Picture via CLTX Gaming Twitter
It’s the morning of Wednesday, April 4th, 2018. In just a few hours, history will be made as 102 players will be selected in the inaugural NBA 2K League draft, becoming part of a first of its kind esports league. Most of the players are in New York City, where the draft will be held at Hulu Theater in historic Madison Square Garden, anxiously awaiting the beginning of festivities. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will be on hand to announce the first overall draft pick, and the first round will be broadcast on NBA TV. It is a day that has long been anticipated by the NBA 2K community.
Meanwhile, Ricco Phinisee patiently waits in a small Boston laundromat.
“Hilarious story,” he explains to DIMER. “I packed my bag, right, and I put Listerine in my bag but I forgot to put it in my little carrier bag. My Listerine bottle busted. So all my clothes, everything, smelled like Listerine.”
Phinisee was flown in to Boston from California to advise CLTX Crossover Gaming on their draft. Having been given the second overall pick from last month’s lottery, they’re hoping to draft a franchise cornerstone, and there’s plenty of talent available to do just that. They have their eyes on a few of the draft’s top players, and Phinisee has a game plan for the rounds that follow.
For now, he waits for clean clothes. “It was like a small laundromat you see in Batman movies.”
It’s exactly where Phinisee wants to be. After his brief detour to the cleaners, he sits in the CLTX Crossover Gaming war room on Harvard University campus in Cambridge, where he will help shape the future of the organization with his guidance and NBA 2K expertise during the draft.
Three years ago, Phinisee started voluntarily making highlight clips on Facebook for a then-new Pro-Am league started by some friends of his called the MPBA. It would be the start of his rise in reputation as an analyst in the competitive NBA 2K community. “Players started asking me to do more in-depth things for them and their team,” Phinisee remembers. “After that, I started giving out my top-10 players list, I’d give them my top-10 unknown players, and it just kept growing and growing over the years.”
Phinisee wasn’t even a basketball head growing up. Though his dad coached AAU and was a friend of Spud Webb (yes, that Spud Webb), Phinisee played football from when he was young all the way through college.
NBA 2K, though, he had plenty of experience in. “It was the very first one,” Phinisee responds when asked what his first NBA 2K was. “I remember playing it on the Sega Dreamcast at my cousin’s house, and I kind of fell in love with it and ever since then I’ve been playing almost every single one of them. I began to take it seriously 2K12 or 13 with the Crew Mode.”
By NBA 2K15, Phinisee was involved in the competitive community as a player. He played in leagues new and old, and went face-to-face with some of the NBA 2K League’s best players years before plans for the NBA 2K League were ever set in motion. “Everyone who went in the first round of the draft who were top [competitive] players, I played against over the years,” he says. In 2K16 he joined up with Throwdown and Island Gang, two Pro-Am teams synonymous with success and both of which have former players in the NBA 2K League.
But Phinisee wasn’t really known as a player (and he certainly didn’t have aspirations to make the league as one. “I’m old. It’s a young man’s game,” says the 27-year-old). It was his analysis that got the attention of the community, and that attention quickly turned into respect. “It’s always been respected because I know Pro-Am, I know the gameplay, I know how to work things,” Phinisee says of his own analysis. “I’ve never been a guy that people said ‘that dude’s lost, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ It’s always been respected, that’s why it grew so quickly. I don’t put anything out just to get likes or just to be talking. When I put something out, people know it’s gonna have value.”
Two years after he started making Pro-Am videos, the NBA 2K League was announced. Phinisee knew he had to get in somehow.
“I knew that I had the talent to [make the league]. I was just trying to figure out how the opportunity could be available to me. It’s already super hard to get into the 102. To work for a team, it’s almost impossible to get through the door, especially the first season. That’s one thing I struggled with for so long.”
Almost a full year after the initial announcement of the league’s formation, Phinisee received a message from Michael Buttersworth, formerly of Splyce, an esports organization that would be working with the CLTX Crossover Gaming NBA 2K League franchise.
