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‘Gaming has saved a lot of guys’: Inside the NBA bubble’s favorite pastime

Many players have found solace — from the pandemic, social isolation and the daily grind of basketball — by playing video games

In early July, before 22 NBA teams traveled to Lake Buena Vista, Florida, for the league’s restart amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Miami Heat big man Meyers Leonard reached out to his squad’s equipment manager with an important question.

“How much are we allowed to pack?” the 28-year-old 7-footer asked while preparing to enter the NBA’s pandemic-proof bubble on the campus of Walt Disney World. “Our equipment guy said, ‘Bring whatever you need … whatever makes you happy.’ ”

By the time he arrived at the team bus ahead of the Heat’s three-hour drive from Miami, Leonard had taken full advantage of the packing freedom. He toted two bags of essentials — clothes and sneakers — while wheeling in two massive wooden crates containing what he knew would make him happiest during extended periods of quarantining and social distancing inside the bubble.

“I literally brought my entire gaming setup,” said Leonard via phone from his hotel room. “An Origin PC, three Scuf controllers, a mouse and keyboard, a monitor, my camera, my ASTRO headset, a stream deck, a set of speakers and a mic. … Nothing too crazy, even though some people might think it is. I just knew having my gaming setup was crucial.”

Leonard isn’t the only player in the league who showed up to the bubble ready for some off-the-court gaming. After landing in Florida, Phoenix Suns stars Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton hopped off the team plane with their gaming monitors in hand. New Orleans Pelicans guard Josh Hart ordered a new monitor that he had shipped to his hotel room before he got there. Portland Trail Blazers center Hassan Whiteside left his extensive setup at home, but made sure to transport a traditional gaming console.

“I thought about bringing my gaming PC down to Orlando, but I didn’t know what the bubble internet was gonna be like,” said Whiteside, the NBA’s leader in blocks. “I didn’t know if I was gonna have that high-speed Mickey connection or not, so I figured I’d just bring the old-fashioned PlayStation 4. The day we first got here and began the 48-hour quarantine in our rooms, I played Call of Duty for seven hours straight.”

Whiteside quickly learned the biggest blessing and curse of the new NBA format: plentiful free time, which a lot of players in the bubble have spent the same way.

“I play video games every day in the bubble,” Whiteside said. “It’s a stress reliever. It gets your mind off being at work all day. We’ve got so much time, but you can only play so much basketball. So if I’m not on the court or doing anything basketball-related, I’m playing Call of Duty.

“Gaming has saved a lot of guys. It, for sure, saved me.”

On the night the 2019-20 NBA season was suspended after Utah Jazz All-Star center Rudy Gobert became the first player in the league to test positive for COVID-19, Booker heard the news while gaming.

Call of Duty had just dropped its now megapopular game Warzone — a free-to-play battle royal experience that more than 75 million gamers have competed in since its March 10 release — and Booker hopped on during a typical off day for the Suns to play with professional streamers Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag and Dennis “Cloakzy” Lepore.

“The NBA season is over. … All of the NBA is suspended,” Haag, a former pro Call of Duty player and the co-founder/CEO of the 100 Thieves esports team, told Booker live on a Twitch stream with more than 3,500 viewers. “Devin, I’m sorry, brother, but you just heard it from me.”

At first, Booker didn’t realize the full implication of what Haag had said.

“It really might be,” said the Suns shooting guard of what he thought, in the moment, was still speculation surrounding the season’s suspension.

“No,” Haag said, “it’s announced.”

“No way,” Booker replied. “It’s announced? … What the f—? Brooooo … what the f— is going on?”

The NBA suspended its season indefinitely on March 11. And as states across the country containing league markets began issuing stay-at-home orders, many players turned to gaming as a hobby during their sabbatical.

“I never thought I’d live in a world in which I was told, ‘Hey, you can’t go to the gym,’ ” said Whiteside. “But once the pandemic hit, I was one of the guys locked in the house, listening to all the protocols. I was really worried about COVID because I have a son and I didn’t want to mess around. But you can only play with your kids for so long and there’s only so much Netflix you can watch. So I started playing a lot of Call of Duty.

“Gaming took stress off a lot of guys. Even when we weren’t competing on the court, there were guys who were competitive every day on the game. When basketball was taken away, guys needed to be competing in something, trying to challenge themselves and get better.”

By April, players even began using gaming as a way to support causes that provided COVID relief. Leonard was particularly inspired by his Heat teammate Udonis Haslem, who penned an essay in late March for The Players’ Tribune titled The Real Miami. In the piece, Haslem called out the masses of people who had irresponsibly flocked to Miami for vacation during the pandemic and discussed the effect that the closure of local schools could have on food security for the city’s youth. “If our schools have to close down for a long time because this corona thing gets out of control, millions of kids are going home to empty refrigerators,” wrote Haslem, a native of Miami’s predominantly Black Liberty City neighborhood. “The worse this pandemic gets, the worse it’s going to be for those kids. Really think about that.”

The essay concludes with Haslem asking readers to donate to Feeding South Florida, a division of the nonprofit organization Feeding America, which has established a national network of food banks that feed millions of people. After reading Haslem’s words, Leonard committed his platform as an athlete and gamer to helping support Feeding America.

“I wanted to use gaming and my Twitch community,” said Leonard, who’s been streaming for two years, “as a tool to raise money to feed 1 million people.” On April 5, Leonard hosted what he originally planned to be a 24-hour livestream, though he actually ended up gaming for 30 straight hours en route to reaching his fundraising goal to benefit Feeding America.

