RU student suits up with Los Angeles Lakers

Photo courtesy of Mitchell Franklin
Radford University sports administration major, Mitchell Franklin, is a professional gamer in the National Basketball League’s 2K league and has his own basketball card from this past season.

Marty Gordon

With the number four pick in this past year’s NBA 2K expansion draft, the Los Angeles Lakers took Radford University’s Mitchell Franklin, who, at 5-10 is not your proto-typical big man.

The NBA 2K league is a joint venture between the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Take-Two Interactive and a professional Esports league featuring the best NBA 2K players in the world and the first official Esports league operated by a U.S. professional sports league.

Playing center, Mitchell averaged double-figures in scoring and rebounding including 12 points and 17 rebounds in one of the Lakers three wins this season. He is one of the league’s bright spots said Lakers Gaming.

The off-season has begun, so Mitchell returned home last week to Virginia to settle in and get ready for the NBA 2K20 grind and Season 3 next year.

If you walk down the hall of the Lakers’ training facility, there is a pictured of Kobe Bryant and other former players. There’s also a photo of Jordan Gates with a controller in hand. He is a teammate of Mitchell’s on the Laker’s Esports team. The Lakers gaming team works out in the same facility as Lebron James and the rest of the team. Mitchell has a key to the building.

To be eligible for the Esports league, players had to have won 100 games in a NBA 2K19 Pro-Am mode. A tournament in Asia also identified several elite players that were added to the second-year draft.

A total of 22 NBA 2K teams took to the court this past year with the T-Wolves beating the 76ers 3-2 in the finals to win the 2019 crown.

The NBA 2K League and its team has over two million combined followers on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instragram, Twitter and You Tube.

Two of this year’s players were even nominated for 2019 ESPN Epsy awards, and league sponsors included Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Champion athletic wear, Dell Computers, New Era, Snickers, Hyper-X and Intel.

Just like their Lakers parent club, the Esports team has five players on the court, but the big difference is a big screen in the middle of the room. There are plenty of plays and trash talk with most of the games are played in New York, thus forcing Mitchell and his teammates to be jet-setters for the three-month season.

The league is joining a long list of activities directly associated with the popularity of Esports. The Virginia High School League recently announced intentions to explore the competition on a trial basis this year. Also, collegiate teams have sprung up at schools around the country like Radford University and Virginia Tech.

NBA2K19 has sold nearly 12 million copies worldwide and is the best-selling edition in franchise history. The global Esports audience is expected to reach 453.8 million this year and will generate revenues of $1.1 billion.

Already NBA teams, owners and former players are looking to the future of the industry, investing in Esports franchises and holding companies.

Mitchell is one of those individuals that is at awe at what is happening. “The NBA 2K League has already taking me places I would’ve never imagined. I am fortunate enough for even being a part of this league. I am optimistic for the future and have big plans envisioned moving forward,” he said last week from his home in Yorktown.

Mitchell is known on the circuit as “Mootyy” and started this “virtual basketball career” in 2009, playing tournaments here and there touring the country. In a recent interview, he said he started playing at the age of 15 after being bullied in school. Playing video games became a way for him to blow off steam and not worry about the problems outside of his bedroom.

He grew up in Yorktown, Virginia, to parents who encouraged him to be different.

“At a young age, I experienced bullying and it wasn’t the type that people generally would think of. It was by my own friends, and it ate me up inside, each and every day. The only place that I found real happiness at was gaming. I would come home from school every day and feel safe once I hit that button to turn on my console. Xbox 360 at the time was my safe place, it was where I could really escape and be myself,” he said.

NBA 2K was that escape, according to Mitchell. He called it his gateway to happiness.

“I had a completely different alias, friends and could be myself around others than actually respected me. It was where I could showcase my skills because I was actually good at something. It allowed me to enjoy and practice doing it without being judged,” he said.

Long story short, gaming and NBA 2K were ways out for him. He also had offers coming out of high school for a bowling scholarship, competing in several pro-am events and was elected the president of the bowling team at Radford University.

A few years later, he joined a team that played in a 2K tournament sponsored by GameBattles, and the team won the largest prize ever offered, $2,000.

From there, the rest is history as Mitchell played his way to the Finals of a $250,000 2K17 tournament, He even hit a three-pointer in overtime to send them to the championship, but they came up short losing 75-58 to a team that included the number one pick in the upcoming NBA 1K first-year draft.

The Radford University student was signed by the NBA’s Sacramento Kings for their first professional Esports team two years ago as the number four pick. The Kings also signed former Los Angeles Laker center Shaquille O’Neal as its general manager to work with the video team.

Most of the players were signed to contracts that several NBA players would envy. Mitchell would not say what his was salary was for with the Kings or this year with the Lakers, but according to the NBA, players earn base salaries similar to players in the G-League (minor league basketball league). Recors show first-round NBA 2K draft picks collect a base salary of $35,000, and second rounders $33,000.

The 2K players also receive free housing in their home-team market during the season along with medical insurance and a retirement plan. Players on good teams can potentially earn six-figures as the league awards up to $1.2 million in prize money throughout the season.

He put his studies as a sports administration major at RU on hold for the league with less than a year worth of credits needed to finish with a minor in marketing. He plans to continue his studies in the near future.

The future of Esports has endless potential, according to Mitchell. “I believe that it’s just going to immensely grow every year. The overall competitive scene is rapidly growing by the day and the viewership numbers are rather baffling.”

As for the NBA 2K League, Ted Leonsis, owner of the NBA and 2K Washington Wizards, predicted in an article in the LA Times: “I believe that in 10 years one NBA 2K player will be more well-known, popular and better compensated than LeBron James is today.”

Franklin hasn’t achieved a high volume of success throughout his 2K career like he hoped, but he remains optimistic with both the highs and lows.

“During my first two seasons of the NBA 2K League, I haven’t had the most success. I haven’t reached the playoffs either season, but I’ve been through the trenches and battle tested. There are few players out there who are mentally stronger than I am when it comes to anything 2K related.

This week, the Lakers announced they would protect Mitchell for the upcoming season’s expansion draft.

“I’ve seen and experienced it all. It’s a whole different beast when you’re on that stage and not in the comfort of home. Two to three personal spotlights shining down on you, hearing and seeing the crowd, announcers and knowing you’re live on camera. The pressure, the money, the list goes on, once you’ve experienced that, then you’ll be ready for anything thrown at you. I’m proven and ready for any challenge,” he said.

But there are plenty of critics that don’t know whether to accept it or not.

“It is a legit industry and growing. A lot of parents are skeptical because it is a video game league, but I have shown my parents how serious this was last year during an all-star tournament,” Mitchell said

His long-term goal is to be able to give back to his family and others that have supported him.