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MLSE says its pro gamers will be team ambassadors -- and will be fighting fit

TORONTO — Forget the stereotype of video gamers hunched over a controller, munching on junk food in a dark basement.

Like their NBA and MLS athlete counterparts, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment's pro gamers will strike a balance between physical training and health and wellness when they report daily to the training centre.

"There's been a huge shift in esports towards that," said Shane Talbot, MLSE's esports manager. "Teams who have brought in sports psychologists, for instance, who are notorious for choking in the semifinals are now starting to win tournaments and they're putting a lot on that on the fact that they've had this mental coaching.

"Physical health and wellness is also really important. I know for me personally I never play a better game of 'Counter-Strike' than when I've been to the gym and I've eaten well. You need to be mentally sharp to do this. The idea of just loading yourself up on chips and pop and playing video games is kind of dated, to be honest."

"I'm certain those gamers exist, I just don't see them at the top of the competitive circuit," said MLSE chief commercial officer David Hopkinson.

Phil Balke, a 23-year-old from Toronto who specializes in the made-in-Canada FIFA soccer game, is MLSE's first pro gamer.

In March, he will be joined by six members of Raptors Uprising GC (Gaming Club) after the 17 NBA franchises taking part in the first NBA 2K League season pick from the top 102 players after a comprehensive qualifying process.

After a month of online play, some 72,000 gamers have advanced to the NBA 2K League Combine which runs through Feb. 21. To qualify for the combine, players had to win 50 games in NBA 2K18's Pro-Am mode in January.

The combine will identify the top 102 players who will then go into a March draft with each participating team taking six players.

Under NBA 2K league rules, teams must pay for their gamers' housing. MLSE plans to have them under one roof, in the hope that the team that lives together, wins together. They will practise together and, like the real NBA players, study scouting reports and analysis of their opponents.

The site of the Toronto training centre has yet to be announced.

MLSE plans to showcase their gamers in and out of competition, through traditional gaming platforms like Twitch and video blogs on their own websites, apps and other media.

"We see this as one part of the whole Raptors story, not the biggest part quite frankly but one a part that we're all very curious about and is in support of the larger objective, (which is) what we're trying to accomplish with the Raptors," said Hopkinson.

As such, the gamers they will be expected to do more than win.

"We recognize that for a huge audience of kids, these guys are role models," said Sumit Arora, MLSE's senior director of strategy. "And we're going to expect our athletes are going to take that responsibility seriously.

"So we want to see them involved in the community, doing things, physical activities as much as showing them stuff online ... They need to be an all-encompassing professional athlete for us, not just somebody behind a screen that we can hide away and hope they don't say something stupid online."

Added Hopkinson: "Our Raptors Uprising athletes will be ambassadors and that will be mission critical to who we draft."


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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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