In a more open approach than most franchised esports leagues, the draft process for the NBA 2K League was open to any and all challengers who met a small set of requirements. Win 50 games in January's online qualifiers, and you move on to phase two: The combine. That combine then whittled 72,000 applicants down to 250 finalists, and the 250 players who played at the combine will be narrowed down to 102 draftees. Those cutdowns, maybe unsurprisingly, have been rocky and fraught with accusations of rigging and favouritism.
Combine players competed in matches during designated play windows. They had to play a minimum of 40 games using their primary position, such as point guard or centre, and could also select their archetype or style of play. Small forwards might designate themselves as a "shot-creating slasher" or "pure sharpshooter", while power forwards could be "slashing rim protectors" or "two-way rebounders".
Stats were tracked, and eventually, emails were sent out to the 250 lucky few. As the invitations went out - or didn't - the conspiracy mill began spinning, led by 2K player White Chocolate. He's produced a number of tremendous videos claiming the combine was rigged, alongside some Illuminati imagery and a dark melodramatic tone.
At the heart of all this breathless investigation are some leaked DMs between a player and the Cleveland Cavaliers' director of gaming operations, Anthony Muraco. The player, Stylez, hadn't received an email by the time it was announced that all emails had been sent out, but the DMs show Muraco assuring Stylez that he'd make the cut.
Later, Stylez did make the cut, well after all of the invites had supposedly gone out.
Muraco replied on Twitter that he "mistakenly created the perception with him that I had involvement in the player selection process".
— Anthony Muraco (@AnthonyMuraco) March 5, 2018
Several managers have stated that teams had no say in which players were eventually chosen to be among the 250, and the league eventually clarified that team managers were not permitted to participate in the cutdown process. A statement from a league spokesperson said:
Teams have absolutely no input on which players made the Top 250. The comprehensive process was led strictly by officials from 2K, the NBA 2K League, and included Genji Esports, a third-party analytics firm. The players were selected based on a range of factors, including performance from the combine and an online application detailing their knowledge of the game of basketball - for example, running a zone defence and executing a pick-and-roll - as well as their understanding of the NBA 2K video game and reasons for why they want to play in the league. Players were notified via email of their selection between Feb. 28 and March 2. After the final emails were sent on March 2, two players never received their emails, including Stylez, due to issues with their email addresses. These two email addresses were corrected and the emails were resent to both candidates at approximately 4 p.m.
(Also, what favoritism could there have been anyway? Wouldn't teams want to hire the best players in the first place? Unless someone's theoretical cousin Jimmy, who has no 2K ability but his mum won't stop nagging him to get a job, is getting an easy spot in the league, the selection process was always going to be focused on merit, or at least just as much as any imperfect talent selection is in sports.)
Brendan Donahue, essentially the commissioner of the NBA 2K League, eventually took to Twitter to deny the conspiracy theories claiming that the cutdowns were somehow rigged, citing advanced statistics that went into player selection and posting texts that he claims exonerate the Cavs.
In addition to questionable claims that the combine and draft selections processes were rigged, there have also also been more legitimate qualms with one player in the final 250 not meeting the league's age requirements. Vandy, a young 2K player who received an invite, met the 18-year-old requirement for eligibility, but some claimed he was ineligible because a few tweets indicated he is still attending high school. The tweets in question are not on Vandy's timeline any more, though White Chocolate has alleged caps of them in another video of his. Vandy did respond to some questioning later, saying he will be graduating early.
The league office told us that "All offers will be contingent on the player successfully completing a background check and meeting all other league eligibility requirements. The final 102 players who meet these requirements and accept their offer will be entered into the NBA 2K League Draft pool and will be drafted by one of the league's 17 teams on draft day." In other words, they didn't do that for the initial 250 players, but will for the last 102.
The combine has been opaque; most announcements about the selection process have been on different teams' managers' Twitter accounts; even for a professional journalist, the league has been very difficult to track. Any attempt to objectively select the best gamers for a limited number of paid slots will inherently be rife with complaints about fairness and transparency, but the 2K League hasn't helped itself in the process.