis has similar flexibility across positions, but that is the exception to the rule. One of his former coaches said that Dimez plays 2K more than anyone he knew. Giannis is legendary for putting in effort, but is also graced with six feet and eleven inches of height and a truly shocking wingspan.

(Footnote: I don’t want to get too close to the Harden critique of Giannis’ game, but I think it is legitimate to point out that there is a reason that the heights and wingspans of players in the NBA are not a representative sample of the world population. The statistic that 20% of men who are seven foot or taller play, have played, or will play in the NBA holds.)

And yet: only one of them is a household name. The main factor, of course is the weight of the NBA versus the larval NBA 2K League. Digging deeper, though, is our tendency to worship extraordinary people.

People like Giannis (and, as I’ve written about previously, Federer) allow mere mortals like us to vicariously transcend our own bodies. We may only be watching Giannis, but we are effectively flying with him as we move impossibly fast to cover half the court in just over a second to block a corner three. One of the many appeals of sports is to partake in experiences that we ourselves cannot possibly achieve.

Another appeal of sports, however, is inspiration. Great players represent a high standard that we can aspire to. But social science tells us - you knew it was coming! - that attainability is key. High standards are inspiring if they are attainable, but demoralizing if they are not. It follows that, if I want to become a great basketball player, Giannis’ standards may be too lofty if I am not a mile tall. (This may contribute to the appeal of Steph - although he is still six foot two...) In contrast, Dimez’ standards, as conjectured by Glo above, do not depend on physical acumen and may thus be more attainable and even inspiring. If I want to become a great 2K player, I could reasonably believe that, if I play a lot of 2K, maybe - just maybe - I’ll be as good as Dimez.

In reality, though, most of us do not aspire to be basketball or 2K players at the professional level. The crushing reality that we will never be as good as Giannis won’t sting, and we can still vicariously revel in his ability. I don’t think that it is problematic to put Giannis on a pedestal, but I wonder if we should make some space on that pedestal for more ordinary figures like Dimez.

Regardless, I think the NBA’s foray into 2K is an interesting one. A lot of social science in the early days of the Internet explored how people could fashion second selves online. It is fascinating to see basketball reincarnated online in ways that reflect the physical sport (the draft) or depart from it (the Wizards being a dynasty), and it is particularly fascinating to see how people navigate these (dis)continuities. Dimez doesn’t look like Giannis, but both are Finals MVP’s: why treat them any different? In the future - as we increasingly view online spaces as real, especially with the coming rollout of the metaverse - we may not.