When Fred "I'm So Far Ahead" Mendoza got the call informing him that he had been drafted into the NBA 2K League in April, the last thing on his mind was the adjustment process.
"After that, I didn't hear a word [the man] said," Mendoza said. "He could have said in order to join [the league] you're going to have to shave your eyebrows or something like that. It was just something that I always wanted to be a part of."
And when Mendoza arrived in New York just prior to the start of the season in May and was informed that the players would be participating in a Rookie Transition Program, he was rather skeptical.
"I'll be honest, when they told us about it, I had second thoughts," Mendoza said. "I'm like, a Rookie Transition Program? We're just playing video games."
But playing video games is one thing, and playing video games professionally is another. And the NBA, which has run a transition program for its incoming basketball players for many years, figured the gamers would benefit from a program, too -- maybe even more so.
"We have 102 players that really didn't have the path to professional sports that many athletes have," said Brendan Donohue, managing director of the 2K League. "Playing at a major college or university, or being on TV previously, or talking to the media -- all those types of things probably help with the transition."
Those are things the 2K League players certainly hadn't experienced. Mendoza, 26, was working as an IT auditor for the Navy when he was drafted by Pistons GT. Shaka "Yeah I Compete" Browne, also 26, was an Uber driver in New York when Jazz Gaming made him the third overall pick and moved him out to Utah.
"When I first moved here, it was like a culture shock for me honestly," Browne said. "I'm going from a place where everything's always busy -- bright lights, New York City -- to Utah, where it's a complete change of scenery. Mountains, the people are different -- everything is different in Utah. It's definitely something I had to adjust to."
Relocation is actually something the basketball players have to deal with, too. So it makes sense that the 2K League transition program covered some of the same topics as the NBA program, with some new topics mixed in, too.
"We covered things such as social media training, traditional media training, health and wellness, nutrition," Donohue said. "The biggest thing that specifically related to esports was the importance of vision and eye care."
"They had a company come out and talk to us about getting familiar with eye protection, basically," Mendoza said. "You can use eye drops, or different ways to protect your eyes from being abused from so much video games. That's something that gamers might not realize -- all this time in front of the light, it may not be the most healthy thing to do. But you can manage it."
"The social media [session] was the biggest thing for me," Browne said. "Just knowing how to post, and what to post and what not to post. They showed us examples of athletes that posted things that were heavily scrutinized, and some things could even ruin your career if you put the wrong things out there. Definitely just showing what you can and cannot post, that helped me a lot. Because before I was in the league, I would just post anything. So I really had to get that under wraps."
Since the 2K League players fly into New York every weekend for their games, the transition program has in effect been extended to include more classes, covering things like financial literacy. The gamers aren't making seven- and eight-figure salaries like their NBA counterparts, but they are being nicely rewarded: $35,000 for six months, plus housing and benefits.
"The feedback has been very positive," Donohue said. "I think [the players] were surprised that we put this much work and effort into doing it, and by our understanding of the different transitions they were about to go through -- starting to live with a new team, how to adjust to a brand new market, how to adjust to being under the spotlight on a game night -- and by the way, some of the attention might not be positive. So learning how to deal with criticism from fans, that type of thing -- other athletes have gone through that already in college, etc. For some 2K players this is very likely a rough stage."
"I feel like the Rookie Transition Program was one of the biggest things that helped us adapt to becoming a professional," Browne said. "They taught us about professionalism, how to act in a work environment, social media, how to carry yourself like an athlete."
"All the players enjoyed it. I remember talking to everybody, and everybody felt like this is what we needed," Mendoza said. "We didn't expect to get it, but it's definitely something we needed, and we're all very thankful for it."
He's also thankful he didn't have to shave his eyebrows.