TORONTO — After running the table in the NBA 2K League regular season last year, the playoffs ended prematurely for Raptors Uprising GC in a semifinal loss to eventual champion Wizards District Gaming.
The Raptors esports team went 16-0 during the 2020 regular season and won two tournaments. In all, it had a 28-1 record in all competitions. But that one loss was costly.
The 2021 season goals are clear.
"This season is definitely (about) unfinished business," said Shane Talbot, director of esports for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. "However, the game changes a lot season over season so I think one of the things that's really top of mind for us is not taking anything for granted.
"We're not just picking up where we left off. It really is a whole new game to learn."
Not only will teams be playing a new build of the NBA 2K game, they will doing so on the PlayStation 5 console. Previous years were played on PC.
The Raptors Uprising players have been together for more than a month in their well-appointed team house in suburban Toronto.
"Things are going swimmingly to be honest," said Talbot. "Chemistry is at an all-time high, I would say, among the team."
One drawback was a delay in getting the new custom build of the game.
The 16-week season begins Wednesday with the Tipoff tournament and runs through Sept. 4 with US$1.5 million in prize money. The 23 teams will begin the season playing remotely from its local market.
The regular-season schedule calls for every team to have 14 matchups, with each featuring back-to-back games.
The four-day Tipoff tournament starts with two days of group play to determine the eight teams that advance to the two-day playoffs on Friday and Saturday. Raptors Uprising, who won the event last year, opens play Thursday in a group with Hawks Talon GC and Grizz Gaming.
The Tipoff has a prize pool of $160,000 with $70,000 going to the winner and $50,000 to the runner-up.
Raptors Uprising retained league MVP and star point guard Kenneth (Kenny Got Work) Hailey, Defensive Player of the Year Trent (Timelycook) Donald and Maurice (Reece Mode) Flowers.
Hailey was also named a first-team all-star in 2020 while Donald was voted to the second team. Hailey and Donald were also chosen for the league's all-defensive team.
Centre Xavier (Type) Vescovi was obtained in a trade while former Raptors Uprising members Trevion (All Hail Trey) Hendrix and Joshua (TsJosh) McKenna were reacquired, via a trade and the draft, respectively.
Vescovi was voted to the league's all defensive team in 2019.
Talbot said one of the reasons the moves were made was to "get ahead of some budding chemistry issues."
"Nothing significant. Obviously we played exceptionally well. But on a team of six, it's important to have a consolidated leadership. And last year we were lucky to have the mature and experienced players that we had. But when push comes to shove, I think sometimes the room was split from a leadership perspective. And so we wanted to make sure we consolidated that around Kenny and (Timely) cook and brought in a younger player (Type) who would, we think, potentially have an ever higher in-game potential but also just fit in with the team chemistry."
Vescovi came over in a November deal that sent all-star centre Jerry (Sick One) Knapp to Hornets Venom GT. Later that month, the Raptors reacquired Hendrix from Cavs Legion GC in exchange for a first-round draft pick (21st overall).
Toronto had chosen Hendrix in the fourth round (58th overall) of the inaugural 2018 draft. He was traded to Cleveland midway through Season 2 for Knapp.
McKenna, who spent the 2018 and '19 seasons with Raptors Uprising, returned in the third round of the NBA 2K League draft in March.
Raptors Uprising did not retain Jake (Legit 973) Knapp, Jerry's younger brother. Anthony (Wuan) Rivas was on Toronto's 2020 roster but was not part of the team during the season, having returned to Florida.
Both found new homes. Rivas went to Heat Check Gaming while Knapp landed with Nets GC.
With six players available, Talbot will have to make some lineup decisions this season unlike last year.
For the first time, the league will be aligned into two conferences: the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference.
Raptors Uprising lines up in the East along with 76ers GC, Celtics Crossover Gaming, Gen. G Tigers of Shanghai, Grizz Gaming, Hawks Talon GC, Heat Check Gaming, Hornets Venom GT, Knicks Gaming, Magic Gaming, Nets GC and Wizards District Gaming.
Another tweak this season sees the playoffs expanded to 12 teams from eight, with the post-season opening Aug. 26.
The top five teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. The 13 remaining teams will compete in The Ticket tournament with the winning teams from each conference earning the 11th and 12th playoff berths.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press