All 102 names had been called in the inaugural NBA 2K League draft on April 4, but only one was from North Carolina: Michael Stam.
The 2K League is an official partnership between the NBA and Take-Two Interactive, the publishers of NBA 2K, the massively popular video game series.
"From the NBA's standpoint, this is our fourth league," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in his annual press conference during All-Star Weekend.
Different NBA franchises own the current 17 teams, and its players get perks, just like traditional professional athletes, including a $32,000 base salary (but $35,000 for first-round picks), medical insurance and a retirement plan.
For Stam, also known by his gamertag as "Stambreezy," that means moving from Charlotte all the way to Salt Lake City to play for Jazz Gaming, the team owned by the Utah Jazz.
The Syracuse native moved down to Charlotte 12 years ago after some coercing by his then-girlfriend and now-wife, who was in search of warmer weather.
Stam finds himself in part of a rising class of competitors, making their way in life by playing video games professionally. Irene Zhou, co-president of the UNC Esports Club and design staffer at The Daily Tar Heel, believes that esports is already on the same level as other pro sports.
“One of the big statistics we like to throw around is that last year, during the League of Legends World Championship — which was held in America — the views on that were only surpassed by the Super Bowl,” the junior said.
The UNC Esports Club doesn’t have any organized community for sports games, like 2K, FIFA, or Madden yet, but co-president Shane Steele-Pardue expects that to change in the future.
“Playing video games based on more traditional sports is relatable for everyone,” Steele-Pardue said. “Plus, there’s already national competitions around it, so seeing it come to collegiate-level is definitely probable in the near future.”
Because professionally-competitive play is still very new, Stam isn’t even sure what the Jazz Gaming team will look like when it’s all said and done. Stam was drafted as a power forward —an interesting choice, considering the position’s supposed lack of popularity among players.
“During the combine, I played the first two games at center, and it took an hour or two hours to get put in a game,” said Stam. “So, I switched to power forward because there were never any power forwards in the game.”
The combine consisted of 72,000 players, who qualified by having 50 Pro-Am mode wins, which are five-on-five matches between online players. Each combine participant chose pre-set archetypes for their characters, instead of the traditionally-customized MyCareer characters.
Stam chose the athletic-rebounding archetype, similar in style to Aaron Gordon and All Stars Blake Griffin and Amar’e Stoudemire. He’s not set on that style, though, because the players will pick new archetypes once the league starts.
“I’m not 100 percent sure (how I’ll play),” Stam said. “We don’t even know what builds we’ll have, so we don’t know what offense we’ll run. We’re just going to wait to see what we’re going to do offensively.”
The 12-week regular season will be streamed exclusively on a platform called Twitch, starting on May 1. Each team will compete in at least 14 regular season games, as well as three different tournaments throughout the season and the 2K League Championship.
As for the collegiate level, don’t be surprised if the next generation of scholarship athletes at North Carolina get their reps with a controller, instead of on a court. Many universities, including UC-Irvine and Miami (Ohio) University, already have varsity esports programs, complete with scholarships.
“I think if North Carolina gets to that point, we’re going to be the ones to lead it," Zhou said.
Steele-Pardue agrees and thinks it could create a cultural shift.
“It’s definitely a thing that's going to happen, ultimately,” he said. “Just because that’s how the culture is trending towards. It is a legitimate field and profession.”