Dayton native living a dream in NBA’s video game league

Ivan Curtiss, a Dunbar graduate, runs the Nets team in NBA 2K League

Ivan Curtiss sat at a roundtable on the Brooklyn Nets practice court on March 15. While the Atlantic 10 men’s basketball tournament took place a short walk away at the Barclays Center, he spoke with a reporter from back home in Dayton about a different kind of basketball — not the kind he played at Dunbar High School in the 1990s or coached at Wayne High School in recent years, not the kind you need quick feet to play but the kind that requires fast fingers.

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Curtiss knows real basketball well. He described himself as a gritty, reserve point guard for Dunbar. He won a lot of games in his four years before graduating in 1997. He also was a big winner at Wayne High School as a freshman coach and varsity assistant to Travis Trice. Curtiss was on the bench when Wayne won a state championship in 2015.

Now, however, Curtiss spends his days focused on video game basketball — specifically NBA 2K. He’s the coach and general manager of Nets GC, which competes in the NBA 2K League, an esports league that just started its second season. In short, he’s making a living in video games, not by playing them — though he’s done plenty of that throughout his life, going all the way back to the Atari 2600 when he was growing up in the 1980s — but managing a team of six gamers, all of whom he drafted.

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“I wake up every day,” Curtiss said, “and it’s like a dream.”

Prior to leaving for New York City last winter, his family held a going-away part for him in Dayton. It was only then that people realized how far video games had taken Curtiss.

“Video games have been a big part of my life,” he said, “so a lot of people who have known me since I was little, they’re not surprised, but they’re surprised by the magnitude of it.”

Growing industry

Curtiss had just moved from Dayton to New York City when he was interviewed in March. He and his team live in apartments, paid for by the league, in the Financial District in Manhattan and take a 15-minute subway ride to the Barclays Center, where they practice throughout the season. The players make from $33,000 to $37,000 for six months of work and compete for $1.2 million in prize money throughout the season.

The season began April 2. Leading up to the season, Curtiss’ team practiced from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, getting together to play but also playing online against other teams.

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The games themselves take place with all the players at one location. Teams of five players sit across from each other, arranged around a circle. Each player has his own monitor, controlling one player on the screen. It’s a lot like the real thing, except everyone’s sitting down and no one’s out of breath.

Fans can watch in person if they buy tickets but also online. Esports have become a big thing, and Curtiss find himself on the ground floor of a growing industry.

“I don’t see it going anywhere but forward,” he said. “It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. NBA 2K is one of the top-five selling games every year.”

At the first NBA 2K League draft in 2018, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he views the league the same way as he does the NBA, WNBA and G League.

“It’s something that we’re going to develop over a very long time,” Silver said, “and we’re building this league as something that’s going to be around forever.”

Of the 30 NBA teams, 22 have their own NBA 2K team. Curtiss is unique because in a league dominated by 20-somethings — the oldest player on his team is 26 — he’s 40 years old. That’s why his Twitter handle is “OG King Curt.” The OG stands for “Original Gangster,” or old school. The players he manages did not grow up playing “Double Dribble” on Nintendo or “NBA Jam” in the arcades.

“I look at myself more as a player’s coach,” Curtiss said. “I drafted six guys who know how to play the game, and I rely heavily on what they want to do.”

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Late start

When NBA 2K was first released in 1999, Curtiss had already been serving in the U.S. Navy for two years, following his graduation from Dunbar.

“My first two years in the military, I was still a big gamer because I was on a boat,” he said. “We used all our free time to either work out or play video games. It was primarily you and another opponent sitting right next to you play. It wasn’t about playing online.”

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That was about the time online gaming took off, but Curtiss said he didn’t get involved in online gaming until 2011 when a co-worker showed him how to set up an online gaming account and told him what internet service provider he would need to play. Then in 2015, he partnered with Toijuin Farley to create the My Player Basketball Association (MPBA) around NBA 2K.

“We were the 2K league before the 2K league,” Curtiss said. “We kept records. We kept stats. Anything you can imagine that goes with the NBA, that’s basically what we mimicked.”

Meanwhile, Curtiss earned a living as a state-tested nurses assistant and youth care worker and coached basketball as well. He treasures winning the state championship with Wayne but regrets not winning it the following season as well.

“My passion is medical care or dealing with kids,” he said, “whether it’s in coaching or working in group homes.”

Proud gamer

When their biological mom Shirley died when they were 2, Curtiss and his twin brother, Isaac, were raised their grandma Patricia. When she died last July 4, Curtiss had a lot of things going on. He was still running his own 2K League and had his hand in the NBA’s league, serving as a consultant for the Milwaukee Bucks team. He said had a rough time dealing with the death of his grandma, who he called mom.

“My mom didn’t understand it, but she was proud I was doing something positive,” Curtiss said.

Curtiss said even his brother would complain about him playing video games too much. He had to explain to everyone in his family the world of NBA 2K.

“NBA 2K has a subculture that’s really unmatched,” Curtiss said, “and you don’t know it until you’re in it. I’m just proud to be a symbol and a spokesman for it.”

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