GameCore is a weekly column by CBSNews.com's William Vitka and Chad Chamberlain that focuses on gamers and gaming. This story was written by CBSNews.com's Joey Arak
It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that the relationship between professional athletes and video games has grown closer over the years.
Gamers, once seen solely as geeks and wedgie targets by those in the sporting life (sorry for bringing up any painful memories), have recently been embraced by the world of millionaire jocks. Athletes can be made even richer through lucrative game endorsements, and manufacturers want to co-opt athletes' cool so that they too can see some more green.
And besides, what's the real difference between a pro athlete and a kid with a controller in the basement? Both are just playing games, after all.
On June 18 at the NBA Store in midtown Manhattan, those two worlds – the full-time professional athlete and the gamer who would love to make it a full-time profession – collided.
They came together at the final round of the Nokia NBA 2k5 Championship, NBA 2k5 being 2K Sports' popular answer to Electronic Arts' powerhouse NBA Live series.
The final four contestants were competing for $10,000 in cash, an appearance on ESPN2's morning talk show "Cold Pizza" and, perhaps most importantly, eternal bragging rights.
Four rising NBA stars also had their own mini-tournament, with the winner receiving $25,000 for the charity of their choice. They were: Andre Iguodala, 21, the versatile Philadelphia 76ers rookie; Chris Bosh, 21, a 6'10" Toronto Raptor who just finished his second season; 20-year-old New Yorker Sebastian Telfair, a straight-out-of-high-school Portland rookie who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated while he was still in homeroom; and Corey Maggette, a Los Angeles Clippers guard and the eldest of the bunch at 25 years old.
Couches were set up in front of two big screen televisions on the NBA Store's scaled-down basketball court. One station had NBA 2k5 for Xbox, and the other TV was reserved for Playstation 2. It was a high-pressure atmosphere, at least for the regular Joes. NBA players are no doubt used to high-stakes games, gawking onlookers, dancing cheerleaders, bright camera flashes and announcers waiting to pounce on ever mistake.
Ah yes, the announcers. The whole affair was being taped for broadcast on NBA TV, the league's cable channel. Lingering behind the contestants were play-by-play man Gary Apple and color-commentator Ed Lover, the wisecracking former co-host of "Yo! MTV Raps." Now, if you think two professional broadcasters analyzing an 18-year-old's video game basketball skills – while cheerleaders shake pompoms just off to the side - is an unusual scene, well, let's just say you're pretty much dead on.
Over on the Playstation 2 side, Maggette and Iguodala decided to make things a little interesting by not picking their real NBA teams. Iguodala ditched Philadelphia for the Western Conference's Phoenix Suns, immediately leading Lover to speculate aloud that the guard-forward was seeking a trade. Maggette went with the Sacramento Kings, but Clippers shame is nothing new for L.A. players and fans.
Since the pros were only playing three-minute-length quarters, the games were fast and furious. Bosh and Telfair went back and forth until the score was knotted at 34 with one minute left. Bosh hit two clutch shots with artificial and real-life teammate Jalen Rose, and Telfair sealed his demise when he turned the ball over while dribbling with … himself. You've surely lost a fan in Sebastian Telfair, 2K Sports.
On the other side of the floor, it was easy to see that Iguodala is a fan of video games. Jumping out to leads of 10-0 and 23-13, he looked like a kid in a candy store, cheering every success and nearly jumping out of his seat a few times. Then again, his face – animated despite being partially hidden by sunglasses - also expressed the lowest lows, as Maggette cut the lead to 41-39 with 30 seconds left. Iguodala held him off though, which shouldn't be surprising: At a comparatively ancient 25, Maggette probably wasn't as passionate about video games as his opponent.
Iguodala was the favorite heading into his match-up with Bosh, but what sports fan doesn't love a good upset? The defensive, sloppy battle was mercifully ended when Bosh missed – then hit – some clutch free throws to win the game 23-19, and more importantly, a $25,000 check for his Chris Bosh Foundation.
Next up was the main event, the Nokia NBA 2k5 finals. The final competitors were Navid Sadighi, 18, a Lakers fan from Orange County, California who said he plays the game about five hours per week, and 24-year-old Elliott Brown, a Vegas resident who didn't arrive in New York until the morning of the finals. His wife had given birth the day before, and in a clear message about how serious these competitors are about video games, the new mom told her husband to get to New York for the finals. Brown was still wearing his hospital bracelet as a good luck charm.
The finalists played two games, one on Xbox and the other on PS2. The winner would be determined by the highest combined score at the end of the games. Unfortunately, the evening's marquee event wasn't as competitive as hoped. Brown, perhaps worn out by the hospital stay and last-minute traveling, quickly fell behind during the Xbox game – his console of choice being the Playstation. He was down by as many as 17 points, causing Ed Lover to proclaim "a defensive collapse" by Brown's Dallas Mavericks. Lover was like the annoying friend who tries to beat you by mentally psyching you out with relentless chatter and mildly-stinging insults. He could get under The Thing's skin.
After a bit of a rally and with Andre Iguodala looking on, the score was narrowed to 50-40 for Sadighi's San Antonio Spurs as the final buzzer sounded.
The contestants switched up their choice of teams for the PS2 game, with Sadighi going with the Lakers and Brown – needing to win the game by 11 points to claim the grand prize – selecting the offensive-minded Phoenix Suns. Unfortunately for Brown, though, the deficit was just too large to overcome. An exciting back-and-forth match ended with a 56-55 victory for his Suns, but Sadighi won the tournament by a combined nine points.
The event almost mimicked the feel of a real NBA game, right down to the announcers' post-game interview with Sadighi, who analyzed game strategy with the professional subtlety of a regular Phil Jackson.
"Kobe draws a lot of attention and gets shots for others," Sadighi said, and therein lies the difference (and some would say, advantage) of the authentic NBA versus its two-dimensional version: If the real Kobe Bryant was as easy to coach as the virtual one, Phil Jackson might have a few less gray hairs on his head. Sadighi said he was going to spend his prize money the way one might expect an 18-year-old to plow through $10,000 in strings-unattached cash: blow it on partying.
For Elliott Brown, the day was not a complete wash. He took home a $5,000 runner-up prize, and with a newborn at home he'll be spending plenty of sleepless nights on the couch, crying baby in one arm and controller in the other, preparing for next season's tournament. After all, he's an athlete, and athletes need their practice.