LOS ANGELES - Visitors to the Lakers' posh training center in El Segundo enter through oversized glass doors and are greeted by large rotating photos on three vertical flat screens framed in gold.
At center is a photo of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal embracing on the court after winning the first of their three championships together with the Lakers. To the left is a picture of Andre Ingram, a guard for the South Bay Lakers, the team's G League affiliate, who made headlines two years ago when a promotion made him, at 32, the NBA's oldest rookie. And at right is a photo of Jordan "Vert" Gates, 20, controller in hand, playing a video game.
Even Gates can't quite get over the company he keeps.
"I feel like I'm living a dream every day," he says. "It doesn't seem real."
Gates is the Lakers' new point guard, but he's not replacing Lonzo Ball. He's a starter for Lakers Gaming, the franchise's team in the NBA 2K League. The six-member esports squad, which completes its first season Wednesday, is considered a valued extension of the organization.
"We want to make sure we're catering to our fans of the future," Lakers owner Jeanie Buss says. "They're a big part of the Lakers family."
Lakers Gaming shares more than a name with the 16-time NBA champions; the team also works out of the same 120,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art headquarters. The gamers each have keys to the facility and can come and go whenever they please, just like LeBron James.
"I grew up as a Lakers fan and idolized Kobe," Gates says, "so to be able to represent them and go into the offices and be a part of the team now. ... It's a feeling I really can't explain."
The NBA 2K League is a professional gaming circuit co-founded by the NBA and Take-Two Interactive Software, the parent company of 2K Sports. Its season began early in April and will end with its championship on Aug. 3. Last year, it became the first official esports league operated by a U.S. professional sports league, opening with 17 teams. Four teams were added this season, including the Lakers, and plans call for every NBA team to have its own 2K team.
"We have the NBA, the WNBA and the G League, and this is the fourth league in our family," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says. "And that's exactly as we're treating it; one more professional league."
The 2K players earn about as much, and in some cases more, than G League players. All NBA 2K players who competed in the inaugural season and were retained by their teams receive a base salary of $37,000 for the six-month season. First-round selections in the 2019 NBA 2K League Draft collect a base of $35,000; players selected in the second round or later receive a $33,000 base salary. G League players earned a base of $35,000 during the last regular season.
The 2K players also receive free housing in their home-team market during the season, plus relocation expenses, medical insurance and a retirement plan.
Players on good teams can potentially earn six figures because the league awards $1.2 million in prize money throughout the season - with $360,000 awarded to the league champion.
Since the season spans only about half a year, some players are able to attend college, and others hold second jobs while continuing to train. But Ted Leonsis, owner of the NBA and 2K Washington Wizards, predicted that won't last long, saying, "I believe that in 10 years one NBA 2K player will be more well-known, popular and better compensated than LeBron James is today."
NBA 2K games are played five on a side - guards opposite guards, forwards opposite forwards, center facing center - with a big screen in the middle, and the action comes with chatter that sounds like what you might hear at a park or gymnasium during a hotly contested pickup game.
There are set plays and plenty of trash talk.
On a recent day in El Segundo, Lakers Gaming gathered in its training room, which is nestled behind the NBA team's media room. Six computers - one for each of the starters, plus an alternate - were lined up in front of a big screen and white board as the squad scrimmaged against Heat Check Gaming, the Miami's Heat's 2K team.
The season was not going well. With only two wins, Lakers Gaming was near the bottom of the standings. The scrimmage wasn't going well, either, and the frustration was rising.
"Everyone talk, play, c'mon, this is a scrimmage!" barks Mitchell "Mootyy" Franklin, a 25-year-old Yorktown, Va., native, who is the team's starting center and vocal leader. "... talk! Does no one want to play today?!"
Franklin has been playing 2K competitively since 2005, longer than anyone else on the team. He became the first player on the Lakers Gaming roster when he was selected with the fourth overall pick in September's expansion draft after playing with Kings Guard Gaming, the Sacramento Kings' 2K team, last season.
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He loves playing for the Lakers - "There's nothing like walking around L.A. and wearing the Lakers logo and representing the most well-known organization in basketball, if not in all sports," he says - but losing is eating at him.
Last season, his team finished tied for last in the league and Franklin could be looking at a similar result with Lakers Gaming.
"You're not on an island," Franklin tells Christopher "Kontrul" Cantrell, a 22-year-old guard from Jacksonville, Fla., when the scrimmage is over. "You just have to play better, Kontrul. You just have to play better. I know you. You turn over the ball a couple of times and you get frustrated."
There is no respite from teammates for most 2K League players. Each of the Lakers reside at the same extended-stay hotel during the season. They have the same roommates at home and when the team travels to the Long Island studio in New York where all of the league's regular-season games are played.
Gates, who is from Pittsfield, Mass., rooms with Franklin.
"He's great but he snores really, really loud; like really loud," Franklin says, shooting a glance at Gates. "I'm a very light sleeper so that's part of the reason why I'm up so much and can't get any sleep. Sometimes I'll record him and send it to the group."
Cantrell rooms with Kevin "Kev" Alvarado, a New York native who, having recently turned 20, is the youngest player on the team. Cantrell often gets his own hotel room on the road because Alvarado prefers to stay with his parents.
But no one on the team has a better roommate situation than Christopher "Detoxys" Doyle, a 23-year-old Hampton Falls, N.H., native who starts at power forward. His roommate is Shane "Safiya4ya" Farrar, a 27-year old from Richmond, Va. who has a 6-year old son back home and is the only player who knows how to cook.
"We'll come home from practice and he makes the best steak," Doyle says. "What more could you ask for?"
With all the games in New York, the biggest challenge is the travel. There are no real home games, which is not a problem if you play for a 2K team representing the Knicks or Brooklyn Nets but is a logistical nightmare when you are taking early morning commercial flights between LAX and JFK before competing.
"Last year it was just a short flight from Orlando and I lived close to home, so this is totally different," says Cantrell, who played for a team affiliated with the Magic last season. "It's grueling because I always get sick on these trips. I don't know what it is but I come here and get sick, go home and get better and come back and get sick again. It's just a grind."
When the Lakers formed their NBA 2K team, they chose to keep management in the family.
Matt Makovec, the general manager and coach, is director of community relations for the Lakers. Tim Vanneman, business operations coordinator and assistant coach, is the corporate partnerships coordinator with the Lakers. Noah Camarena, media relations coordinator for the esports and G League teams, also assists the Lakers public relations staff.
"It has been challenging at times balancing both jobs, but it's a passion project for me," Makovec says. "There are some late nights when I'm watching tape with the team and I'm also working on an event, but I love it so much. I've loved game for years and the Lakers really embraced the league and this team."
Lakers Gaming players attended several Lakers games last season and were regulars at South Bay Lakers games, which take place inside the El Segundo facility. While the Lakers' NBA team has been making headlines this summer, Lakers Gaming players have had a front row seat to the madness.
"There's something new every day in Lakerland," Franklin says. "We have an access card with the Lakers logo on it and we have complete access to the facility. Obviously, you can't record everything and capture all the moments, but you have it stuck in your head forever.
"I've passed by Jeanie Buss and her dog multiple times on my way to the kitchen. I used to see Magic Johnson when he was here. We've seen individual workouts with LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma. The Lakers really make us feel like we're a part of the organization."
None of the players know what the future holds for them or the league, but they do know this: they're on the ground floor of a sport in its infancy while also being attached to one of the most storied franchises in professional sports.
As he thinks about the future, Makovec can't help but smile looking up at the championship banners and retired jerseys surrounding the basketball court at the Lakers' facility.
"One day," he says, "we'd like to have a championship banner up there too."