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The esports craze is video-game basketball, played five-on-five just like the Blazers players on the court.

COURTESY PHOTO - Video-game basketball by the likes of Blazer5s Andron Thomas can be pretty intense. Its five-on-five basketball with controllers and played on a video screen.

Despite its name association with Portland's pro basketball team, Blazer5 Gaming wants to forge its own identity.

It's video-game basketball, played five-on-five just like the Blazers players on the court, but it features gaming wizards scoring points and playing defense with controllers on big screens. And, Blazer5 Gaming has been the best regular-season team in the first two years of NBA 2K League, led by star Nidal "Mama Im Dat Man" Nasser.

The 23 teams are affiliated with NBA organizations — it's a joint venture between the NBA and Take-Two Interactive — and they use a special version of the "NBA 2K League" game. The NBA 2K League games are broadcast on Twitch, YouTube and an ESPN app.

It's part of the esports craze that has elevated video-game playing to mainstream.

In a normal time, and not when players have to be quarantined because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Blazer5 Gaming either plays at their facility next to the Moda Center or travels to other cities for games.

Players are paid and a champion is crowned.

If NBA 2K League and Blazer5 Gaming could reach more fans, other than 18-34 males, its primary demographic, it'd become even more mainstream.

"If people give us a chance, and watch the show and the competition and the trash talking, it's entertainment for everybody," said Nasser, who is from San Bruno, California.

Fans of the NBA have become fans of NBA 2K League, and vice versa, added Cameron McAlees, Blazer5's esports operations manager.

COURTESY PHOTOS: BLAZER5 GAMING - Nidal Mama Im Dat Man Nasser is the reigning NBA 2K League most valuable player, and hopes to lead Blazer5 Gaming to the league championship. As part of the esports craze, NBA 2K League features 23 teams, all affilated with NBA teams.

"When the league started, they thought it'd be introducing a completely different demographic as traditional NBA fans," McAlees said. "I started working in NBA 2K League, and wasn't an avid NBA watcher, and now I follow the league."

NBA 2K League games are similar to NBA games in the use of players with certain strengths — guards, forwards, a center or any combination. They are unique characters — Nasser doesn't "play" Damian Lillard, for example, he plays his own character. Pick-and-roll and isolation plays and fast break and 3-pointers are part of the game, as is defense. It helps to start a team with a good point guard, and Blazer5 features the best in Nasser.

He's the reigning NBA 2K League most valuable player. Earlier this year, he scored 77 points against the Milwaukee Bucks team, Bucks Gaming.

McAlees said that Nasser is one of the rare players who can find success playing one-on-five. The game requires different players for each position, but Nasser dominates at times.

"In past years, Nidal has been able to single-handedly win games," McAlees said. "Nidal has some of the best court vision and passing of any point guard in the league. He's the best scorer in the league, plays defense well.

"He's also leading the team in communicating. He wears a lot of hats, and wears them well."

What makes one player so much better than others?

"It's the combination of IQ of knowing real basketball and outsmarting opponents," Nasser said. "Knowing when to react, because when you read and react, cause and effect come into play.

"The little things make you better than someone else. And, it's playing the odds. I love saying that to teammates, 'Play the odds,' and more than likely you'll come out with the win. Play simple and fundamental and you can reach your goal."

Added McAlees: "I firmly believe you have to put the time in, whether it's watching film or game play or physically putting time in to master mechanics. It's not as simple as you wake up one day, put controller in hand and you play well."

Nasser also enjoys playing "retail" versions of "NBA 2K League" with individuals, as well as "Call to Duty" and "Madden NFL." When he plays retail "NBA 2K League" with others, he enjoys spreading the joy of the game.

"Being in the position I'm in, being able to influence others is the biggest thing for me," he said. "Any opportunity to play with somebody, or answer a DM (direct message), it's huge for the league. You gain that fan and that person will come back to watch."

Other current roster players are Brandon Caicedo ("Hood"), Dayne Downey ("OneWildWalnut," the center and Nasser's pick-and-roll partner), Stanley Lebron ("MaJes7ic"), Andron Thomas, ("Lavish Phenom") and Georgio Bonte ("OOC Slim"). The coach is Andrew "Sceeezus" Maxie, who is a former college basketball player.

Blazer5 Gaming has achieved the best record in NBA 2K League, only to bow out in the first round of playoffs the past two seasons. Obviously, they want to take the next step and compete for the championship.

The Trail Blazers and Blazer5 Gaming are separate entities and Nasser said he only chats with some of the Blazers' players. He hasn't played any of them, yet, on the retail version.

Nasser said that when NBA 2K League started, his parents thought "it was a scam." They were wrong. He gets paid well, and Nasser and other esports players have reached a level of notoriety, albeit mostly among young male video-game players.

"The stigma is that you don't know basketball and can't do it in real life," Nasser said. "Realistically, you have to know a lot about basketball to be at the top of your game."

COURTESY PHOTO - Blazer5 Gaming has been the NBA 2K Leagues best regular-season team in the past two years. Will a third year bring a league title?


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