Brooklyn Nets’ Nets GC Team Helps Fill Sports Void
62 Years After Sports Video Games Started in Area
The absence of sports competition looms large for many fans in the national epicenter of the novel coronavirus. Live sports action has disappeared from screens, stadia, schools and society. Starting this week, New York City mandated the removal of dozens of public basketball hoops to encourage social distancing.
Esports is noticeably helping fill the void. Sports video games that simulate real-life sports and teams may be the biggest mover in the esports realm, in part because their immersive and competitive contests provide an outlet that makes its participants feel less socially distanced.
Perhaps the New York City-based NBA is best poised among the traditional sports leagues to keep and attract esports fans. Today, the NBA 2K League introduced a live eight-day simulated basketball tournament dubbed Three for All Showdown. The league recognized an immediate need. “While we’re encouraged to practice social distancing, it’s important that we stay connected,” the league noted in its tournament announcement.
The event allows fans to play three-on-three virtual games from home, and vie for a share of a $25,000 prize pool. In addition, the tournament offers a chance for entrants to compete against the NBA’s professional NBA 2K League players.
The NBA 2K League’s salaried gamers are preparing to start the league’s third season. The league consists of 23 NBA “expansion” teams, whose players compete in simulated NBA games with players they create, in front of a live audience and for many fans worldwide.
Wael Ankouni, assistant general manager of the league’s Nets Gaming Crew, the Brooklyn Nets representative also known as Nets GC, says that basketball played on real courts is still revered in his virtual hoops world.
In 2018, the inaugural NBA 2K League championship was won by the New York Knicks’ Knicks Gaming team. Nets GC joined the league last year. Together, the two squads represent the city where the NBA has been based since its founding in a Midtown Manhattan hotel in 1946.
Fewer than 20 blocks away from where the NBA was formed, at a 200-seat Midtown studio, all the NBA 2K League teams were set to play their five-month 2020 season starting this week. Since delayed, the season will benefit from its remote gameplay ability, with preseason games from various locations being arranged to start soon. The regular season will open as early as April.
Simulated computer sports competition started in virtual isolation. And among the NBA esports teams, Nets GC is the closest in proximity to those roots.
In 1958, in an atomic-energy research laboratory on Long Island, nuclear physicist William Higinbotham designed a computer tennis game now known as Tennis for Two. Built by engineers at the lab, the invention is regarded as the world’s first sports video game. The two-dimensional game, powered on a small cathode ray tube, would start esports on a historical journey that includes other Greater New York developments.
This month, that history led New York Sports Tours to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, home of the Nets and Nets GC, and of the NHL’s New York Islanders. New York Sports Tours hosts public and private tour experiences that visit many places from the history of dozens of sports.
Barclays Center stands about 60 miles west of the still-active Brookhaven National Laboratory where Tennis for Two was introduced. The flagpole that stands in front of the Brooklyn arena’s main entrance is from the now-defunct Ebbets Field, home of 1955 World Series champion Brooklyn (now Los Angeles) Dodgers.
Inside Barclays Center, the Nets GC players demonstrated that the spirit of basketball is able to thrive in a virtual world. The NBA 2K League has risen from years of independent groups taking the lead in organized competition based on the NBA video game NBA 2K.
Nets GC plays in a league built to mimic the action of NBA basketball. The realism continues to impress NBA 2K League players and fans alike. One of the original architects of the league format is Ivan Curtiss, the Nets GC’s general manager and coach.
A passionate gamer for years, Curtiss co-founded the amateur MyPlayer Basketball Association (MPBA), considered a pioneer in highly competitive NBA 2K gaming. “It was our own pro league before the actual 2K league,” said Curtiss.
Many MPBA players have been selected in the annual NBA 2K League draft, held last year at Barclays Center.
Each NBA 2K League has a six-player roster, and the players are the gamers. The teams don’t use NBA players on the virtual court, but avatars to resemble the player controlling them. The 2K players are drafted as guards, centers, or forwards. They are each paid a six-month salary of at least $33,000 and receive paid housing, medical insurance and a retirement plan.
Nets GC point guard Josh (Choc) Humphries says hours of practice is key for teams. League players are not only working hard to earn their salaries, but to win the 2020 league championship and to share a piece of this season’s $1.4 million prize pool.
The environment was far different when Tennis for Two was created at Brookhaven. The lab’s focus on atomic energy research had generated distrust from many in Greater New York. To strengthen community ties, Brookhaven started an annual visitors’ day. Guests took tours of parts of the facility. Each Brookhaven department was tasked to create an exhibit to show visitors.
Higinbotham, a Greater New York native who had created electronic components for the first atomic bomb, designed Tennis for Two. Brookhaven engineers Robert Dvorak and David Potter built the device. The game, played on an oscilloscope, was a big hit when it debuted in a Brookhaven gymnasium at visitors’ day in 1958. Although guests were limited to 30 seconds of play, the game attracted a line of visitors that snaked out the laboratory entrance and around the building.
