The esports arm of Milwaukee's NBA team on Friday will "press start" on their 18-week, second-ever season of weekly matchups and out-of-state tournaments, with about $1.2 million in prize money on the line.
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The six-player Bucks Gaming squad is one of 21 professional video gaming teams participating this year in the NBA 2K League, which is the first official esports league operated by a U.S. professional sports league as a joint venture between the NBA and New York-based video game holding company Take-Two Interactive, according to NBA 2K's website.
NBA 2K had its inaugural season last year, with 17 participating teams.
The league's 2019 season began this week with the The Tipoff tournament, with all 21 teams competing for a prize pool of $120,000.
Bucks Gaming is scheduled to take on Blazer5 Gaming (Portland Trail Blazers) at 7 p.m. and Jazz Gaming (Utah Jazz) at 8 p.m. on Friday. The tournament's championship rounds will take place on Saturday.
All regular season contests, including The Tipoff, physically take place at the league's studio in New York, but fans looking to get in on the action can tune in to a live stream on Twitch.tv, an Amazon-owned streaming platform.
After completing its roster in last month's draft with four draft selections, including two first round picks, Bucks Gaming has been prepping for the season ahead.
"The guys are willing to put in as much time as they need each day," said the team's co-managing director Cayle Drabinsky. "They really study the game, so they break down tape, they go over each other's strengths and weaknesses, they work really well with our coach... we can't wait to see how they perform on the big stage in New York."
Most of that prep work and practice is done at the team's performing center in Milwaukee's Halyard Park neighborhood. The 2,700-square-foot space at 1615 N. Vel R. Phillips Ave., nicknamed "The Bunker," features high-tech gaming equipment, flat screen computer monitors, a large HDTV, a kitchen and, of course, comfortable chairs-- their backs draped with numbered jerseys.
Of the Bucks' six gamers, Stephan Lay, better known in the gaming world as SlayIsland, is the only one from the area. The rest uprooted from Idaho, Texas, Louisiana and New York.
During the season, the team spends eight or more hours per day at the facility running practices, including scrimmages against local gamers, if they are not on the road for competitions.
Drabinsky said the quality of the space gives Bucks Gaming a leg up in competing against large-market teams that can offer players a big-city lifestyle.
"This is one of the nicer ones in the league," he said. "Some teams in the league have actually built it into their arena."
And when the players aren't "working," they all live together in The Moderne, a luxury apartment complex near Fiserv Forum.
"We really want to provide that incredible lifestyle for the players," Drabinsky said.
As part of those perks, team leadership this season has put more effort toward improving their gamers' overall health and allowing them time away from the pressure of competitive gaming, which can be stressful and mentally exhausting, Drabinsky said. Personal training and nutrition sessions and off-site meditation retreats have been incorporated into the team's training regiment but, he said, some players like to unwind by simply playing a different video game.