Russell Starr’s parents didn’t see much future in their son’s video gaming, even when he told them he was making money from it.
Qualifying for the NBA 2K League draft pool didn’t convince them either. But news that he was representing Canada at the FIBA Esports Open got their attention.
“That’s when they started firmly believing in me,” said Starr, a 20-year-old from Langruth, Man., who is studying athletic therapy at the University of Manitoba.
“It’s kind of surreal that I turned a hobby into this,” he added.
Starr and his Canadian teammates are up against six Central and North American rivals this weekend as Canada Basketball makes its first foray into esports.
It’s the second edition of the FIBA Esports Open with 38 countries competing, more than double the field of the inaugural event. The tournament, split into six regional conferences, kicked off in November with champions already declared in Africa (Ivory Coast), Europe, (Turkey), the Middle East (Saudi Arabia) and Southeast Asia/Oceania (Australia).
Competition also goes this weekend in South America, with teams from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela taking part.
Canada’s team features three players with NBA 2K League experience: Sten (Sav) Valge-Saar of Lakers Gaming, Yusuf (Yusuf—Scarbz) Abdulla of Kings Guard Gaming and Meyhar (AuthenticAfrican) Ahmed-Hassan of Grizz Gaming.
Valge-Saar turned heads as a rookie point guard last season, pouring in 50 points in a Lakers’ win over Heat Check Gaming. Ahmed-Hassan, who will serve as Canada captain, set a league scoring record with an 84-point performance in a 101-93 triple overtime loss to 76ers GC in July 2018.
Abdulla, a former Raptors Uprising player, was named to the league’s all-defensive team and second all-star squad in 2020.
Starr, who plays the lockdown defender role, and the three others on the squad hope to join them next year via the NBA 2K League draft.
The Canadians are up against Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and the U.S.
The Americans feature a familiar face in Raptors Uprising point guard Kenneth (Kenny Got Work) Hailey, the reigning NBA 2K League MVP after leading Toronto to a perfect regular season.
Hailey was drafted by Canada manager Shane Talbot, who oversees Raptors Uprising in his role as Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment esports manager.
Talbot believes the FIBA Esports Open represents an important step forward, with the International Olympic Committee possibly looking into esports for the future.
“Certainly when I look at the sports sim eco-system, [NBA] 2K is at the top and rising,” said Talbot.
Starr is a quick study, having only really played the game seriously for two years since coming to Winnipeg for school.
“Because that’s where I got good enough internet to play,” he said. “Beforehand I never really played online basketball at all.”
Last year he won the Raptors “Scout the North” tournament last year.
A former hockey player whose gaming handle is ItsGoon—x, Starr impressed during the interview process for the Canadian team selection.
“He certainly interviewed his way on (the team) … He’s played his way onto the starting lineup now,” said Talbot, who talked to 18 prospective players. “So it’s been a great success story from my perspective.”
Each team consists of seven players: five on the court and two reserves. The PS4 Game will be played remotely on NBA 2K21, using the pro-am mode which has more range and flexibility in player archetypes than the NBA 2K League build.
The Canadians, who are being coached by Sam Pham, will play remotely.
Talbot had hoped to assemble them in Toronto, to take advantage of the high-tech setup at the Raptors Uprising team house, but that was nixed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.