Trans-Tasman rivalry reignited with FIBA Esports Open 2020 exhibition games

By Aaron Callaghan

Travel and playing restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic may have halted international hardwood action until further notice, but FIBA basketball will play on with the organisation’s inaugural Esports Open 2020.

The Trans-Tasman rivalry is reignited again in the FIBA Esports Open, with Basketball Australia taking on Basketball New Zealand, in five exhibition games. 17 FIBA nations --including Australia and New Zealand -- will take part in the first ever open series, played remotely via the widely popular NBA 2K video game.

The games tip off on 19 June for three days of FIBA esports action, and will be conducted using NBA 2K’s premier game mode ‘Pro-Am’ – a five versus five team mode using customisable avatars and controllable player builds with varying skillsets.

The international match ups feature NBA 2K’s best young stars from the 17 participating countries. There are notable omissions from the tournament, including big FIBA members like Turkey and Greece.

Edit: Spain and Italy did participate, this has been corrected.

The biggest absentee would likely be the United States, who are currently in the middle of their NBA 2K League season.

Australia and New Zealand’s NBA 2K players are rapidly forging their own path in the NBA 2K esports scene, which is heavily dominated by North Americans. The NBA’s own league – the NBA 2K League – includes 20 North American teams synced with NBA franchises, and one Chinese team who are based in Los Angeles throughout the season. Given the odds stacked against Oceania’s players – it is understandable to see why there isn’t a flood of Oceanian talent in the NBA 2K League.

The rise of live streaming platforms like Twitch TV, combined with NBA-sanctioned 2K esports tournaments and global qualifying avenues for the NBA 2K League draft pool has created opportunities. Blue chip Australian and New Zealand talent like Jack ‘Jaacko’ Stevenson, Jordan ‘JaeDubb’ Walden and Max ‘Squoogs’ Ellwood are gaining prominence in conversations around the best players in the world. This is especially true for those who aren’t currently on NBA 2K League rosters, with the former – Jaacko – being selected by Detroit Pistons Gaming in the 2019 NBA 2K League draft.

NBA 2K Pro-Am games can be won and lost at the point guard position, however in this trans-Tasman match up, the battle at centre is intriguing.

Australia’s line up features Max ‘Squoogs’ Ellwood at centre. Squoogs has been around the Australia and New Zealand competitive scene for many years now, always featuring heavily on competitive teams and in championship deciders in local tournament play.

“I'm so excited to be representing Australia,” Ellwood shared. “I think that when we're in the pre-game and we see our jerseys on our players that it'll feel really cool. Knowing that I'll have a lot of friends and family watching I think might make it feel pretty 'real'. After all, I'm still in disbelief that I was flown to South Korea to play 2K by the 2K League with players from all across the Asia Pacific.”

The Australian representatives all compete in the top tier of community organised, NBA 2K Pro-Am tournaments and leagues in Australia. It goes without saying, that the players in this trans-Tasman series are very familiar with each other’s style of play. Australia’s defence will be anchored by Squoogs on his familiar centre archetype. “Centre is my best position, however I've played every position over the years - I played point guard, lockdown and power forward this year and did really well.

"I'll be guarding the centres for this tournament, so hedging for my teammates on screens in the pick and roll and switching onto the guard when necessary to prevent scores is going to be vital as well.”

Despite missing two of their biggest names – in Jordan Walden and Jack Stevenson (coach) – the New Zealand team is loaded with talent, and could potentially start as favourites in the series. As with the Australian line up, team New Zealand is comprised entirely of Pro-Am players who compete on the highest level of tournaments in the region.

New Zealand’s big man in the pivotal centre battle is Jaden ‘Qwiker_’ Cruz. Cruz is a veteran of the Pro-Am scene, taking home multiple championships in Australian and New Zealand. Tournaments. Qwiker_ is the man tasked with slowing down Squoogs inside scoring.

“The matchup against Squoogs will be a good test for me, but you always have to be confident in your game. Squoogs is an excellent centre. He’s a great shooter and also has good IQ,” Cruz shared.

