The only live competition left in town — the NBA's 2K League and its defending champion T-Wolves Gaming in the virtual world — went on the physical-distancing road for this week's season openers during the coronavirus pandemic.
The 2K League's third season, delayed nearly six weeks from late March, resumed with four games Tuesday and continues with T-Wolves Gaming's opener on Thursday. The games Tuesday were televised on ESPN2 for the first time rather than streamed online during the first of six scheduled weeks to be contested remotely rather than in a New York City-area television studio.
Players for T-Wolves Gaming, who open their title defense long distance against Atlanta's Hawks Talon CG, have had their temperatures taken to check for a fever. Their skyway training center adjacent to Target Center has been reconfigured so all five players are adequately spaced and not gathered tight in a circle as they would be playing together in normal times.
"We're all separated; we have wipes and hand sanitizer everywhere," said Texan Jordan Martinez, a T-Wolves Gaming small forward known in 2K League play as JMoney. "We're taking every precaution to be safe. … Whenever you're so close together, it's a different vibe. But we're still playing."
The team is back practicing and playing in its home studio after each of its six players arrived in early March were quarantined with a teammate/roommate for more than two weeks. For these first six weeks of play, the league's 23 teams — including one from China for the first time — will play remotely against other teams in one of four regional groups. They'll play best-of-three that counts for one victory or loss in the standings to help even things should there be internet speed or connectivity issues.
Games will be played these first six weeks Tuesdays through Fridays, with Tuesday games shown on ESPN networks — on ESPN2 through May 19 — as well as the league's Twitch and YouTube channels starting at 6 p.m. Central time. The other three days will be shown on Twitch, YouTube, the ESPN app and ESPN.com. There's a Friday "Game of the Week" at 8:30 Central, too.
"The season, it's here now and it's perfect timing," said Michael Key, T-Wolves' Gaming 2K Finals MVP from North Carolina known as BearDaBeast. "This is our chance to be the only sports on right now. If I'm putting out tweets or video, people message me, `Where's the content? I'm going crazy inside the house and don't have anything to watch. You're the closest thing.' "
Key is becoming something of the 2K League's face. He appeared on ESPN's "The Jump" on Tuesday and traveled to China last fall to promote the league.
"NBA players can't do their job right now," Martinez said. "That we can actually do our jobs, on ESPN, in this pandemic, it's a blessing."