From Sun Devil to NBA 2K top 150: one ASU student's esports journey

Senior Austin Garrison is expected to graduate with a degree in business with hopes of joining the NBA 2K League

Contrary to popular belief, the world of esports is not tucked away in the depths of one's basement.

As a growing billion-dollar industry filled with personal trainers and sponsorships, professional gaming has ballooned in popularity in recent years, opening new career and revenue avenues for its participants. 

And caught in the middle of it is ASU business senior Austin Garrison.

From book smart to game smart

The shot meter flashes green as the "X" button on an Xbox One is held and released. Swish. Garrison's shot goes in. 

But he's not on the hardwood — Garrison, along with a small group of others, is on his way to becoming a professional NBA 2K player. 

Garrison, an avid NBA 2K player, was one of 150 players in the country that recently received a conditional offer for the 2019 NBA 2K League Draft.

The popular basketball video game franchise is now in its second decade, and its creators have taken note of the growing popularity of esports. The NBA and developer Take-Two Interactive joined together in 2018 for the inaugural season of the NBA 2K League (NBA2KL), which featured 17 six-player teams.

The professional esports league features the best NBA2K players in the world and recently added four new teams in its second season, according to the NBA2KL's website.

Garrison, a Las Vegas native and first-generation college student, said when he received the news from the draft in late January, chills coursed through his body as he imagined the endless possibilities. 

Garrison's competitive NBA 2K journey began in early January, after advancing through the NBA2KL Combine that ran from early November through late December.

The 23-year-old was then selected as one of the top 200 players after he went 29-12 in the combine, averaging 24.4 points, 4.2 assists and 6.5 rebounds per game.

Growing up, Garrison viewed playing NBA 2K as a fun and entertaining distraction from school and basketball practice. 

"I'd still play with my friends at their house or with kids online," he said. "But it wasn't anything serious." 

It was during these early teen years that Garrison met his teammates and closest friends.

However, as soon as he began college at ASU, he said he veered his focus toward academics and graduating rather than playing video games.

Only a couple of months ago, several of Garrison's gaming friends and former teammates convinced him to pick up playing competitively again. 

Kevin June, a student at Indiana University, was one of the teammates. June said he joined up with Garrison in 2013 through a gaming forum. The duo instantly became a force to reckon with because of their unique gaming styles and communication.

He said what makes Garrison a unique player is that he doesn't only focus on scoring points.

"He tries to play the best defense he can," June said, adding that Garrison tries to get the "rebounds that matter."

"He'll always try to make that extra pass," he said. "He's not looking to get himself his points just trying to set the team in the best position to win, something I've always respected him for." 


Breaking the esports piggy bank 

Competitive video gaming is a growing industry, and in 2018 esports was expected to generate $906 million over two years, according to gaming market research firm Newzoo

By 2020, the industry is expected to make $1.4 billion, the firm said.

Head coach for the Orlando Magic's Magic Gaming, 24-year-old Jonah Edwards, is a part of that growing industry.

Edwards said players that were retained made $38,000 last season, which runs for five months.

"Our season runs from March through August," he said. "You get $35,000 if you are a first-round pick in the draft, you get $33,000 dollars if you were second- through fourth-round pick."

The NBA pays the salaries for players in the NBA2KL and their travel to and from games, which are held in the league's New York NBA2KL studio.   

Players in the league are treated as employees of the league, not the teams, Edwards said. The NBA holds the rights to the players' contracts.

Ever since joining the league over a year ago, Edwards said he has been translating his motto "healthy body, healthy mind" to the rest of the team.

The gaming team works with a trainer two to three times a week depending on the scheduling of the season, breaks down film review and practices up to six hours a day.

"The reason behind (the practices) not being longer is the brain basically turns into mush as far as muscle memory goes," Edwards said. "You aren't learning skills at that point, you are basically trying to remember what you are supposed to be doing."

Other benefits include 401(k) plans, daily allowance on weekend trips and insurance.

Magic Gaming also provides its players with two luxury apartments in Orlando as well as perks to Universal Studios and Disney World, which Edwards added is a "huge Orlando Magic partner."

Besides the nice paycheck and fancy living accommodations, there are a lot of intricacies that go on behind the scenes to better prepare players for the big stage. Through its partnership with Orlando Health, Magic Gaming brings in doctors to prevent wrist injuries and help players maintain a healthy lifestyle.

For Garrison, there's a lot of technical skills that go into playing the game. 

"I perfectly release a lot of my shots, which is something big because if it's green it's automatically going to go in," Garrison said.

Garrison said he also pays special attention when it comes to rebounds and being an all-around player who focuses on things such as defense, rather than continuously scoring.

As graduation nears with the impending chance of joining the NBA2KL, Garrison's father, James Garrison took some time to reflect on his son. 

"His life is moving on and career, I don't know what it could be, but it's a learning experience," James said. 

James, who's in his late 50s, was glad that younger generations could make a living with gaming, but said he couldn't comprehend the way they absorb so much information.

"I played plenty of (NBA2K) games with him and I just couldn't compete," James said. "I get frustrated, he's so much better than I was. The only way I can do it is on the basketball court and compete with him there, but on these games that he plays there's no way. It's so easy for him at a young age." 

While James stressed the importance of education, there's one thing he said he hopes his son does after he graduates. 

"I traveled all over the world because my father was in NASA and my step father was a Marine Corp," James said. "So that experience in traveling is one of the main things I hope he does after he graduates and takes responsibilities in what he likes doing and what he feels comfortable." 

With the NBA2KL Draft quickly approaching, Austin Garrison is already starting to gain traction as a potential draftee.

Garrison said he has an interview with Wizards District Gaming on Tuesday, Feb. 12.


Reach the reporter at Edith.Noriega@asu.edu or follow @Noriega_Edith on Twitter. 

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