The highs and lows of being a top-ranked NBA 2K League player

The highs and lows of being a top-ranked NBA 2K League player

Video Games

The highs and lows of being a top-ranked NBA 2K League player

Mitchell Franklin (AKA Mootyy) never thought he’d be a professional gamer. Quite frankly, none of the top NBA 2K players in the world really expected to make a living off their virtual basketball skills until the last few years, when tournaments with huge cash prizes started popping up and the NBA 2K League was announced.

Prior to his eSports career taking off, the 24-year-old from Virginia was studying sports administration at Radford University. Franklin had also been a sponsored bowler, who competed in pro-am events and considered going pro. Then, the NBA 2K League was announced and he decided to take a break from school to become a full-time gamer.

However, this didn’t just happen overnight. Franklin started playing NBA 2K competitively in 2009, at 15 years old. However, he really delved into the game in 2012 after experiencing bullying at school. He loved coming home and being able to do something he loved without being judged or teased. Franklin developed friendships with the people he played with online and NBA 2K became his daily escape.

Initially, 2K was just a way for Franklin to blow off steam and have fun among people who accepted him. However, it soon became clear that he was good. Really good. Compete-in-major-tournaments good.

“When I was playing NBA 2K12, I consistently put in work every single day,” Franklin told HoopsHype. “Then, once I felt I was prepared and ready to face top competition, I started hitting up every Top-25 team and asking them to give me a chance. Back then, if you were on a Top-25 team, people in the 2K community knew who you were. I was just some random guy and nobody knew who I was, but I became a pest. I messaged every Top-25 team saying, ‘I know you don’t know me, but give me a chance. All I need is one tryout and I’ll show you that I’m one of the best.’ Then, I got a shot and earned a spot on the No. 3 team. Two years later, in NBA 2K14, GameBattles had a playoff with a $2,000 prize – the largest 2K prize pool in GameBattles history – and my team won that. After that, I really knew, ‘Yeah, this is for me.’ I became obsessed with it, doing anything I could push myself and become better.”

From there, he continued to improve and came to the realization that he could be one of the best players in the world. Then, his signature moment came in 2017 when he hit what’s referred to as “The Big Shot” in 2K gaming circles. Franklin was playing in an NBA 2K17 tournament that set out to pit the best five-person team on the PS4 console against the best five-person team on the XBOX One console. The winning team would take home $250,000 and get to play a game of NBA 2K17 against Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, CJ McCollum and Aaron Gordon.

Franklin’s team, Throwdown, made it to the Final Four of the tournament (the championship game in the PS4 side of the bracket). With less than one second remaining in regulation, he hit a three-pointer that forced overtime. His team went on to win the game, advancing to the championship round with $250,000 on the line. Unfortunately for Franklin and his four teammates, they lost the title game, 75-58, to a team called Still Trill – which featured the future No. 1 overall pick in the NBA 2K League draft, Artreyo Boyd (AKA Dimez).

Still, this tournament allowed Franklin to become well-known among 2K fans. From that point on, thousands of people were watching his Twitch streams and following him on Twitter. His success in tournaments like this as well as his performance in the 2K League’s Combine made him a top prospect as the league’s inaugural draft approached on April 4.

In the weeks leading up to the draft, HoopsHype first caught up with Franklin to get an idea of what life is like for one of the top NBA 2K players in the world.

“If you told me this would happen 10 years ago, I would’ve told you that you’re crazy. Honestly, if you told me about all this two years ago, I would’ve said you’re insane,” Franklin told HoopsHype. “I’ve loved playing video games my whole life, but I wasn’t really serious about it – nothing like I am with 2K. The majority of my family goes hunting and fishing, but I’ve never enjoyed that. I always loved video games and was a natural at them. They finally stopped bringing me hunting because I’d bring my Game Boy out in the woods, and it would make all these noises and you’re supposed to be really quiet when you’re hunting (laughs). They finally got upset with me and stopped bringing me, so I guess I sort of won that war. But I always knew I wasn’t really into outdoor activities like that; I’ve always loved video games and I was always a sports fanatic, so to be able to play 2K for a living is a dream come true.”

As the draft approached, Franklin made it clear that he wanted to be a leader for whichever team selected him. He also believed that his experience would help him when it came time to perform under pressure since he’s been in high-stakes tournaments before.

“The primary thing I think I’ll bring to a team is vocal leadership; I plan on being the captain because I have a lot of experience,” he said. “You aren’t going to find many guys who are mentally stronger than me 2K-wise because I’ve gone from the highest of highs – hitting a game-tying shot to take my team to the $250K championship game – to the lowest of lows – losing life-changing money on the biggest stage during my birthday week. That experience will help me, though. Being on that stage is tough. You can try to prepare, but a lot of guys are going to fold under pressure once they’re on that stage because they aren’t used to it. There are some guys who don’t even have competitive league experience; they’ve only played against computer [opponents].

