The Peninsula’s newest pro basketball player is quickly becoming a (virtual) NBA superstar

Meet Nidal Nasser—AKA Mama Im Dat Man—the San Bruno native tearing up the new NBA 2K league

“Before the league I had no idea what I was gonna do. I was at SF State for business and marketing but I had no clue on where I was going. I had no idea. I was just going with the flow.“ (Image via NBA 2K League website)

With four seconds left in the game, the Blazers trailed the Raptors 59–57. Their point guard—and San Bruno native—Nidal Nasser dribbled down the far side of the court and passed to his shooting guard, Grant Barker, who got off a fadeaway three-pointer as the buzzer sounded. Nothing but net.

The Blazers erupted in screams and passionate high fives, but instant replay showed the shooter’s foot was on the line. The game was sent into overtime, but the Raptors just never recovered from that last second blow. The Blazers kept their undefeated season alive with a 69–66 victory.

If you don’t recall seeing Nasser on ESPN’s SportsCenter highlights or on the court at Oracle Arena when Portland came to town, it’s because his basketball career exists entirely on an Alienware PC, via his video game avatar—Mama Im Dat Man.

Clockwise from top: The highly popular game that the league is shaped around—NBA 2K—was originally released in 1999; Nidal’s friend Dayne Downey (AKA One Wild Walnut) was the team’s first round pick and a top player in the league; both Nidal and Downey are currently candidates for league MVP. (Images via NBA 2K League website)

Nasser and 101 other gamers qualified to be a part of something that’s never been done before — a National Basketball Association (and Take-Two Interactive Software) sponsored professional video game league for the popular basketball video game, NBA 2K. Seventeen NBA franchises invested $750,000 each to participate in the startup league, hoping to capitalize on the growing trend of video games as a spectator sport. The concept might seem strange to the traditional basketball fan but that hasn’t stopped the NBA and team executives from following the money — the e-sport industry generated more than $655 million in 2017 (up 32% from the previous year) and expected to be a $1.4 billion industry by 2020.

Gaming experts and fanatics, like Capuchino High School grad Nidal Nasser, are explorers in NBA’s new uncharted virtual venture. And Nasser, who almost gave up playing video games just a week before the formation of the league was announced on Twitter, is embracing his new job and growing fan base. The Blazer5 point guard has led his team to an undefeated 7–0 start and is currently ranked second in the league’s race for Most Valuable Player honors while averaging nearly 21 points and 13 assists per game. Regardless of what he’ll be doing come September when the league takes an indefinite recess, Nasser’s focus today is clear — bring the first NBA 2K league championship to Portland.

“It has a lot to do with just pure skill, not to be confident or anything. The whole ‘game mode’ we play is a different model than the game played on Xbox. The game you play on Xbox is on lower difficulty. So it really gets into what player has more IQ and what player has more skill in this aspect and that aspect. Some people try to play it in an ‘arcadey’ way and are still trying to get adjusted, while me and my team have been adjusted since the first week and we’ve been killing it since then.”—Nidal Nassar. (Image via NBA 2K League website)

Nidal Nasser had an active upbringing on the San Francisco Peninsula. He played basketball (the type played on an actual court) all four years at Capuchino High and held down jobs at both Best Buy and Big 5 Sporting Goods. He also had a bit of a video game habit. Starting at age 12, Nasser spent 25 hours a week with his hand on a controller. NBA 2K was his game of choice. He started beating his friends handedly and then moved on to playing tougher competition online. He even started gambling on it against other gamers.

Nasser was born in San Francisco and grew up in San Bruno. He graduated from Capuchino High. So far in Portland, the only go-to food spots for Nidal have been Postmates and GrubHub. (Image via NBA 2K League website)

Two years into his business degree at San Francisco State University, Nassar still had no concrete plans for when he graduated but thought one thing was for sure — sitting on his couch playing videos games wasn’t going to get him anywhere. He made a pact with himself to give up NBA 2K (or at least significantly cut down his hours) but a week before his proposed detox date, an official Tweet from the NBA 2K league was posted announcing the first professional league of its kind and a search for top gaming talent.

