NEW YORK -- As NBA 2K League players took to the stage a couple of hundred feet in front of him, commentator Jamie "DirK" Diaz Ruiz bristled with envy.
That could be me, he thought, as he looked onto the players preparing to load in to their match that DirK would ultimately call. In his spare time, the then-24-year-old often challenged many of the league's top players and at times would even beat them. I could go out there on the stage and do exactly what they're doing -- but instead, DirK was behind a long table covered with monitors, watching.
He knew he could be a pro. He wanted to make that transition. He worried what it would cost him.
DirK put two years into becoming one of the faces of the 2K League, its top color commentator and an ever-so-bright social media presence in a community just beginning to form. He had worked forever for this, from commentating for free or for little money in Call of Duty events prior to NBA 2K, to finally landing the gig that he dreamed of that would finally make this a full-time career.
But now, he had second thoughts.
After the season, DirK returned to his home in Rockford, Illinois, and took some time to think. After weeks of an email sitting in his drafts, addressed to NBA staff such as 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue, DirK finally pressed send in mid-November.
He wouldn't be returning to the 2K League as a commentator. Instead, he'd be going all-in as a player.
Donohue was supportive, and DirK quickly found himself grinding the game during the 2K League combine to become eligible for the draft pool for the third season. He ultimately did, racking up impressive numbers and becoming one of the final 150 who are eligible to be drafted.
On Saturday, DirK will enter Terminal 5 in New York. Instead of announcing the picks as he did in Season 1, he'll wait for his name to be called. It's a big risk that could wind up with him slotted into a sixth-man role, with a focus on content creation around his team. But DirK believes in his stats and his drive, a confidence that got him this far, and he believes he'll return to Rockford poised to become the next NBA 2K League star.
As he scrolled through the Twitch directory one night in 2017, DirK clicked on "NBA 2K17" and browsed which streamers were playing the game. One, Kris "IiNsaniTTy" Dellarciprete, sat in his room, playing 2K online and interacting with his chat. But when he saw DirK's name appear across the screen, IiNsaniTTy's eyes widened.
"Hey, are you the guy from the Call of Duty World League?" IiNsaniTTy asked.
"Yeah, I commentate the events and stuff," DirK responded.
"We don't have any commentators in NBA 2K," IiNsaniTTy replied. "Why don't you come over here and commentate?"
That's actually why DirK tuned into IiNsaniTTy's channel in the first place: not to ask for tips or tricks, but to familiarize himself with the community and its top players. DirK had played NBA 2K on-and-off since 2009, but his favorite game was always Call of Duty. As a teenager, DirK competed online in GameBattles on Major League Gaming, mostly in Call of Duty but occasionally in 2K as well.
"2K was always the side thing," DirK said. "If I got bored of playing Call of Duty one day, then I would switch over to play 2K with my friends. We'd either play Pro-Am, Park and all that."
As he grew up and assessed his future, DirK was drawn to commentating. He idolized sports announcers, and as Call of Duty began to rise, he wanted to be partake in it less as a competitor and more as a broadcaster. He'd commentate smaller tournaments, but his big break came in 2015 with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. He entered a competition called "The Cast Off," where the final four commentators earned a chance to call games in Columbus, Ohio, at the North American regional qualifier for the annual Call of Duty Championship.
DirK made it to the final four and was flown out to Columbus. It was his first time casting a major event.
To his surprise, DirK was paired with Jack "CouRage" Dunlop on his first cast. Back then, CouRage was an ascending Call of Duty commentator, beloved by the community, the players and teams. Now, CouRage has more than 2 million subscribers on YouTube and is one of the biggest names in Fortnite and variety streaming.
Sharing a booth with a household name in the gaming community was a source of pride for DirK, then and now.
"I tell a lot of people that, and they're like, 'No way,'" DirK said. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, here's a picture of it.' That's always the funny part."
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Following that qualifier, DirK casted an event here or there for MLG, the de facto operator of Call of Duty World League events. But several years later, he hit his stride: DirK found a home on the secondary broadcast, the "Bravo" stream, at major MLG events. His commentary and the quality of his work led the Call of Duty competitive play subreddit to dub him "King of Bravo Stream," a title that, despite its flippant nature, came with some prestige.
DirK enjoyed Call of Duty and being a part of it. But there were so many other commentators before him, like CouRage and others, who had more experience and pedigree. DirK wanted to be the guy, not just a guy, and doing that in Call of Duty seemed impossible.
Then, the NBA announced the formation of the 2K League.
In 2017, the NBA partnered with 2K developer Take-Two to launch an annual league that would include 17 of its NBA teams in its inaugural season. NBA 2K's esports scene, which had been comprised of smaller online tournaments, and a few Pro-Am and LAN events until then, would get full-on developer support and backing from the multi-billion dollar entity that started it all.
"I wanted to be one of the people who was going to be able to hit the ground running and is going to be able to build up this audience," DirK said. "Not necessarily become the star of the league, but just have more of a vital role on the broadcast. That's what the 2K League represented."
When Donohue created a Twitter account, it was like a swarm of bees engulfed him.
The 2K League's managing director, a longtime NBA employee, had been named by NBA commissioner Adam Silver to spearhead the 2K League prior to its inaugural season. Silver tasked Donohue and a small set of staff at the NBA to build a league, recruiting teams, producers, talent and more all from scratch.
