It’s hot and muggy outside, but fortunately this basketball game is indoors and the players all seem pretty locked in. The one they call “Boo” is particularly chatty, talking his team through an intense weekday scrimmage.
“Good ‘D’ there,” he calls out. “Got to get a stop. … All right, good board. … Yo, everybody stay home on your shots.” And so on.
Even as the score tightens and the players look winded, he never breaks a sweat. Austin “Boo” Painter plays basketball five days a week alongside his teammates, all lined up against one wall, all facing oversized screens and holding video-game controllers. Painter is the leading scorer for Wizards District Gaming, which is in the midst of its inaugural NBA 2K season, a fledgling league that’s backed by the NBA.
The upstart is trying to capitalize on the esports explosion — big-name investors are lining up to get involved in various teams and leagues, and even the International Olympic Committee has taken an interest — and in the process the new NBA 2K League has helped carve out unlikely career paths for sports gamers, perhaps few as improbable as Painter’s.
The 24-year old graduated from Old Dominion last spring. He almost immediately accepted a job with the State Department, underwent two months of training, received his security clearance — and then walked away from it all to play video games full time.
“I get housing, everything’s paid for, and I get a good salary,” Painter says, by way of explanation. “I mean, I’m playing video games every day. So the decision was: stand up and walk around the State Department all day or play video games?”
He has what is essentially a 9-to-5 job, reporting each day to the Wizards District Gaming facility in Chinatown, where he sits side-by-side with teammates and plays one NBA 2K game after another, prepping for the weekend competition in New York.
Painter is from a no-stoplight Virginia town called Stanley, located in the shadows of the Shenandoahs and about eight miles from the Luray Caverns. He grew up playing both sports and video games.
“I was probably like most parents — ‘You need to get off that game and get outside,’ ” his mother, Lori Painter, says with a chuckle.
There were times, she says, she’d even cut off the Internet to compel a mandatory video-game break. No one, of course, knew where it might lead. Painter enrolled at Old Dominion and double-majored in criminal justice and sociology. He always preferred sports games and kept playing whenever time allowed, winning a few dollars here and there in online tournaments.
“I kind of took a step back at one point because I was in school and it was like, I can’t play video games all the time,” he said, “and I had a girlfriend at the time.”
But when he did return to more steadily playing, he wasn’t rusty and in fact had emerged as one of the world’s best NBA 2K players, just as the NBA was preparing to help launch a new esports league. Painter graduated from college and landed a job with the State Department doing diplomatic security. His parents were pleased he landed a government job, the first step on what looked like a stable career path.
The NBA announced its esports league in May 2017, with 17 of its 30 franchises intending to field teams in the inaugural season. By fall, Painter was so consumed with work, though, he couldn’t practice much. He regularly put in 50-to-55-hour workweeks and squeezed in only a game or two before going to bed. He managed to qualify for the NBA’s 2K combine, kept putting up good numbers and knew he’d have a shot at a roster.
“I’ll never forget telling my family and seeing the look on their faces,” he said. “It was like, ‘You think you’re going to do what now? You think someone’s going to pay you to play video games all day?’ ”
In February, he was one of 72,000 gamers who participated in a combine. And then in April, he attended the league’s draft in New York, where the Wizards made him a second-round pick.
“Honestly, I think a lot of us were expecting him to be gone,” said Grant Paranjape, the director of esports for Monumental Sports, which owns the Wizards. “In a lot of our mock drafts, we had him going in the first round, so we were we were a little bit surprised that he was there that second round.”
Paranjape estimates that only about 10 percent of the league’s 102 players have graduated college or had embarked on professional careers. It’s a lot to leave behind.
“Yeah, I loved working at State,” Painter said. “It’s great money, but it’s a stressful environment. Why not go and take a chance at this and see where it goes?”
Painter says he was making $78,000 from his government job with a chance to earn even more in bonus money. The NBA 2K League promised him $32,000 for a six-month contract. If the team does well and somehow wins the championship, bonus money could bring his six-month salary closer to $100,000. (The money is essentially the same minimum salary offered in the developmental G League. The NBA actually had to boost its coffers to bring the G league’s salaries for actual basketball players in line with those of its new video game players.)
With little trepidation, Painter quit his government job May 9 and signed his NBA contract a week later.