“He messaged me and said ‘hey, Ricco, you wanna talk about 2K?’ And I was like sure, I’m always open to talk about 2K with anybody who’s serious about it,” Phinisee says.
The organization wanted to see how much Phinisee knew about NBA 2K. Apparently, he knows his stuff. Soon he was signed on to provide the team advice on their draft, slated for early April at the time. For Phinisee, it was a long time coming.
“I’m not trying to sound cocky but I know I have the talent and the work ethic to help a team be successful and be a top-tier team,” says Phinisee. “I had to grind and I know I had to prove to Splyce and the Celtics that I had the right talent to fit their franchise. So I just kept proving it over the months. Then I finally flew out to Boston and met with the guys face to face and they saw how passionate I was about Pro-Am and my work ethic.”
Fast forward to April, and there sits Phinisee in the CLTX Crossover Gaming war room. It’s a crowded affair, with Boston Celtics public relations staff and support crews on hand, as well as Celtics Senior Vice President of Corporate Partnerships & Business Development Ted Dalton, with Managing Director of CLTX Crossover Gaming Jim Ferris (“Amazing guy, so passionate, so genuine with what he’s talking about,” raves Phinisee) there to oversee proceedings.
Soon, they put all of the players up on their board. They already know who they want.
“We got news that Dimez was going first so we got really excited that we got the guy we really wanted,” says Phinisee.
Point guard Dimez was the popular choice to go first overall, so it came as no surprise that Mavs Gaming selected him with the inaugural pick of the league’s history. The contingency plan for CLTX Crossover Gaming was hardly dire. With the second overall pick, they take oFAB, a point guard known as perhaps the best two-way player in all of Pro-Am. Like Dimez, his selection at number two wasn’t exactly a surprise to the community, either.
The team had their franchise cornerstone. Now they needed to build around him. CLTX Crossover Gaming must wait for 32 more picks to be made before they can make their next one, but the wait seems well worth it as they grab Arsonal X, a talented center and former Pro-Am teammate of oFAB. Soon after, they take small forward MelEast with their third-round pick. All three players played together on the same team in the Pro-Am scene.
“After Fab, everything was clockwork, everything was so easy,” claims Phinisee “Everything that I thought was gonna happen kinda happened. I knew that we had a good chance at getting Arsonal. It was a toss-up getting MelEast.”
All according to plan.
“Once we got our first three picks everyone was so happy and relieved that we got the three guys we wanted. After we got our three players we were laughing, having a good time and talking about plans so we could put together a top-tier team.”
To reach that top tier, the organization felt it needed Phinisee in a closer, more permanent role. About a month after the draft, he was named Team Performance Coordinator for CLTX Crossover Gaming. To put it simply, call him the head coach.
The draft was its own challenge (or maybe not so much for the team laughing after its first three picks), but coaching those players is an entirely different proposition. It may not be too hard with kinds of players on board, though.
“We have a great group of guys,” Phinisee says. “My main focus will be to help the guys bond and build a chemistry and a foundation more than anything. Once we have that down, we’ll be more than fine. We have the talent all around the board and we have the guys who are willing to sacrifice to get things done and to put in that work to become a top-tier team. You can have all the great players on paper, but if they’re not putting in the work or preparing then it’s all useless.”
But even when facing the most difficult challenges with this group, it’s an honor just to coach the same players that you drafted.
“It’s special. Not everyone has the opportunity to do that,” says Phinisee. “I’m blessed to work with these great players and work with the Celtics organization. After visiting the front office I can see why those guys have won so many championships. The front office is just amazing. Those guys are not just talented, they care for who they work with. When I walked through those front doors, they treated me like family, like I was genuinely family.”
And that’s all well and good. But what’s the ultimate goal?
“I want to create a dynasty,” proclaims Phinisee. But it’s not the only thing. “I want to mentor as many kids as I possibly can to not just be great players but be great role models for young gamers that are coming into the game as well, or gamers looking to get into the league who just aren’t of age yet. It’s all about winning of course and having fun, but it’s also about mentoring these kids and leading them in the right direction so they can have something outside of gaming once they’re done.”
Hopefully, I can do that.”