USA E-National Team Ready to Defend Conference Championship Title
The six-player squad will compete from throughout the country as they represent the U.S. at the FIBA Esports Open III North and Central America Conference championship this weekend.
It isn’t hard to imagine Stephen Curry, Donovan Mitchell, LeBron James and Kevin Durant on the floor for USA Basketball this summer at the Tokyo Olympics going after gold.
What if I told you Crush, OriginalMalik, ALittleLady87, Steez, OneWildWalnut and Splashy also have big expectations representing USA Basketball this month?
That is the roster for one of the newest ventures by USA Basketball, the USA E-National Team.
Those players will represent the USA in the FIBA Esports Open III North and Central America Conference tournament on May 7-9. Four teams will be competing while playing with teams and players created in the NBA 2K21 video game in Pro-Am mode.
This is the second time a USA E-National Team has been put together. The first team won seven of eight games to take the FIBA Esports Open II North and Central America Conference title. The FIBA tournament has expanded from 17 teams to 38 to now 60 for the third event.
For this week’s tournament, the team is composed of Rafel Davis (gamer tag: Crush), Malik Hobson (OriginalMalik), Wendi Fleming (ALittleLady87), Alex Bernstein (Steez), Dayne Downey (OneWildWalnut) and Kimanni Ingram (Splashy).
The team features some of the best players in the NBA 2K League, which begins its fourth season on May 19. Three of the six players on the USA E-National Team roster are new, as some players from the inaugural team opted to focus on the upcoming 2K season.
“It's definitely a great experience,” said Hobson, a 21-year-old from Detroit who currently lives in Atlanta and plays for Knicks Gaming. “I did it in the first FIBA tournament with the first USA team. Just trying to repeat, it's been cool. Anytime you get a chance to represent your country is always a blessing andt an honor.”
For that inaugural team, Hobson — who plans to attend Georgia State University this fall and major in biology with an eye on a nursing career — had to go through an extensive tryout against other 2K League players after receiving invites from USA Basketball.
“Those were probably the hardest games of 2K I've ever played,” said Hobson, who started playing the 2K series when the 2011 version was released and has played in the 2K League all three previous seasons.
That intensity helped Hobson and the USA capture the championship in their first tournament. The team went 5-1 in the seven-team bracket, tying for first with the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico in round-robin play. Advancing on a tiebreaker, the USA beat the Dominican Republic 2-0 for the championship (48-45 and 60-56). Three other games were decided by six points or less, including one overtime win.
“We definitely didn't underestimate anyone coming into the tournament,” said Hobson, who plays shooting guard. “We all felt like they had good players, but we just felt like we were always better than who we were playing against — and that was just me being as honest as possible.”
Hobson, who also likes to play the “Call of Duty” series, now has three new teammates for this week’s FIBA tournament, including Bernstein, a 27-year-old from Santa Ana, California, who also plays for 76ers Gaming Club. Bernstein is a power forward who played football in college at Northern State University in South Dakota. He said joining the USA Basketball team isn’t a tough transition, because all of the other players are professional 2K players.
“I think with such short notice and this FIBA tournament coming up so quick is just gaining on-court chemistry,” said Bernstein, regarding the team’s current priorities. “Everybody on the team has had professional experience, so everybody knows what the job is at hand, you know what it's going to take to be able to achieve a goal. But chemistry, it takes time, and that's something we don't have right now, so making sure that we work on that as much as possible with each scrim block that we do have within Team USA is I think, I think it's crucial for our success.”
The six players, five of whom are currently with their 2K teams in different locations across the country preparing for that season, practice for about two hours each day to get used to each other’s habits and develop chemistry. The USA players will remain at their 2K team locations for the FIBA tournament.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Bernstein became a financial advisor in Beverly Hills, California, for a couple years. Having played video games between class and practice, he found himself playing more and more once he was out of school. When word of the 2K League popped up, he immediately knew it was what he wanted to do and committed to that endeavor.
Bernstein is newer to the 2K series, as he picked it up when the 2017 version came out.
“I just fell in love with the game,” said Bernstein, who also plays “Call of Duty” and “MLB The Show.” “It was more of a hobby at first — then I kind of played competitively a little bit. Once the league got announced, I was like, 'You know what? I gotta go for this and just try it,' because I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't at least make an effort. So that's kind of how it all started.”
Now, like Hobson, Bernstein will get an opportunity to represent USA Basketball through his decision to be a gamer.
“It's a dream come true,” Bernstein said. “I think at some point in everybody's life — everybody has heard about the Dream Team for traditional basketball, with Magic (Johnson), Michael (Jordan) and Larry Bird and all those all-time greats — and everybody always thought about what it'd be like to play for their country, and that's something I get to do on a professional level. I think you can't really beat that. Now I get to compete for a championship in this tournament. and I think that's a blessing in itself.”