The same week of Leonard’s charitable stream, the NBA and National Basketball Players Association launched an NBA 2K tournament featuring 16 players in the league: Ayton, Harrison Barnes, Patrick Beverley, Booker, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, Kevin Durant, Rui Hachimura, Montrezl Harrell, Derrick Jones Jr., Zach LaVine, Donovan Mitchell, Michael Porter Jr., Domantas Sabonis, Whiteside and Trae Young. Suns teammates Booker and Ayton faced each other in the tournament finals, with the shooting guard emerging victorious to earn $100,000 in winnings that he directed equally to two charities, #FirstRespondersFirst and the Arizona Food Bank Network.

“I haven’t played 2K in the five months since the tournament,” said Whiteside, who lost in the first round to Beverley of the LA Clippers. Whiteside noted that all tournament games were played on NBA 2K’s All-Star level of difficulty, lower than the Hall of Fame level he usually plays on. Following the early tournament exit, Whiteside began playing Call of Duty: Warzone exclusively leading up to the NBA’s announcement for a July restart at Walt Disney World.

While preparing for the bubble, Leonard reached out to NBA representatives responsible for logistics surrounding the plan to check in on what was likely on the mind of every gamer in the league.

“The internet was actually a big worry,” Leonard said. “I talked to a couple of guys at the league, because they know I’m into gaming and they knew I’d give them an honest assessment of what I thought players would want or need. I don’t need much, but I definitely need some good internet.”

Leonard had been spoiled by the super high-speed, fiber-optic internet he had installed in the house he’s renting in Miami, which is coincidentally owned by Whiteside. In a four-team trade in July 2019, the two big men swapped squads, with Whiteside heading to Portland and Leonard joining the Heat. During his stay in Miami, Leonard has made some upgrades to Whiteside’s house to support his passion for gaming and streaming.

Portland Trail Blazers center Hassan Whiteside (right) drives against Miami Heat forward Meyers Leonard (left) during the first half of an NBA game on Jan. 5 in Miami.

Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo

“Meyers turned my whole movie room into a game room,” Whiteside said. “And the things that he did to get the internet to run even faster are unbelievable. I had an amazing internet already, but he put some next-level internet in there. I’m talking probably over $1,000 a month. The guy who works on my house told me and I was laughing about it. He was like, ‘Meyers got this setup so sick.’ ”

Leonard quickly discovered in Lake Buena Vista that the bubble internet reached his high standard of speed.

“The internet here has actually been really solid,” Leonard said. “Like truly — because of the fact that I’m able to consistently crank out a good stream. It’s roughly 100 megabytes per second up and down. Streamers can do a good job at about 40 to 50 up and down. The NBA, the players’ association and everybody else involved have done an incredible job of setting up the best scenario for us.”


Gaming in the bubble kicked off as soon as teams arrived and entered mandatory quarantine, with players taking to social media to show off their in-room setups and the games they were playing. Clippers sixth man Harrell brought three systems — a PlayStation 3, a PS4 and an Xbox One — along with a collection of games as old as a decade. Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic broke out the steering wheel and pedals for some virtual racing on F1 2020, while Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic fired up FIFA 20. Early on in the bubble, Los Angeles Lakers point guard Quinn Cook streamed himself playing NBA 2K, and the game almost crashed when his two superstar teammates LeBron James and Anthony Davis hopped online and joined him. Lakers players have also been competing in an ongoing Madden tournament, with the semifinals of Cook, James, Markieff Morris and Dion Waiters recently set.

Yet the most popular game among NBA players in the bubble has, without a doubt, been Call of Duty. Since the league’s restart, everyone from Leonard and Whiteside to JaVale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Gobert, Jordan Clarkson and Paul George have logged countless minutes on the game in their downtime off the court.

Following a seeding game in early August between the Memphis Grizzlies and Pelicans, Hart rode the adrenaline of his team’s win with a six-hour livestream of Call of Duty on his Twitch account, @JHartShow, which has amassed more than 70,000 followers. It wasn’t until late in the stream that one of the gamers he’d been running against realized who exactly he was playing.

“Dude, I can’t believe I’m playing with an NBA player right now,” said the gamer of the third-year Pelicans guard, who takes pride in the standing he’s built off the court as a gamer.

“Obviously, I love basketball. That’s my profession. But that’s not who I am,” said Hart, who left the bubble after the Pelicans were eliminated from playoff contention. “I’m more of a complex person than just being a basketball player. I have other passions, and gaming is one of them. It’s never going to get in the way of basketball, but it’s a fun, whole different world that’s action-packed. Very few people can do basketball 24/7. You have to have other interests to steal time, especially now. And gaming is that for me.”

With the Heat fresh off a sweep of the Indiana Pacers in the first round, Leonard has already begun to shift how he spends his downtime during the playoffs.

“I’ll still game in my room but with less streams,” he said. “There becomes a point where it’s time to lock in more, so my gaming habits will absolutely change. But I also know gaming isn’t a distraction for me.”

Since the NBA’s shutdown in March, players have found solace — from the pandemic, social isolation and the daily grind of basketball — by playing video games. And in the past few months during the league’s restart, that commonly-held affinity has been on full display. Inside the bubble, gaming is nonstop.

“A lot of athletes love to game, and I know for sure that NBA players do,” Leonard said. “It almost normalizes us a bit. Because I’m just a normal guy who happens to play in the NBA. I love being a part of a team and competing for a title. But I love competing in general. So now, to see guys sharing this other part of their lives, it shows people, ‘They’re just like us. They just happen to play in the NBA.’ ”

Aaron Dodson is a sports and culture writer at Andscape. He primarily writes on sneakers/apparel and hosts the platform’s Sneaker Box video series. During Michael Jordan’s two seasons playing for the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s, the “Flint” Air Jordan 9s sparked his passion for kicks.