In late 2019, the University of Kentucky partnered with international esports organization Gen.G for what was billed as a “first-of-its-kind” program designed to promote and facilitate student interest in what the video games industry has to offer in terms of employment, and to more deeply engage students in the community aspect of gaming.
The newest development of that partnership — the relocation of Gen.G’s professional NBA 2K League franchise to Lexington — aims to build on those goals while also helping to further legitimize esports as a force with which to be reckoned.
“If there were ever going to be a pro esports team that was ever truly in residence at a major university, I couldn’t think of a better fit than for UK and Gen.G to be true trailblazers,” Gen.G. CEO Chris Park told the Herald-Leader. “This opportunity gives us a chance to do what we always wanna do with our players and our teams, which is to give our competitive talent the very best facilities and the best resources, not just to win in their league, but also to have great lives on and off the competitive circuit.”
The Gen.G Tigers of Shanghai have never actually played in their “home” city; they planned to practice and compete last season in Gen.G’s Los Angeles headquarters even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The long-term goal is for the Tigers to move there once more Asian-market teams join the league, an effort Gen.G is aiding through player development and talent identification within Asia.
Until that happens, the franchise — one of 23 set to play this season, but the only one not affiliated with an NBA franchise — reserves the right to move year-to-year. Taking it to Lexington will help “put UK on the map” among prospective Asian students who might not currently think of Kentucky when seeking out progressive universities and areas in terms of technology offerings.
It is the first professional esports franchise to call Lexington home.
“There are lots of different ways to make, create and cultivate connections among fans and players worldwide that maybe don’t require us to limit ourselves to the traditional ways we think about sports teams, which is that they represent a single city and you go city to city in order to bring the game to different fans,” Park said. “… We think bringing our Tigers to Lexington as a true team in residence is just the logical, natural next step to helping UK amplify its profile internationally.”
Gen.G. in August announced a $1 million scholarship fund ($100,000 annually) aimed at heightening diversity and representation within the gaming industry. Undergraduates with an interest in gaming, entrepreneurship or journalism who plan to attend any four-year school can apply, but one scholarship per year is reserved for a student attending UK.
Heath Price, associate chief information officer for UK’s Information Technology Services, believes initiatives like that, as well as a newly developed study abroad program, will help break down some of the skepticism harbored by some regarding “esports” as a whole.
“This is not designed to only be about the competitive gamer,” Price said. “As a matter of fact, everything we’re doing right now is to be broader than that. We really want more and more students to see this as a space and kind of the programming that we’re doing that we hope they’ll influence. We see it as being a lot broader than, into more personalities, more of the streaming, more of the content that young people find interesting. I think we’re starting to have a little bit of that, but we definitely want to see that grow and build.”
The NBA 2K League
Gen.G coach Jordan “Len” Ross was an amateur “NBA 2K” player who rose up the ranks to become draft-eligible but didn’t get selected. He joined the Tigers ahead of their inaugural season as a coach, a role that functions similarly to coaches in traditional sports: Ross hosts film breakdowns, organizes scrimmages and helps motivate his players akin to what Frank Vogel would do with the L.A. Lakers.
“A lot of it is the mental aspect of it,” Ross told the Herald-Leader. “How can I keep these guys mentally engaged? How can I be that second set of eyes to see something that they may not see occurring in the game or keep them from checking out halfway through?”
Games played in the NBA 2K League are 5-on-5 competitions using unique characters created within the game’s MyPlayer Pro-Am mode. Each player controls a single player during the game. Rosters consist of six players, each of whom make a base salary of at least $33,000 (players drafted in the first round or who’ve played multiple years in the league earn more; the highest possible base salary for the 2021 season is $38,000).
Teams throughout the season also compete for additional prize money from a pool of $1.5 million split over three tournaments throughout the season, including the playoffs. The league champions receive $450,000. Housing and relocation fees, health insurance and access to recreational services are among the other benefits provided to players.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, teams would travel for big events but last season, and for at least the start of the upcoming one, the league played remotely. The Tigers will practice and play their games within the UK Federal Credit Union Esports Lounge at the Cornerstone, a multi-use structure that also includes a 100-seat theater in which fans will be able to watch games together.
“I think what they have going on here is far and away more than I anticipated a university esports program being,” Ross said. “It matches up really well (with L.A.) as far as a really cool esports experience.”
Gen.G’s roster includes just one holdover from last season, in which the team finished 6-10. Chris “Turnupdefense” Anderson, a Las Vegas resident described as a “lockdown defender,” is in his second year with the franchise. He won the 2019 league title with T-Wolves Gaming in 2019, and this year is joined by two former teammates from that squad — Mihad “FEAST” Feratovic and Jordan “JMoney” Martinez. The Tigers traded the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 draft for Alex “Bsmoove” Reese, previously with Warriors Gaming Squad. Donald “BumpyDon” Newsome and Kennedy “Sawc” Tauala Jr. were drafted with the 44th and 47th picks, respectively, in this year’s draft.
The NBA 2K League season begins May 19.