SALT LAKE CITY — Shaka Browne and Lytel Martin had the same routine growing up. They’d go to school. They’d come home. They’d pop-in NBA 2K9 — the 2009 edition of the NBA-based video game — and would ball online. Five-on-five virtual games. On the weekends, same thing. Play all weekend. Rack up stats. Bucket after bucket. Sometimes they’d work 9 to 5. Come home, log in to NBA 2K and game. Again and again. Day after day. Week after week. Weekend after weekend.
Browne (who goes by “Shaka”) and Martin (who goes by “Lotty”) climbed the worldwide rankings of the NBA 2K9 online community. It was a competitive time with hundreds of thousands competing online.
Shaka, whose handle was “YoungSparks92,” saw someone climbing the ranks with him. “YoungKobe3.”
And Lotty — or “YoungKobe 3” — saw “YoungSparks92” right there with him, too.
The two New Yorkers were linked together then. Little did they know that almost a decade later they’d be teammates, competing side by side for the Utah Jazz in a professional league for NBA 2K gamers.
See, at the time, it was all about rankings. They climbed up the ladder. They jockeyed for position. Shaka had the bragging rights — always ahead of Lotty. So when Lotty found out the two NBA 2K stars grew up in the same neighborhood of Mount Vernon, New York. He knew he had to battle him. One game to decide bragging rights for the town and 2K.
They went to different high schools, so it wasn’t like they could link up on their own. But they had mutual friends, so the game was set up.
“We’re both from Mount Vernon, so it was kind of like a collision course,” Shaka said.
Shaka wanted the chance to play Lotty one on one. He always knew he was a better player than him, even if they were always neck-and-neck in the competitive rankings. He just needed the moment to prove it.
They played a hard-fought game. Lotty chose the Los Angeles Lakers — a team touting a prime Kobe Bryant — and Shaka chose the Rockets, which had Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming at the time. The game was close, but Shaka won by 10 or so.
“I was that guy,” Shaka said.
Later that night, the two competitors — who had never met until that point — ended up going to the movies. Fast forward more than 10 years and the two are still side by side, teaming together on Jazz Gaming, the Utah Jazz affiliate for the NBA 2K League.
“When we found out that we were from the same neighborhood and we were both on top of the world, like, wow, that’s crazy we need to start hanging out and talking about the game to kind of learn from each other,” Shaka said. “And then we just became teammates after that.”
The road to the NBA 2K League is not paved in stone. It’s a relatively new road peppered with pot holes, cracks and misdirection. That is to say, there’s no easy way to make the league. No story of making it is the same.
Except for Shaka and Lotty, who teamed up with some other Mount Vernon, New York, locals for the NBA 2K tournament in 2016 — one that would award them $250,000. They lost in the tournament finals, but it was a sign to Shaka that becoming a professional NBA 2K player was possible.
On Feb. 9, 2017, NBA and Take-Two Interactive (which produces the NBA 2K video game) announced plans to launch the 2K League. The league unveiled teams in December 2017. Qualifiers for finding potential players began in January 2018 and went through February. In March 2018, the draft happened from Madison Square Garden in New York.
Shaka joined the NBA 2K League in that first season. Jazz Gaming drafted him as the No. 3 overall pick. Lotty didn’t join the league until the second season. He took a detour to work as a police officer. He joined in the second season after being drafted by Miami.
They played each other once again. Lotty said he bested Shaka. But Shaka recalls the Jazz got the win that night.
Long-term, the Jazz might have secured an even bigger victory. Last season, Jazz Gaming and Miami made a trade, bringing Lotty into the Utah organization.
“It’s just incredible the story, that we have an opportunity ... that we have this year,” Shaka said.
The two have teamed up to push Jazz Gaming to near the top of the standings, winning seven straight regular season games. The team placed in the semifinals of an in-season Tipoff tournament in the 2K League.
Chemistry between Lotty and Shaka helps, they said. But the whole team needs that chemistry to succeed long term. Understanding basketball can help you on the 2K court.
Still, it helps to have an old friend sharing the court with you. Lotty said he didn’t need to change his game too much when he joined Jazz Gaming since he already knew how Shaka liked to run his squads.
“We’ve had more success being together,” Shaka said. “Without Lotty, you know, we struggled a lot. He struggled in Miami. This has been both of our best seasons in the 2K League playing together, so I’ll definitely say that we play better together to this point.”
Playing NBA 2K professionally — or, as some say, playing video games for money — might have seemed like a pipe dream 10 years ago for Shaka and Lotty. Now, it’s their realities.
They’ll take pictures with fans. People will recognize them in airports. They wear team jackets (made by Champion). They look like professionals.
“I was just working a regular 9 to 5 and didn’t get that kind of recognition,” Shaka said. “So just seeing all those things happen now, it’s like night and day. You almost feel like a celebrity athlete like doing things that you’re seeing your role models do. It’s pretty amazing.”
Traveling can be a grind. Lotty said he was always traveling on game day for Miami, which made it hard to focus on the games themselves. For the 2020 season — one derailed by the coronavirus pandemic — the NBA 2K League has told teams to play remotely. Normally, they’d all play on the stage together.
Understanding the esports world isn’t easy, Lotty and Shaka admit. People still don’t understand it completely. Shaka said his family didn’t quite grasp the idea he would be drafted to play NBA 2K, a game he normally plays for free.
Lotty said the change of the tide is coming.
“Everybody was confused about Netflix when Blockbuster was out,” he said. “So everybody is going to have to learn about it, probably in different ways.”
Shaka — who has been on the Jazz for three years and sees himself as a veteran of the squad — sees 2020 as an important season for the organization. It’s not only a season to gain recognition in the eyes of the public, but a title doesn’t seem too far out of reach.
“We’ve been through a few earthquakes here in Utah this year and went through a lot of things,” he said. “So hopefully, it would mean so much more to win this year because we’ll be winning it together, you know, as a team, with all of us coming together.”
The championship remains on his mind. “Winning it would mean so much for this organization,” Shaka said.
Shaka and Lotty — two people from the same hometown, who climbed the ranks separately but now seek a title together — see the game as their passion. They encourage anyone to do what they did: Identify a passion, head to school, come home and grind through the week. Spend weeknights and weekends focusing on your passion.
Success will come, like it did for them.
“My passion was to play something I would do for free,” Lotty said. “So just, you know, just have that passion. If you will, if you love to do one thing, just focus on that one thing you want to do. You want to be on the Jazz, or just make the 2K League, it is right there to grab. It’s a hard thing to do, but if you put all your focus on it, you could do it.”