“The stage is hell, honestly. You’re backstage when they’re doing introductions. At the tournament I mentioned, Hannibal Buress was up there doing stand-up and hyping everyone up while we were backstage. You’re sitting there waiting backstage longer than you’re actually playing, and a lot of guys get nervous. Then, when you finally get on stage and you’re in that chair, there are a bunch of spotlights shining on your face. You have cameras all around and you know when they’re on you; you can try to avoid looking, but you see that bright red light out of the corner of your eye. It’s really different and I think that will impact a lot of guys in the league. I think I bring veteran leadership, experience and poise.”

Each player in the 2K League gets to choose their player archetype, which is basically their position and overall skill set. One thing that separated Franklin from many of the other top prospects 2K League talent pool was his position. He chose to be a 6-foot-11, 240-pound power forward, while many of the other top players chose to be a point guard so they could have the ball in their hands more often. He said a friend from his old team, Throwdown, advised him to be a big man.

“A friend told me, ‘Hey, you’ve really been a big all your life,’ and it’s true,” he explained. “I’ve never really had a chance [to be a big] in the offenses I’ve played in, but I’ve always been a shooter who spreads the floor and is patient and just knocks down shots when they need me to shoot rather than always having the ball and having the offense run through me. So I switched to power forward and in the first game I played [with that archetype], I had a triple-double. From there, I was like, ‘Yup, I’m sticking with this.’”

Even in the weeks before he was drafted, Franklin admitted that his life was already starting to change. He had an agent representing him and, for the first time ever, the media was showing interest in him.

“The attention is way different; I’m not used to this,” Franklin said. “I’m getting slammed with interview requests and podcast requests. I’ve had an interview every day so far this week, and I have interviews scheduled every day for the rest of the week and all of next week. It’s truly humbling. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to be a celebrity or famous or known for something. I used to dream of doing interviews and things like that (laughs). Now, I’m getting that kind of attention and actually doing these interviews, which is a blessing.”

In addition to the interviews and online attention, he said that his agent had lined up some potential endorsements with a shoe company and some gaming equipment companies. Between his endorsements and his ability to make money from YouTube and Twitch streaming, Franklin projected that he’d be able to double his $35,000 salary.

***

Several weeks later, Franklin made the trip to New York for the first-ever NBA 2K League draft. The Sacramento Kings’ affiliate, Kings Guard Gaming, selected him with the No. 4 overall pick.

Franklin donned a white suit with a gold dress shirt and gold bowtie, while also wearing sunglasses throughout the entire indoor event (even when he went onstage to shake hands with Brendan Donohue, the 2K League’s managing director). This made him stand out among the many prospects in attendance, and he garnered plenty of attention on social-media. Some people loved the look, but others thought he projected a cocky vibe.

After the draft, Franklin said he was just having as much fun as possible at an event he never expected to attend.

“Ah man, getting drafted is something I can’t even describe. I tried to prepare for it and kind of anticipate what was going to happen, but the minute I hit that stage, it all sort of became surreal,” Franklin said one week after the draft. “I can normally handle myself very well doing interviews and podcasts and stuff like that, so initially I wasn’t worried about doing a little on-stage interview. But once I was up there, I was shook. I was nervous and losing my words. It’s an insane feeling, seeing all this hard work pay off and turning my dream into a reality. It’s really humbling as well. But the best way I can summarize it all is just surreal.”

By the time we reconnected, Franklin had already met his teammates and bonded with them a bit. However, they were all staying in hotels at this point. Later that day, they were all going to move into the team mansion and he was understandably ecstatic. (The NBA 2K League covers moving and housing costs for all 102 players since they had to relocate to the city that drafted them. Players also receive health insurance and other benefits.)

“With my teammates, we hit it off right away,” Franklin said. “It feels like [the bond I had] with my old teammates on Throwdown already. We have a great group of personalities, we’re really meshing well and our chemistry is really coming together. It’s a blessing to have three experienced leaders on our team, instead of just myself [like I expected]. It’s really helped us and allowed us to mesh well together.

“Today, we’re moving into the team house. We’ve been staying in hotels, but now we’re all going to the house. They want us to all get there at the same time, and I can’t wait to see it. I’ve seen a bunch of pictures and stuff, so I’m really excited. It looks like a house you’d see on MTV Cribs. I actually just found out that it’s George Hill’s old place, so that’s pretty neat.”

Even though it had only been one month since the last time we spoke, Franklin’s life had continued to change in ways he never imagined and every day, he was creating incredible memories. The Sacramento Kings players who love video games quickly became friendly with the players on Kings Guard Gaming, which gave Franklin some cool stories he could tell his friends back home.

“It’s crazy, man! Literally right before jumping on this phone call, I was playing Fortnite and De’Aaron Fox was just standing behind me, hanging out and watching me play,” he said. “He’s someone who has some of the most potential of any player in the NBA and here he is just being a cool, humble kid! That’s just one example. Jack Cooley has been really great to be around too. I really feel like one of the players. I feel like a legitimate professional, and the crazy part is that this whole process hasn’t even started! I haven’t even played a single game yet. Once that happens, my notifications will be crazy. (laughs) I’m a little bit scared to see how much my phone will be going off. Already, I’ll look away from Twitter for a few minutes and I’ll have 20-plus notifications. The reality is definitely setting in. They had us sitting courtside at the game the other night. We’ve been doing a ton of media. ESPN was just here and we were all mic’d up! They really make us feel like celebrities around here.”

