Ben Simmons, Zach LaVine, NBA Stars Find Fun, Opportunity in Esports
CHICAGO -- Zach LaVine is locked in. It’s bitter cold outside, but the Chicago Bulls star is heating up, nailing shot after shot like the sniper he is.
Except, Zach isn’t bombing away from beyond the arc on the hallowed court at the United Center. Instead, he’s sitting in a plush gaming chair inside Venue SIX10 along South Michigan Avenue, his eyes fixed on a screen and fingers flitting on a controller as he racks up kills in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
“It was fun, man,” Zach tells CloseUp360 after logging a 30-kill match against COD pros from the Chicago Huntsmen, including Hector “H3CZ” Rodriguez, Seth “Scump” Abner and Matthew “FormaL” Piper. “I'm not a professional, but I can hold my own.”
Zach is hardly alone among NBA players in that regard. From COD and Fortnite to Overwatch and League of Legends, gaming has become an outlet for pro athletes to indulge their competitive impulses without putting wear and tear on their bodies. And as the games grow in popularity within the ever-expanding world of Esports, those hobbies can become business opportunities into which basketball’s many multi-millionaires sink their resources.
For Zach, the obsession with COD began when he was a seventh grader growing up in Seattle. It only grew during his freshman year at UCLA and through his three seasons as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, on which he shared a passion for gaming with Karl-Anthony Towns.
“I'm extremely aggressive,” Zach says of his playing style in COD, “and when that doesn't work, everybody's gonna hate me, but I pull out my shotgun and I run around and get right up in your face. I gotta get my kills some way. You gotta get it done.”
Zach LaVine started playing Call of Duty when he was in middle school. (Josh Martin)
For Wilson Chandler, playing today’s top titles is as much a function of his gaming past as it is the provenance of his family’s future. The Brooklyn Nets forward grew up in Benton Harbor, Michigan, wiling away his free time on the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Sega Dreamcast and Sony PlayStation. Nowadays, he spends his spare hours playing COD and Fortnite, in part, to bond with his daughter, Jaya Dior, who’s roughly the same age that Zach was when he took up shooting games.
“I always begged him to play, every day after school, so he started playing,” Jaya says. “And then we started playing together, and it just started going on and on, and he started liking the game, too.”
“I'm not great,” Wilson admits, “but all my friends play and my daughter loves it, so it's kind of like our bonding thing.”
Wilson and Jaya make for a fairly formidable tandem when they join Zach on the sticks during friendly exhibition matches at an event hosted by the Huntsmen, Chicago’s official Call of Duty League franchise that is owned and operated by NRG Esports, during NBA All-Star Weekend. The 32-year-old comes away with 41 kills of his own, thanks to a skill set he’s honed by playing COD roughly three times a week. He uses the game to connect not only with Jaya, who lives much of the time with her mother in Michigan, but also with an old friend who goes by “G Magic” online—and often helps Wilson score victories.
“He's like my secret weapon,” Wilson says. “Let's get on the game, you wanna win all day. He's amazing, so that's just like my guy, my go-to.”
Nowadays, Wilson is one of many non-Esports athletes who has a stake in franchises like the Huntsmen. For the past year, he’s been part of a fund with True Capital Management, a wealth management firm that caters to professional athletes, celebrities and high-net-worth individuals, and has its hands in the world of Esports.
Zach, Wilson Chandler and Wilson's daughter, Jaya Dior, competed on the same team at the Chicago Huntsmen's event over NBA All-Star Weekend. (Josh Martin)
Few organizations have done more to bridge the gap between traditional sports and Esports, though, than NRG Esports. The company was co-founded by Sacramento Kings minority owners Andy Miller and Mark Mastrov, and has since attracted investments from the likes of Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, former Major League Baseball stars Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, and current Milwaukee Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe.
Andy and Mark first dipped their toes into Esports in 2015, after watching their kids playing video games together.
“We're, like, ‘We should get into this,’” Andy says.
From there, Andy and Mark—a serial entrepreneur and the founder of 24 Hour Fitness, respectively—bought a team in League of Legends and “made every mistake you could make and realized how unbelievably competitive it was,” Andy says.