“It was a big thing and nobody knew what was going on,” Nasser remembers.

Details trickled in. Hopeful players would have to make it through multiple rounds of competition, having to win 40 to 50 games in each round to advance. Tens of thousands of applicants would be whittled down to 102 and those players would be flown out to Madison Square Garden in New York City for the NBA 2K League’s inaugural draft.

“I was nervous about the whole process just about getting in,” Nasser told us. “When I figured out I made the league, I felt accomplished. All those hours I put in finally paid off.”

Clockwise from top: A view of the monitors showcasing the players inside the New York City studio where the games are held before a live audience; Nassar during gametime; a quick team huddle for Blazer5 Gaming. (Image via NBA 2K League website)

Nasser was the 29th overall selection in the draft, picked in the second round by the Portland Trail Blazers franchise — Blazer5 Gaming.

Nasser had hoped to be drafted by his hometown team, Warriors Gaming Squad (owned by the Golden State Warriors) and had admittedly tried sabotaging his interviews with other organizations so he could stay in the Bay Area. When the Warriors passed on Nasser in the second round, he ended up being selected by Portland, joining his close friend and Los Angeles native Dayne Downey (aka OneWildWalnut) who had been Blazer5's first-round pick.

Nasser and his five teammates all moved to Portland where their apartment complex doubles as their practice facility. Each player shares a suite with another teammate (Nasser shares his with power forward Connor Rodrigues aka Dat Boy Shotz) and on weekday mornings they meet downstairs where they have a kitchen and an open room for their six monitors (Some teams have training facilities at NBA arenas, like Sacramento’s Kings Gaurd Gaming which has an oxygen bar and fresh kombucha on tap for its players.). Nasser says practice used to start at 9 am, but that became too early for the team. Now they meet closer to noon and will have two 3-hour sessions playing simulation games against upcoming opponents and then watch game films. It can be a 12-hour day of practice.

Starting from the left: Conner Rodrigues AKA Dat Boy Shotz, Dayne Downey AKA OneWildWalnut, Andron Thomas AKA Lavish_phenom, Grant Barker AKA Grant Monster, Nidal Nasser AKA Mama Im Dat Man, Jomar Varela Escapa AKA Jomar12. (Image via NBA 2K League website)

“Lucky for us though, since we’ve been winning, we haven’t had to do as much [practicing],” Nasser says with a laugh.

Nasser’s swagger starts with his gamertag (the alias name given to one’s video game avatar). Growing up in the Bay Area, he listened to basketball games with commentary by Mark Jackson whose famous line when a player makes a big shot or pulls off the perfect pass is, “Mama, there goes that man.” Nasser’s gamertag is a hybrid of that phrase and his own swagger : “Mama Im Dat Man.”

Nasser’s confidence makes him one of the most outspoken personalities on the Blazer5 team, breaking the ice early on with jokes and jabs about his teammates.

“In the game now [my team] isn’t afraid to tell me like ‘Oh bro, you missed me here’ and I’m not afraid to tell them ‘Oh, you didn’t do that,’” Nasser explains. “And when you get that sort of connection it’s easier to move forward rather than just argue.”

“We’re still trying to get everyone on the team to be more vocal. Not talk trash, just talk to us. As it comes to communicating between the whole five, I want everyone to not hold their tongue in certain situations. It’s going to take time, but we’ll get there.”—NIdal Nassar. (Image via NBA 2K League website)

Even league executives, like NBA 2K League Managing Director Brendan Donohue, are impressed with Nasser’s communication. “Nidal is incredible,” Donohue tells us. “His personality and talent make him an integral part of Blazer5 Gaming and undoubtedly contributes to their team chemistry.”

His outspoken personality can also be to the detriment of his opponents. The games, which are played in New York with both teams physically playing from an “arena” full of TV monitors and game consoles, have a trash-talking component that Nasser embraces.

“[Trash talking] is usually to gain a mental advantage over the other person. If someone’s screaming ‘You can’t guard me!’ and everyone starts looking at him, [he’ll] kind of get butterflies,” Nasser explains. “A lot of teams don’t do that and I feel like they should because it brings teams more viewers. Not everyone wants to sit there and watch people just play the game. They want some sort of entertainment. So I feel like it’s not only good for us, it’s good for the league.”