At the Nets GC training center, players exhibited advanced NBA video game graphics and interfaces, but showed respect for rudimentary video-game styles introduced years earlier.
Nets GC player Randolph (Rando) Moreno noted that basic two-dimensional video games are used informally at the training center and that players recognize how many principles used by previous generations continue to apply.
Because of the popularity of Tennis for Two at Brookhaven in 1958, the game returned for the following visitors’ day, to more praise. In large part, the positive response was fueled by the game’s interactivity, futurism and familiarity. Users were able to mimic the visual style of tennis with a simple controller.
The Brookhaven tennis game was dismantled to make its parts available for other projects at the laboratory, but many had recognized that sports could drive commercial video game participation. In this way, history was being repeated.
In 1891, Thomas Edison invented a method for showing fast-moving still images to simulate moving pictures, with a loop of film moving in front of a light. His business produced experimental films with titles such as Newark Athlete and Men Boxing, produced in 1891 before basketball was invented the same year.
Edison learned that sports, with its non-stop action and emotional element, was an ideal subject for motion pictures. The same year of his invention, Edison filed for a patent for a motion picture camera named the kinetograph and a peephole viewing device dubbed the kinetoscope. He started with scenes from boxing and fencing.
In 1894, Edison brought motion pictures to the public. For five cents a view, they were shown in a parlor in a vacated shoe store in a Midtown Manhattan address now on the New York Sports Tours tour route. The parlor was the first place that moving images were seen for a price in sports and beyond.
Conversely, Higinbotham did not earn money from the Tennis for Two design after the game debuted on October 18, 1958.
“My children and friends ask, why didn’t I patent this and become a millionaire?” Higinbotham once wrote. “I agree that I should have applied for a patent, but I would not have been any richer. The patent would have belonged to Uncle Sam.”
Tennis continued to advance the video sports game field, primarily with games placed in arcades. Introduced in 1972, the Atari tennis, or table tennis, arcade game Pong was Atari’s first creation and the video game industry’s first major commercial hit. Other manufacturers soon followed with other tennis-style games.
In 1973, team esports caught on after Taito introduced the tennis arcade game Davis Cup, a tennis doubles competition inspired by the international team competition of that name. Davis Cup play had been devised 73 years earlier by the United States Lawn Tennis Association.
Now known as the USTA, the organizer of the professional tennis’ annual US Open in New York, the association was founded in 1881 in Midtown Manhattan, at one of many stops on New York Sports Tours’ outings. USTA co-founder James Dwight, president of the association for its first 21 years, is credited with starting Davis Cup play.
With tennis as a driving force, sports video games went commercial in 1972 after Robert Baer led a team that created the first video game console. As a teenager in 1938, Baer had moved with his family from Germany to New York City. He said his first interest in television-based interactivity came in the 1950s, when he was a senior engineer at Loral Electronics in the Bronx.
In the 1960s, while working for a defense contractor in New England, Baer invented the first video console for home use. In the below 1969 video, Baer demonstrates an early version of the game with engineer Bill Harrison. Magnavox purchased rights to the creation and Magnavox Odyssey introduced the world’s first commercial video game, named Table Tennis.
Many other sports followed from Magnavox and other companies. In 1980, with Atari the market leader in home video games, Mattel’s Intellivision turned to New York sportswriter George Plimpton for credibility. Intellivision believed it could override Atari’s Video Console System (later branded as the 2600).
Plimpton was known as a participatory sports author, an angle that had started at Yankee Stadium. Plimpton, a New York City native, pitched the start of an exhibition baseball game against National League batters, representing an American League team managed by New York Yankees star Mickey Mantle.
In print and television commercials that began running in late November 1980, and aimed at Christmas shoppers, Plimpton proclaimed that Intellivision replicated real-life sports action better than Atari. By the end of the year, the full stock of Intellivision consoles and game cartridges, nearly 1.2 million units, was sold out.
The advancement of sports video games is a story of fine-tuning, not reinvention. At its core, the controller used by NBA 2K League players is similar to the one used for Tennis for Two. And Bronx native and Nets GC player Isaiah (Wavy) Hancock recognizes that like the Brookhaven visitors’ day exhibitors, NBA 2K League players need to reach out to the community.
The Nets franchise started as the New Jersey Americans in 1968, then moved to Long Island, New Jersey and Brooklyn. Hancock sees NBA 2K players as a team blazing its own sports history trail.
“These players in the league right now, for the first three seasons, we’re sort of the pioneers for esports in general,” Hancock said. “Esports is on the rise right now, it’s a growing industry, and it’s only going up from here.”
As a result of the novel coronavirus, New York Sports Tours tour experiences will resume in May 2020 or later. Gift cards can now be purchased here, then used after the tours restart.