Through those ups and downs, Andy got a glimpse of what Esports could be on a bigger scale. He saw how fans filled seats at live events and exchanged gamer tags while waiting in line for concessions.
“They're playing together and this whole community really evolves,” he says.
Now, NRG Esports is one of the biggest players in the market. The Los Angeles-based organization boasts rosters in the Overwatch League, Apex Legends, Fortnite, Hearthstone, Rocket League, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and, of course, COD with the Huntsmen. The support from traditional pro athletes has certainly helped that expansion, but as Andy sees it, their ability to identify with today’s Esports athletes is what brought the likes of Shaq and A-Rod into the fold in the first place.
“They were 17, 18, 19, and they were a phenom,” Andy explains, “and they know what it is to be on the big stage and have all this pressure, and they see this isn't much different.”
Like their counterparts in traditional sports, Esports athletes like those under NRG’s umbrella train every day, honing their crafts while assessing their performance through video reviews. And as with more traditional athletes, Esports stars—like Scump and FormaL of the Huntsmen—work so diligently not only to improve their own abilities and build on their own successes, but also to fend off the rising tide of gamers who aspire to turn pro.
“There's lots of kids who are gonna take their place, right?” Andy says. “And you don't have to be 6'8”, 300 pounds to be able to play the game. So if you want to be the best, it's a real commitment.”
Ben wound up with all the physical attributes to be an NBA All-Star, but might’ve been just as dominant in COD had he taken that route. As a 13-year-old in Melbourne, Australia, he tried out for OpTic Gaming’s squad, but ultimately didn’t make the cut. Six years later, after the Sixers made him the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, Ben sent a message to Hector, then the CEO of OpTic Gaming, to remind him of that denial.
“Alright, well, I kind of did you a favor,” Hector recalls responding to Ben. “You owe me 10 percent of what you just got [in the NBA].”
Ben first reached out to Hector "H3CZ" Rodriguez (right) as a 13-year-old in Australia. (Josh Martin)
That banter has since blossomed into a unique friendship between the 40-year-old El Paso, Texas native and the 23-year-old hoops star in Philly. While Ben had his own Esports event to co-host over All-Star Weekend—a SLAM x FaZe Clan Pop-Up Call of Duty Modern Warfare Tournament at the Champion Store—he still took the time to swing by the Huntsmen’s pop-up. He wanted to not only support Hector, who became the co-CEO of NRG Esports in September 2019, but also play a round of COD with him.
And while there were plenty of established pros in the building, Ben certainly looked the part himself.
“He literally has the hand-eye coordination to do something like that. You can tell by the way he plays,” Hector says. “He literally just dropped 80 [kills] cold not on his setup, not on his controller. Just sat down and dropped 80. You don't do that.”
If the pain in his lower back persists, Ben might have all the more time to rack up kills online while he heals. Even if he returns to on-court action more swiftly, the NBA schedule affords players ample downtime to fill with video games—so long as the pastime doesn’t interfere with their day jobs.
“When they're not playing basketball and they're on the road, they're playing Call of Duty,” Andy says. “We have De'Aaron Fox on the Kings. You have to take it away from him.
“That's what they do. That's how they relax and stay connected with their friends.”
Zach personally connected with members of the Huntsmen, including Seth "Scump" Abner (second from left), at the team's event in Chicago. (Josh Martin).
It’s how Zach figures to keep up with Scump, after the two Chicago-based stars exchange information at the Huntsmen’s event. And it’s how people of all physical abilities and income brackets can meet and find common ground, regardless of the geographic and social barriers that may exist between them in the real world.
“Video games, everybody plays them. It's so easily accessible,” Hector says. “It makes it super easy for people to join sort of this community, the fabric of the community—the way that Ben has, the way that several other athletes have come into this space and done incredible things.”
If not for the Bulls’ Western Conference road trip towards the end of the 2019-20 NBA season, Zach would likely be in attendance at Wintrust Arena in Chicago when the Huntsmen host their Call of Duty League series there April 4-5. Instead, he’ll have to do what millions of others figure to do: watch the live stream on YouTube.
Or, better yet, fire up his own console for a round of COD with his friends back in Seattle.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.