Bucks Gaming’s hyper-realism: 2K or not 2K?

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

For us true Bucks fans, this is probably old news. We may have read the triumph in the MMMR. We were maybe one of the 1.7 million people watching on Twitch. We may even have been to Indy to experience the event in person.

Or not.

At the risk of alienating our loyal players, I’ll be honest. My reaction to the news was: do we have a 2K team? Followed closely by giggles: is it worthy of interest?

How wrong I was. Having descended deep into the rabbit hole of professional gaming, I can conclude that he is eerily similar to his body counterpart. Also, the comments from the GM of Bucks Gaming – who actually exists – make me rethink my aforementioned disdain. I struggle with the question of who we choose to worship. Why do we worship individuals like Giannis, whose feats are literally impossible for most people based on bodily realities, instead of individuals like Dimez, whose feats are achievable by simply playing a plot 2K?

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

And it’s not just for show. According to the league FAQs, “Players recruited into the league will be offered salaries, housing, gaming products and other amenities.” They earn around $35,000 and stay in Milwaukee for the six-month season. Gaming products likely include free gaming chairs (likely the gaming equivalent of free Nikes) thanks to Raynor Gamingand other amenities could include medical care from people in Frödtert.

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

It’s April 4, 2018. Adam Silver takes the stage at Madison Square Garden and announces that Mavs Gaming has selected Artreyo “Dimez” Boyd with the No. 1 pick in the NBA 2K First Draft. For Boyd, the reality of the moment only sets in when he receives a congratulatory call from Mark Cuban.

Dimez had a difficult experience 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, renowned for his 2K skills and helping those less fortunate.

And yet, despite his questionable GOAT status, he worked hard in Texas. With him at the helm, Mavs Gaming failed to win a championship in the league’s first three seasons. A mid-season trade with Raptors Uprising in 2021 hasn’t changed his lack of equipment. For this he had to be negotiated to a team that was ready to put it all – even “Plondo,” the rebounding machine, former All-NBA 2K League second team and quintessential hometown of Boise – on the line…

With Dimez on board, Bucks Gaming surged to the championship, beating Wizards District Gaming 3-1 and preventing the Wiz from a hat-trick. They won half a million dollars (of which about $75,000 goes to each player) and 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 three people who attended a celebration in the Deer district. Johnson, after calling his mother for complaining that he played video games late at night as a child, even proclaimed August 30 as Bucks Gaming Day.

Dimez, naturally, was delighted:

We are thrilled to bring this championship back to Milwaukee and our fans. Every player on our team played a vital role in this win and we are thrilled to be making Bucks Gaming history. We are grateful to the Bucks organization and staff who made this possible.

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

It has taken the world by storm because everyone plays video games. Really everyone plays video games and people want to be someone you know. Not everyone can have their physical sense to compete in a physical sport like basketball or baseball. But they have the mental and emotional strength and knowledge to play a video game at the highest level.

There are some bold claims here. Apparently, Bucks Gaming has taken over the world; I must not be part of this world. It’s also bold, and probably hyperbolic, that everyone plays video games.

If not, however, Glogovsky (or “Glo”) may be onto something. Dimez appeals by being the proverbial common man. By all appearances, he’s a down-to-earth guy; he’s a guy, when asked about his favorite video game on his gamer profile, replied “2K.” (I 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. Embodying his flexibility, Dimez switched positions from point guard to central during his transition to Bucks Gaming. Giannis has similar flexibility from position to position, but that’s the exception to the rule. One of his former coaches said Dimez played 2K more than anyone he knew. Giannis is legendary for his efforts, but he’s also blessed with a height of six feet and eleven inches and a truly shocking wingspan.

(Note: I don’t want to get too close to Harden’s review of Giannis’ game, but I think it’s fair to point out that there’s a reason why the sizes and stature of NBA players aren’t a representative sample of the world’s population. The statistic that 20% of men who are seven feet 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 compared to the larvae NBA 2K League. Digging deeper, however, we tend to worship extraordinary people.

People like Giannis (and, as I’ve written before, Federer) allow mere mortals like us to transcend our own bodies vicariously. We may only be looking at Giannis, but we fly with him efficiently as we move incredibly fast to cover half the pitch in just over a second to to block a corner three. One of the many attractions of sport is to participate in experiences that we cannot achieve on our own.

Another draw of the sport, however, is inspiration. Great players represent a high level to which we can aspire. But the social sciences tell us – you knew this was coming! – this achievement This is the key. High standards are inspiring if they are achievable, but demoralizing if they are not. It follows that, if I want to be a great basketball player, Giannis’ standards may be too high if I don’t measure a mile. (That may contribute to Steph’s attractiveness – although he’s still six-foot-two…) In contrast, Dimez’s standards, as Glo surmised above, are not dependent on physical acumen and can therefore be more accessible and even inspiring. If I want to be a great 2K player, I can reasonably believe that if I play a lot of 2K, maybe – just maybe – I’ll be as good as Dimez.

In reality, however, most of us don’t aspire to be professional basketball or 2K players. The overwhelming reality that we’ll never be as good as Giannis won’t sting, and we can still vicariously revel in his abilities. I don’t think it’s problematic to put Giannis on a pedestal, but I wonder if we should make room on that pedestal for more ordinary characters like Dimez.

Anyway, I think the NBA’s foray into 2K is interesting. Much social science in the early days of the Internet explored how people could shape second me on line. It’s fascinating to see basketball reincarnated online in a way that mirrors physical sport (the draft) or deviates from it (wizarding being a dynasty), and it’s especially fascinating to see how people navigate in these (dis)continuities. Dimez doesn’t look like Giannis, but both are Finals MVPs: why treat them any differently? In the future – as we increasingly see online spaces as real, especially with the upcoming rollout of the metaverse – we may not.

About Bernice D. Brewer

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