There’s a local sports team a lot of Minnesotans don’t know yet, despite a dramatic championship run in 2019. Led by point guard Michael “BearDaBeast” Key, an underdog T-Wolves Gaming squad topped 76ers GC in the finals last August. Both teams are part of the NBA 2K League, a growing esports organization—that’s competitive online gaming—operated by the National Basketball Association.
A wiry 6-foot-3, Key grew up in North Carolina playing basketball competitively in high school and college—and also gaming in his free time. When he saw potential to earn real money in gaming, he began competing against elite NBA 2K players in 2016. “I would beat everybody in my school, my district,” Key says. “They had GameStop tournaments, and I would always win.”
He tried out, but ultimately wasn’t drafted for the NBA 2K League’s first season in 2018, but he was T-Wolves Gaming’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft. All NBA 2K League players who competed in the 2019 season and were retained by teams prior to the 2020 NBA 2K League Draft will earn a base salary of $37,500. First-round selections in the 2020 NBA 2K League Draft will earn a base salary of $35,000. Players who were selected in the second round or later will earn a base salary of $33,000.
For each six-month season, the players also receive paid travel, insurance, retirement, lodging, and any endorsement earnings. (Under COVID-19 precautions, the new season starts May 5 with six weeks of remote gameplay streaming live on the league’s Twitch and YouTube channels. T-Wolves Gaming’s season begins May 7 against Hawks Talon GC.)
“It’s like the best job in the world,” Key says. “First of all, you get paid to play video games. I know what it feels like to do a 9-to-5 every day. Now I ‘work’ 9-to-5 and absolutely love it. It’s a joyful job. Once you explain [to an older generation] what’s going on, they say, ‘Man, I wish I could’ve played pinball for a living.’”
Aside from a team based in Shanghai, China, the 23-team-and-growing league links directly up to NBA franchises. Other similarities between the pros and the esports offshoot: coaches, trades, and playbooks. And dramatic postgame interviews, like BearDaBeast’s fiery response to the teams that didn’t sign him, before he and his teammates hoisted the massive trophy at the league studio in New York City. Winning the championship netted T-Wolves Gaming a not insubstantial $360,000 prize.
— NBA2KLeague (@NBA2KLeague) August 4, 2019
“It’s incredible to see a guy like Bear coming in his first season and just kill it,” says Bri Bauer, VP of communications and engagement for the Timberwolves, Lynx, and T-Wolves Gaming. “He’s the face of the NBA 2K League for a reason. He’s so charismatic, cares about his team, he has so much passion, he just says it like it is, and he’s so good at what he does.”
T-Wolves Gaming practices in a highly visible, gleaming $1.5 million facility in Mayo Clinic Square, across the street from Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. Other local pro franchises have esports connections, too. The Vikings’ Call of Duty team Røkkr just entered its first season, the Wild hosts annual gaming tournaments at Mall of America, and Twins pitcher Trevor May is an avid gamer with nearly 150,000 followers on the streaming service Twitch (basically YouTube, but centered around gaming).
“This is the future of how brands want to engage with consumers, and this is how the NBA is going to maintain fans,” Bauer argues. “Because more people know what LeBron’s rating is on NBA 2K than his stats playing in the actual league.” Overall, esports reached a global audience of 453.8 million in 2019 and generated more than $1 billion in revenue. But beyond the analytics and the money, it’s a community centered around people with rarefied skills.
“One of the big questions I get is ‘It’s actually somebody watching you play the game instead of playing it themselves?’” says Key. “I’m like, ‘You actually watch LeBron James play instead of going to a court yourself, right?’ Your passion is to watch basketball. Somebody loves to play 2K, and I’m the best in the world at 2K, so they want to watch me play. If you’re the best in the world—I don’t care if it’s basket weaving, hopscotch, whatever—I’m going to appreciate what you’re doing.”
What has it been like to move from North Carolina to Minnesota?
Michael “BearDaBeast” Key: I’m from High Point, but I grew up in Davie County. I grew up in the inner city up to about 5th grade. What I’m used to seeing is not as big as Minneapolis, of course, it’s a little slower pace, but it’s the city. I’d go live with my dad, and see chicken farms and horses and one stop light. When you’re living in the country the time is behind where it is in the city. Before I ever came here I never thought about Minnesota much. I could relate to the Timberwolves and the Lynx and the Vikings, but I didn’t think about it much at all. Then, when I get here and I see downtown. To me, it’s new. The infrastructure is nice. It’s beautiful. It’s fast-paced. The people here are different. They’re more accepting with different cultures and diversity.
What’s the wellness piece for you? How do you stay centered?
First of all, it’s not hard to be happy. For me, it’s not. Growing up it was, “Six feet above is better than six feet below.” I’m breathing and I can walk. I try not to take anything for granted. People say, “What if the the T-Wolves don’t make the playoffs next year?” Or, “They were 3-6, they were 1-3.” Just to be in a position where you can talk about me and I’m in this league and you know who I am. Coming from where I came from, you can’t knock me down. I’ve come too far for someone to take my happiness and my joy. Keeping myself happy, just staying around positivity. Being around people that want to see you succeed and staying around people that want to push you. Not paying attention to the negatives, unless it’s for motivation.
How do you build chemistry with your teammates?
I think we’re the only team that gets on a court and runs plays to get the execution down. But I mean, we won a championship. They say with gamers, “Everybody comes from their mom’s basement.” I like it. For me personally, I grew up playing sports. Football (I was terrible) and basketball and being a part of teams. Understanding the bonding. The bonding part definitely helps. With us, people got this perceived notion that we’re certain type of category. We play the game together, we go to baseball games together, we go hang out together. We go on a basketball court and hoop together. We’re normal people. The only difference is we play a video game for a living and get paid for it.
Besides NBA 2K, what do you play?
Just because you’re a construction worker, doesn’t mean you can’t go play soccer. Or if you’re a photographer, you can’t go cook. I’ve always played. I love sports, I just specialize in 2K. I play Fortnite, I’m not good at it. I’ll play Call of Duty, I’m not good at it. I loved Madden before I played 2K. I played FIFA. I play League of Legends. I’m just really good at 2K. That’s what I focus on.
Beyond competition, what are the other rewards of this life?
Being able to work with the youth. For them to look at you as somebody to look up to and inspire them for who they want to be, there’s no payment in the world that can replace that. It’s absolutely amazing to me. When I’m at the barbershop or I’m here in Minnesota stopping by, it’s “You’re BearDaBeast. You’re the guy I’ve seen playing 2K.” And they want a high five. To be that person in their eyes and to make someone happy, especially a younger person, you just can’t beat that feeling.