Most NBA 2K offences feature a heavy diet of pick and roll offence. Utilising big-bodied centre screens on opposing point guards is key, when creating separation for guards who can shoot or dribble penetration into the paint. Before one thumbs their nose and dismisses computer gaming as something for kids or nerds, there is a striking resemblance and flow to a game of NBA 2K as there is to real basketball.

“In this team, I'm surrounded by great players. My job's going to be to get ‘Range’ and ‘Waurk’ open with good screens on offence and rolling at the right time and slipping when there's an opportunity,” Ellwood said. “Making the right decision when I get the ball and getting my teammates involved with my passing is something I'm really excited for. If things get a bit stale offensively I can take things into my own hands and score on the perimeter or down low in the post.”

The opportunity to represent your home country, in any activity, is one of the highest acknowledgements of your skills and achievements. Like all other Australians who have flown the flag, Squoogs holds pride in the upcoming event. “I feel incredibly lucky to have been selected and I'm honoured to represent Australia for a FIBA tournament. It's mind blowing where a video game can take you.”

Similarly, for Qwiker_ the recognition is a huge honour. “In terms of representing New Zealand I’m speechless, as cliché as it sounds it’s been a dream of mine.” The remote nature of tournament play during the FIBA Esports Open means representing your country from your home office or bedroom. This speaks more of the wild times we are currently living in, than it does diminish the series in any way.

“It will feel real once we are on the court with branding etc, but I will enjoy the moment,” said New Zealand power forward Troy “SquareUpPencil” McClure.

There are many metrics by which we could view this tournament as a success: from fan engagement across socials, to viewing time and concurrent viewers during the live event. Those metrics are all dependent on what FIBA hopes to achieve from this event, however, it all comes with some warnings on those expectations. Esports isn’t a silver bullet for sporting leagues and the ultimate goal of adding or diversifying revenue streams – not yet, anyway. Esports for sporting leagues and associations should be a complementary vehicle to engage with the younger generation and build lifelong fans of the sport and the esport, as it is becoming increasing clear that younger generations consume content in a different manner than legacy broadcasts have delivered. Younger people gravitate towards streaming services like Twitch TV for example, that streams video games with the added element of interaction. Fans can chat with their favourite players or like-minded fans while viewing and even select how they view the broadcast.

Should an esports venture be built with adequate resources, nurtured by growing a community, it could be a product that builds on to traditional marketing and revenue streams. A great example of gaining a slice of the esports pie, is Football Federation Australia’s E-League, which is positioned alongside the A-League. Although not a profitable venture yet, the E-League provides incredible brand recognition and engagement for the A-League. The opening E-League match day in 2018, out ranked the A-League competition proper in terms of viewership by 16%, 1.62 million social media impressions and sent visitors flooding to the A-League website.

Right now, FIBA has an opportunity to grow the Esports Open into a global event, bringing more countries into the competition. The FIBA Esports Open series could show us the viability of future global NBA 2K tournaments. If we allow for one’s imagination to run wild, there could be an emulation of global FIBA basketball events, for example esports FIBA World Cups, localised tournaments, and perhaps the holy grail - esports in the Olympics.

Follow the weekend's action live on FIBA's Facebook, Twitch and YouTube channels. The full schedule can be found here.

Team Australia

  • Benjamin Klobas (Waurk) - point guard

  • Cooper Cameron (CQOPR) - shooting guard

  • Jonte Burns (AnkleTv) - small forward

  • Max Ellwood (Squoogs) - centre

  • Cameron Sloper (DunkGod) - power forward

  • Eric Lim (Raangee) - point guard

Team New Zealand

  • Aidan Zivkovich Gilmour (KrzKhaiifa) - small forward

  • Troy Mcclure (o-Pencil) - power forward

  • Jaden Cruz (QwiKeR) - centre

  • Solomona Faitaua-Nanai (xMonaa-) - shooting guard

  • Brent Harrison (Brentton_) - point guard