Everyone who was in anyone in NBA 2K shot Donohue a direct message on Twitter, including DirK.
"That's when the pestering began for me," DirK said. "I wanted it so bad. It's the NBA, and I'm just this little esports guy. I didn't have that big of a name from Call of Duty. People were familiar with me, but nothing crazy. I didn't really have this big-tier name."
Donohue put DirK in touch with Sam Asfahani, a producer for the league. DirK sent Asfahani his demo reel and clips and heard back quickly.
"Your knowledge is great," Asfahani said. "We want to bring you out to the draft."
"It reminds me so much of a movie where the guy is camping outside of the boss's workplace, right, and as soon as they walk out to go to lunch, they run up to him with a resume," DirK said. Like in the movies, it worked out.
"I scoured a lot of places, looked at traditional talent agencies, looked at other video games," Asfahani said, "but then I also had been doing a lot of work in the community with 2K. We did some grassroots events, and I was asking around.
"Everyone was like, 'Check out DirK the caster. Check out DirK the caster. Check out DirK the caster.' What I didn't realize was that while I was looking for him, he was very much looking for us."
Asfahani flew DirK out to New York, and the former Call of Duty commentator sat mostly by himself in April 2018 at a broadcasting desk, rattling off picks as they rolled in at the inaugural NBA 2K League draft. Asfahani envisioned DirK, a less-experienced broadcaster compared to his peers, in this role: hosting a pregame or halftime show, sharing his knowledge of the game in short segments geared toward hardcore fans. He spoke their language, after all.
But after Phil "EE" Visu, one of the league's commentators, took a week-long break to instead partake in a Super Smash Bros. event, Asfahani gave DirK a shot on commentary. He'd be paired with Scott Cole, a veteran sports announcer who had worked for the NBA in traditional basketball and in esports in games like Madden and others.
"What we got from then was DirK's infectious enthusiasm, which you don't really get during a halftime desk," Asfahani said. "Then you got it because you saw him all the time 'cause you saw how excited he got. Phil, who obviously was still on the desk, Phil flourished as a host. We saw the lovable, friendly side of Phil. Yeah, it was serendipitous but ultimately worked out well and just proves that as a producer, you don't always know what's best with your talent."
It wasn't long till that infectious enthusiasm spread off the screen. DirK was a hit in the 2K community, a game analyst who knew both traditional and virtual basketball and could counter Cole's veteran play-by-play with in-depth analysis on game mechanics. DirK fit right in with the players too, seeing them as peers and spending time with them frequently in New York.
When he sent that email in mid-November, DirK feared the response not just of the 2K League executives but the community. In the past two seasons of the league, he had become synonymous with the broadcast. Moving on, he felt, would earn him some backlash.
But Donohue remained supportive of DirK's aspirations, as did Cole, and while professional players expressed concern about the future of the broadcast talent, most championed DirK. DirK started bringing his PlayStation 4 with him on trips from Chicago O'Hare International Airport to New York. He played NBA 2K in his off-time at his hotel.
"I just wanted to get onto the stage and even just load up playing bots," DirK said. "The warmup games they had where they were just testing it out, where the AI's are just playing each other and they're not even doing anything, I was like, 'Just let me plug in a controller and let me shoot around or something.' That's what I wanted to do."
So in November, when DirK texted Cole about his decision before emailing Donohue and 2K League officials, Cole wasn't surprised.
"I kind of always knew that [playing] was what he wanted to do, because that's who he wanted to hang out with," Cole said. "He wanted to be a part of the team in some aspect. He saw the players as his peers, instead of the broadcast staff. Not that we weren't on the same team or that we had any discord. It was that that was where he wanted to be. You could tell that's where he had his eyes on. It was very important that they accepted him. That he wanted to be a part of them."
Saturday will mark a big day for DirK. It's the culmination of nearly a year of risk-taking: leaving behind commentary, where he made a livable wage but paid enormous taxes as a contractor, for a player life that will see him ultimately relocate out of Rockford to the home city of whichever NBA team drafts him that night.
DirK received interviews with eight NBA 2K League teams prior to the draft, but even some he didn't speak with said they knew him well enough to not need to interview him. If there's one team he wants more than others, it'd be Wizards District Gaming, the sister team of the Washington Wizards. In the offseason, DirK won a tournament they ran. He wouldn't mind 76ers Gaming Club, either, the winningest franchise in the league's two-year lifespan.
But given what DirK's put on the line to get this chance, any playing opportunity will do.
"It's really just getting in and being able to live that experience, no matter where I go," DirK said.
The former caster is understandably anxious headed into the draft. He believes he deserves to be a starter and estimates he'll be a second-round pick.
"If I do go into that third or fourth round, obviously that's where it starts to get to the point where some teams are still drafting their starters, but some teams are going to be drafting their sixth man as well," DirK said. "My expectations going in are that I will be a starter for a team, I will get drafted to be a starter for a team. But again, anything can change.
"Obviously my mind is that I want to play in the league for as long as I can. Again, you never know until you actually get that experience of playing and your mind could change."
Returning to casting might be an option if Saturday doesn't work out. But doing so would be a bitter moment for DirK, no matter how beloved his commentary is by the community.
He wants to be in the game, not working alongside it.
"I'm just stuck in the mindset that I want to compete, I want to win money," he said. "I just want to win championships for whatever team that I go to."