The slog back from a broken tibia and dislocated ankle was as much mental as it was physical. Away from the game he loves as well as his team, the Celtics forward turned to another lifelong passion to divert his attention from his injury and connect with friends while he was laid up at home.
“When you’re hurt like that, it can be pretty lonely and you can isolate yourself, and video games helped with that,“ Hayward said in a recent phone interview. “Initially it helped me stop thinking about [the injury] too much, and I could get lost playing video games. In this day and age, you can still hang out with your friends across the country and play video games. I wasn’t around the team as much, but I was still able to be in contact with people and have fun.”
Hayward grew up as a voracious gamer, playing on Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Xbox and now PC. Over time his gaming grew beyond a mere hobby. Not only did it help him get through that missed season, it also enabled him to forge deeper connections with younger fans and take advantage of emerging business opportunities.
Hayward said fans talk to him before, during and after basketball games about video games more than anything else. Instead of an autograph or a selfie, young fans now want to team up with Hayward online.
“Most people won’t play basketball with NBA players, because you have to be in the NBA, but you don’t have to be a pro to play against pro gamers,” Hayward said. “There’s a chance they could load in and play the same game as them.”
Streaming, when gamers broadcast themselves playing games via online platforms such as Twitch and Mixer, is a core part of the modern video game landscape. Through these platforms, fans expect access to esports stars and other celebrity gamers, giving them a rare chance to interact with celebrities.
Hayward is a leading advocate for video game culture, writing essays defending the activity and saying he “grew up as video games did.”
“Either I was playing sports, at school or playing video games,” he said, with “Halo” being his favorite title at that time. Today, as a top NBA player and a father, he still manages to play “a little bit every day.” Hayward veers away from sports games however, preferring “Apex Legends” and “Hearthstone” when on the road.
Hayward’s mission is to provide the public with a more realistic view of pro gaming.
“If people would understand what they go through, it’s very stressful, very competitive, it’s a job in every sense of the word,” Hayward said, echoing sentiments from ex-Lakers forward-turned gaming organization owner Rick Fox. Like Fox, and many others, Hayward uses video games as outlet for his competitiveness.
Though Hayward said he won’t stream himself training, he wants to be an engaging presence in the video game community.He is a spokesman for HyperX, which makes peripherals, such as headphones and keyboards. Because of his legitimacy as a gamer, he has the capacity to bridge the gap between traditional and esports.
Last year, Hayward moved from Nike to Anta, a Chinese shoe and apparel company. Asked whether that move had anything to do with wanting to engage with the colossal Chinese esports market, Hayward, whose NBA salary this season was north of $31 million, equivocated.
“First and foremost it was a deal that wanted to make sure my feet were going to be protected,” he said. “Basketball is still my first love and passion, and it’s my job. Everything else is secondary. But I did think about it.”
As for the Celtics bonding over a battle royale session, a la the 1990s Bulls’ poker games or the 2000s Lakers’ video game sessions, Hayward said that’s not happening.
“I mostly play solo or with some friends that I grew up with,” he said.
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