Ahmed Kasana always dreamed of being a pro baller.
The Staten Island native was obsessed with basketball, and was a high school star until he tore his ACL, which is when he turned his attention to a different kind of basketball.
"It was kind of like a blessing in disguise, because I made it to the NBA, some way," he said
And when Kasana says the NBA, he's not boasting.
For the first time ever, a professional sports league is welcoming gamers to its ranks — and creating a professional gaming league.
Last month, the NBA kicked off the inaugural season of the NBA 2K League. It’s a partnership between the NBA and Take-Two Interactive, a leading video game developer.
Seventeen NBA franchises, including the Celtics, signed on for the first year. Boston’s team is known as Celtics Crossover Gaming and uses the shorthand CLTX.
To the uninitiated, the NBA fielding video game teams may seem odd. But for the Celtics, it's the future.
"The proof is in the numbers,” said Celtic President Rich Gotham. “It's actually a huge global business, just as the NBA is a global business.”
There are up to 380 million viewers who watch e-sports on streaming sites like Twitch that Gotham said the league is looking to tap in to.
“Twitch gets more viewers per day than all of ESPN's sites combined,” he said. “So, there's a scale to this thing that's undeniable.”
Heading into the season, 72,000 hopeful players tried out for the league. From those, only 102 were invited to the 2K league's first draft in April at Madison Square Garden.
The season consists of 14 regular season games that stretch over 12 weekends, with three additional in-season tournaments where players can earn prize money. All games are played at a special studio the league set up in New York.
Players are signed to contracts ranging between $32,000 and $35,000, depending on where they were drafted.
Just like in the NBA, five players play in real time for each team, with a sixth man in the rotation.
To compete at this level, Kasana, better known by his gamer tag of Mel East, said players put in hours of hard work.
“We practice at least eight hours a day, sometimes 10,” Kasana said. “Like today, we started off the day just watching film of our game that we just lost and we pinpointed our weaknesses, our strengths and what we're going to work on — how we're going to execute as a unit.”
Celtics Crossover Gaming conducts all of their practices and team business at a co-working space in Cambridge that’s decked out with gaming computers and plenty of space to draw up plays.
The idea of watching people play video games doesn’t appeal to everyone. At first, Kasana's mom didn't understand the concept behind the league.
“When I first told her the idea of the league, she was like 'Is this real, are you sure?’” Kasana said. “But then what really brings people is when you show them. Like, I brought my mom to the draft, the actual draft when I got drafted, so she actually got to see every other kid’s lives change.”
But there are growing pains that come with being at the forefront of this sort of culture change.
For starters, despite all of the players who tried out, no team selected a woman to its roster. And the NBA is still trying to figure out the best way to present games to cater to both basketball fans and gamers.
Celtics Crossover Gaming Managing Director Jim Ferris gets that there's people who say they don’t understand the appeal of watching others play a video game. But he said if the team can get them to watch the 2K League, they'll quickly realize it's not much different from watching a real basketball game.
"One of the things I really love about our game being based around the world of basketball is people understand the fundamentals,” Ferris said. “So, as we start thinking about what does a virtual, competitive world of this look like and how exciting it can be, a lot of times those conversations become a bit easier."
As the saying goes, ball is life. And for players in the NBA 2K League, that means virtual ball too.
This article has been updated.