February 9th, 2017 is a very important date for fans of the NBA 2K franchise. That was the day it was announced that the popular sports video would be featured in a new professional eSports league.
One year later, 17 teams, each one associated with an NBA franchise, would start the inaugural NBA 2K League season.
One of those founding members was the Portland Trail Blazers owned squad, Blazer5 Gaming.
During the very first league draft, Blazer5 Gaming used the 29th overall pick to select Nidal "Mama Im Dat Man" Nasser to run the point on the virtual hardwood. Two seasons later, Mama Im Dat Man was named NBA 2K League Most Valuable Player.
He may have earned MVP honors after just two seasons in the league, but the road to get there actually began a decade earlier.
"I started playing video games probably when I was eight or nine. I started on the PS2 and all I would play was Madden and Call of Duty. I would play those things day and night. I wouldn't care. That's what I played," said Nasser.
While those two tried and true titles were the go-to for Nasser, one special game made him make the transition to the virtual hardwood.
"It got to a point when 2K10 came out, I believe Kobe was on the cover, when I made that transition to 2k. I was always in love with basketball, played my whole life, so that is what I fell in love with."
This story to this point sounds relatable. Many of us, myself included, have spent many hours in front of the TV with a console controller in our hands. Whether it was the PS2 like Nasser, or the Super Nintendo like myself, we all remember our first experience with video games.
But, while millions of people play video games for fun, only a select few are good enough to say they play them professionally. Nasser is one of them.
When I started playing, I was just playing casually, just having a good time. Then I started playing with my friends. When I started playing with my friends, I used to beat them by 20, 30, and 40, it got to the point where they would look at me like, 'Bro, are you being serious right now? This is crazy. You're much better than everybody else and it's not even close.' So I used to play small money matches for $10 here, $15, $20, versus people at my school or just people that I knew would want to play me because they knew I was good. So that's where it kicked off. As the years passed, I played more and more competitively and it got to this point. - Nidal Nasser on his road to the 2K League
Here's the thing, as with any sport, there is always someone who thinks they can do it too. We all know that one person who thinks if they got 15 minutes a night they could average 10 points and hit threes with ease in the NBA. That one person who thinks they could thow a 99mph fastball and get a few base hits in MLB. That one person who watches an NFL player drop a pass and says out loud, "put me out there, I would have caught that!"
Well, no. No, you can't. Even the worst professional athlete is leaps and bounds above the average Joe, but that won't silence the naysayers.
eSports are no different.
Millions of people play these video games online, and a lot of them think they should be on top of the mountain. They question why Player A was able to make it in the league while they sit at home.
"I see it a lot," said Nasser. "People be like, 'Oh, why is he in there? I should be in there. The league is a fluke. He's only in there because he knows people. He has connections,' all the good stuff."
Even Nasser, the reigning MVP, heard it a time or two on his way up. "I'm not gonna lie. In the beginning... I saw it a lot towards me. Now, in general, now that I've won MVP and I've kinda established myself, I don't really get that anymore. Almost never..."
Nasser's skills have more than done the talking for him, but he still has something to say to those that try to bring him or anyone else in the league down:
My thing to them is that there's so many outlets for you to get your name out there. There's so many outlets for you to perform and show who you are. And people don't want to take the time out of their day to do it. It's just like any other job. You have to put the hours in. You're not just gonna come in and be like, 'Oh, I'm here. Now I'm gonna get drafted because..." and make B.S. excuses. Are you gonna do that for a real job? No. So why would you do it for the NBA 2K League, which is kind of like a blessing, to be honest. You're playing video games for money! So, you gotta put that extra work in. - Nidal Nasser
Those people that believe they should have a spot in the league could have their chance sooner, rather than later. The NBA 2K league started with just 17 teams, but entered Season 3 with 23. One of those teams is the Gen.G Tigers of Shanghai, the only team not affiliated with an NBA team. This means that as the league expands they could have more than just the 30 NBA team affiliates.
The league could continue to expand in the future, and Nasser sees it having a global impact.
"I hope it blows up, I really do," said Nasser. "The fact that we've gotten up to this point, I didn't even believe, and now my expectations are out the roof... I feel like we can only get better. I feel like the broadcast can get better. I feel like when trash-talking really is implemented when we go back to the stage, I feel like that's when people are really gonna dive into it."
If you do decide to dive into this league, you will realize it's more than just a video game. It's entertainment. Just like you watch your favorite reality TV show because of the personalities, or you watch your favorite movies because you fall in love with certain characters, you do the same with eSports.
Some people have that thought process of, 'It's just video games. I can't get into it.' But then they're going to watch a drama series that is completely scripted. Just give it a shot. If you give it a shot you might like it. You might like a personality like me, like Walnut, like Brandon, doesn't matter who it is. Once you fall in love with somebody, once you just like their personality and just enjoy watching them, you're gonna tune back in. - Nidal Nasser on the NBA 2K League
Nasser has built off of last season's MVP season, averaging 30 points per game this season and leading Blazer5 to an undefeated record. Can they remain undefeated? You can find out for yourself next Wednesday when Blazer5 Gaming returns to the virtual court to take on Knicks Gaming.
If you haven't seen Mama Im Dat Man do his thing, now is the perfect time to take the dive and see the entertaining league for yourself.
You can catch all the action on the NBA 2K League's Twitch and YouTube channels.
Be sure to check out the latest Talkin’ Blazers Podcast with hosts NBA Champion Channing Fry and Emmy Award winner Dan Sheldon.