“The guys I used to work with, they were all behind it, like, ‘I would definitely leave this job and go play video games,’ ” he said.
It was a leap of faith. While the esports world is booming, NBA 2K is the first big test to see if a sports title can support an entire league. The most successful esports entities provide players with an experience that can’t be replicated, or even approximated, in real life, as in a battle-arena game such as League of Legends or a first-person shooter game such as Overwatch. By contrast, NBA 2K was merely a virtual version of an activity that can be found by flipping to ESPN or visiting a neighborhood court.
“I guess some people could think that they’re so used to watching real basketball, why would you want to watch virtual basketball?” Painter says. “You’re not really used to watching the military, so yeah, people tune in to watch Call of Duty.”
The Overwatch League has millions of viewers, often more than 100,000 at the same time. By comparison, each NBA 2K League broadcast might draw only a few thousand concurrent viewers watching via Twitch, the live-streaming service owned by Amazon. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.) Overwatch, which also began play this year, has more than 1 million Twitch followers; the NBA 2K League has 53,000.
The upstart basketball league isn’t measuring its season-one success solely in numbers. For it, NBA 2K also serves as an entry-point to foster and engage a new generation of fans. As Monumental’s Paranjape says, “From a league perspective, it’s a long-term play.”
“As a new league, our focus is on engagement with fans,” said Brendan Donohue, the NBA 2K League’s managing director, “which is why we are seeing the tremendous benefit of having Twitch as a partner. … Overall, we are incredibly pleased with the level of fan engagement not just on Twitch but across all of our social channels.”
The league plans to expand next season and perhaps field 30 teams in 2020. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has also floated the possibility of exploring international markets down the road. The fact that the NBA committed to the esports league for at least three years is a big reason gamers such as Painter felt comfortable making the leap.
Wizards District Gaming works out of an office building adjacent to Capital One Arena. Behind the front entrance is a locker room, and behind another door is the training room: video monitors on one side, a snack table on another and a mini-fridge stocked with Bud Lite in a corner. The players arrive en masse each morning, usually scrimmaging against each other. But other teams will also fly in and assemble in a nearby room, so the team squads can compete against each other — even though they’re separated by a wall.
At the end of the day, Painter retires to a luxury apartment a few Metro stops away where he rooms with a teammate. The team pays the $3,500 monthly rent there, a major perk offered to all players. The gamers pass time in the rooftop pool or on the complex’s real-life basketball court. They’ll often play non-sports games, such as Fortnite, to catch their breath.
With four regular season games remaining, Wizards District Gaming has a 5-4 record, tied for sixth in the league and occupying one of eight playoff spots. Painter is the league’s second-leading scorer, averaging 25.8 points per game. On Saturday, he recorded the league’s second-ever triple-double with 45 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists.
Painter’s online presence is 6-foot-4, 240 pounds with blue hair. On this side of the monitor, he’s around 6-foot with a warm smile and affable personality. He takes this pursuit just as seriously as he did his previous job. Even when he’s home, he’s thinking about upcoming opponents.
“Instead of coming home and watching Netflix, I’ll watch past broadcasts on Twitch,” he said. “I try to figure out what they’ll do against me, how they’ll rotate. Basketball IQ is important, whether it’s video games or real life.”
Painter’s family is now hooked, too, watching the broadcasts online and bragging on social media — even if his calling seems a bit unorthodox back home in Stanley.
“We’re still explaining it to people,” Lori Painter said. “ ‘Wait, your son is playing video games for an NBA team?’ We’re constantly having to explain this. And they’re always like, ‘We’re not telling our kids what your son does for a living. There’s no way we want them to know this is possible.’ ”
Painter is hopeful Wizards District Game and the fledgling league have a spot for him next year, though all 102 gamer contracts in the league expire at season’s end. The league hasn’t announced what will happen after — whether teams can protect players, whether they’ll all be free agents or subject to another draft next spring.
Painter hopes to draw a video-game salary for as long as possible but figures his government security clearance is good for two years and he could also find another job in Washington, if he has to. For now, he’s eager to see where his basketball career might take him.
“This feels like just a starting point,” he said. “For now we’re making a good salary and we’re getting everything paid for. You can tell that it’s going in the right direction and it’ll keep growing.”