Nidal gets vocal during a game against the Heat Check. (Image via NBA 2K League website)

Video game players by their very nature tend to be more reserved which will be an obstacle for the league. Before the season began, players sat through a seminar put on by the league instructing them on how to be more marketable, but as Nasser points out, “Some people are just quiet and that’s maybe the reason they got into video games in the first place.”

Viewership numbers were lower than anticipated early on and declined 30% each week. Since mid-June, however, viewership momentum has started to shift in the league’s favor as reported by Brian Mazique, who covers the NBA 2K League for Forbes. Average unique viewership has grown from 137,168 to 284,250 fans and the league’s mid-season tournament “The Turn” set a single-day viewership record with 433,391 unique viewers.

Mazique attributes part of the viewership growth to the establishment of league stars like Mama Im Dat Man (MIDM).

From left: Blazer5 teammates Nasser, Rodrigues, Downey and Thomas. “We got lucky with our first three draft picks. Our third round draft pick [Conner Rodrigues AKA—Dat Boy Shotz] wasn’t supposed to be there. He’s a quiet guy but he’s a big name. People just passed on him for some reason.”—Nidal Nassar. (Image via NBA 2K League website)

“MIDM is the perfect general for a Blazer5 army,” Mazique tells us. “Decision making on the floor is one of his best assets. Rarely does he have his team playing at an inappropriate pace, and he’s as big of a reason for his squad’s success as anyone on the team.”

As one of the league’s rising stars, Nasser has actually gained some real fans. It’s been the strangest part of the experience thus far.

“Some guy from the crowd was screaming my name the last time we played and I thought he was going against me the amount of times he was screaming my name,” Nasser says. “I was looking back at him like, ‘Bro, what is wrong with you?’ Cause the studio’s not that big. And he’s like smiling, giving a thumbs up like he’s actually my fan. I’m like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ So stuff like that, I’m still getting used to.”

Most of his fans in the New York studio, which players must travel to each Friday for the weekly games, are younger — 10 or 11-year-olds Nasser says. They often ask for autographs after the game.

Nasser viewing the monitors amid a quick down moment during game time. (Image via NBA 2K League website)

Nasser isn’t certain what he’ll be doing after the season winds down this autumn. The MVP hopeful has until the middle of July to decide if he’ll enroll back at SF State to pursue his marketing degree. He says he’ll probably take a couple classes “just to take them and follow up.”

For the season, Nassar will make $32,000. That’s consistent with everyone else in the league except for first round picks (like Downey) who will make $35,000. There are also cash incentives for mid-season tournaments like “The Turn,” where each player on the Blazer5 team earned $12,600 for winning the title. Nasser did not make any extra cash for being named tournament MVP.

Sponsorship deals (where traditional athletes can make a bulk of their money) have also been almost non-existent for the gamers. Nasser thinks companies are afraid to be early adopters of the league and question if it’s going to last. He’s hopeful next season will bring more opportunities for sponsorship money.

Playoffs start on August 17th and at this point, Blazer5 Gaming is the favorite to win the inaugural championship.

Blazer5 Gaming defeated Celtics Crossover Gaming 92–78 to win the mid-season tournament called “The Turn.” Mama Im Dat Man was named tournament MVP averaging nearly 30 points and 15 assists at the point guard position. (Image via NBA 2K League website)

Nasser hopes he can make a full-time career out of a game which fairly recently felt to him like a waste of his time. Still, he tries to think about the scenario as practically as possible, saying it’s an option only “if it allows me to live comfortably.”

As for next year, Nasser says the league hasn’t given the players any indication when the second season will pick back up. The NBA 2K League does have a three season guaranteed with NBA franchises and Nasser seems confident, even without the details, that he’ll be back in Portland next summer. “I don’t expect any changes, but then again I didn’t expect any fans either, so you never know.”

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Nick Bastone

Editor of Is America Great?, Some things I learned at Square, and Cool Young Kids

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