He was initially nervous about moving across the country, but he quickly adjusted to life in California.

“Sacramento is awesome,” Franklin said. “The Kings have everything for us here, and the atmosphere and people in Sacramento are great. I definitely can’t imagine being anywhere else. It’s a blessing to have been selected by the Kings, and getting the chance to live in such a beautiful city like this.”

However, he understands he has a job to do. As is the case with NBA players, this is a results-oriented business. This lifestyle is only sustainable if he produces for Kings Guard Gaming. Prior to the start of the season, he said he was impressed by the team’s dedication. They were putting in a lot of work to get everybody on the same page. Also, the Kings seemed committed to surrounding their 2K League players with greatness. They hired two legends to work with the team; Shaquille O’Neal is the team’s general manager and UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber is serving as the team’s director of mental performance and human optimization. (This is his real title!)

“Any chance we get, we’re on the sticks,” Franklin said. “The commitment around here is unbelievable. That’s all I really wanted out of my team, so it’s great. We have Urijah Faber working with us and he’s helping us a lot. He’s going to get us right. He is one of the most humble, chill dudes I’ve ever met despite being this big superstar.”

After grinding through the pre-draft process, getting selected No. 4 overall, moving to Sacramento, getting to know his teammates and training for real games, the season was finally about to start. As a top pick who stood out on draft night and did plenty of interviews (including a SportsCenter segment in which he also wore his signature shades), people were talking about “Mootyy” entering the season. Expectations were high for Franklin and Kings Guard Gaming given their visibility and the confidence they exhibited.

***

The NBA 2K League started their season with a Tip-Off Tournament, which featured every single team playing three games. While the games didn’t count toward each squad’s regular season record, there was $100,000 prize for the team that won the opening tournament. Every contest – from the tournaments to the regular-season contests – is played in New York, with the teams facing off in-person at the 2K League’s central studio.

During the Tip-Off Tournament, Kings Guard lost two of their three games. After their 1-2 finish, Forbes ranked them 10th out of the 17 teams in their power rankings and the writer was critical of Mootyy in his analysis:

“By far the league’s biggest enigma is Kings Guard Gaming. They have the talent to beat any team in the league. The players know their roles and four of them played above average in a variety of areas… However, the biggest issue was the lack of production from Mootyy. The No. 4 pick overall wasn’t elite at the tournament, and KGG needs more from him.”

Franklin struggled in the trio of games and was now facing some of the negative attention that comes with being a top pick and one of the league’s notable figures.

In the weeks since, Kings Guard Gaming has played better. They are currently 2-1 in regular season play, which puts them in seventh-place out of the 17 teams. However, Franklin’s numbers still haven’t jump off the page.

Through six contests (the three tournament games and the first three regular-season games), Mootyy has averaged 11.7 points, 5 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.8 blocks and 0.7 steals. He’s shooting 29-55 from the field (52.7 percent) and 10-19 from three-point range (52.6 percent).

While he’s been efficient and he does bring things like leadership and spacing that don’t show up on the stat sheet, he has received some criticism for not posting better numbers thus far. As long as the team is winning, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. But if his stats don’t improve and the Kings start to fall in the standings, people will likely blame the No. 4 pick – especially since he projected so much confidence prior to the start of the season.

It also doesn’t help that the three players picked ahead of Mootyy are all averaging double-doubles (as point guards), and the player picked right after him at No. 5 uses the same power forward archetype and is filling the stat sheet.

But it’s still early in the season, so Mootyy obviously has time to increase his averages and silence the critics. Right now, he’s just focused on winning games and loving life as a pro 2K player.

While he never thought a career as a “Professional NBA 2K Player” was possible growing up, there are now 2K League viewers who dream of someday playing on that stage. After details about the league surfaced, many people said they were going to start training for next season’s tryouts. Franklin knows that there are a ton of people who would love to be in his position and he offered some advice for anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps.

“Just put in the time and be consistent with it,” Franklin said. “If you want something, you have to go out and get it. I’m a living example, living proof, that anyone can do this. I was a nobody who bugged a bunch of teams until I got an opportunity. And once you get a shot, you have to take advantage of it like it’s the last shot you’re going to get and really perform at a high level. I’m living proof that you can come from nothing, but then grind and become a pro gamer.

“It’s definitely not impossible [to achieve this dream]. As you can see, 102 lives have been changed now because of this league. I’m just like anyone else. I just have a strong work ethic. I became obsessed with 2K and was really motivated to improve, so I took off from there. Anyone else out there who’s aspiring to become a professional player like myself, I’d just tell them all it takes is hard work, consistency and dedication. That sort of paves the way to all of this.”

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