It was fitting that Suns teammates Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton would make it to the final of the NBA 2K20 Players Tournament -- because leading up to this tournament, the Phoenix Suns organization had been all about 2K20.
Since mid-March the Suns have been presenting simulated regular-season games through NBA 2K contests involving various athletes and luminaries controlling the teams. They were essentially the first sports team to attempt this after the NBA season went on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Suns were suddenly at the forefront of content creation for not just the NBA, but for all sports leagues that had delayed or canceled their seasons. Multiple teams have followed suit, but the Suns were certainly leading the charge.
The Suns put a great deal of thought into each matchup. For each regular-season game simulation, there was typically a connection to the cities involved. Some were direct: Ty Jerome, who plays for the Suns, faced Josh Okogie, who plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves, in their game. Former Arizona Cardinals safety and massive Phoenix Suns fan Tony Jefferson took control of the Suns and battled Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen, who played as the Clippers. A pair of former No. 1 overall picks in the WNBA, Phoenix Mercury center and six-time All-Star Brittney Griner played the Suns against Seattle Storm point guard Jewell Loyd as the Jazz.
Perhaps the most intertwined matchup of the regular-season simulation stretch was when Suns player Mikal Bridges, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, controlled his team against the Philadelphia 76ers, controlled by Matisse Thybulle, who was born in the Phoenix area. Even content creators and esports players have participated, such as NBA 2K competitor Antonio "PHE" Saldivar and a battle of sneakerhead creators Qias Omar and Jacques Slade.
It certainly would have been an easier lift for the Suns' digital department to simply find any athlete or content creator willing to participate, but clearly there was thought and care put into the selections for every game, which is appreciated by Suns fans and the audience watching.
"It's been probably one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of this strange period that we're in," said Dean Stoyer, the Suns' chief marketing and communications officer. "Every week, we had responses from other teams and leagues asking us how we've been so successful."
Stoyer notes that much of the success came from quickly giving the green light to a major project like this.
"It was about 12 hours after the [NBA] announced the hiatus that the idea came to me from [senior manager for social media strategy] Allison [Harissis] and the social team. If I didn't have the trust in them and if I didn't know that they are hands down the best in the league, we wouldn't have moved as quickly as we did. Their instincts were right. We had to figure out a lot quickly. If we hesitated, if we waited, we wouldn't have been as successful."
Viewership numbers overall have been seen as a resounding success by the Suns' organization. The matchup between Ty Jerome and Josh Okogie (Suns vs Timberwolves) reached 3.1 million viewers on Twitter, while Mikal Bridges vs. Matisse Thybulle as the Suns vs 76ers hit 2 million, as did Miami Dolphins defensive end Shaq Lawson (as the Oklahoma City Thunder) facing Arizona Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds (as the Suns). The Suns' Twitch account, which was created only a month ago, now sits at over 448,000 total views with just under 7,000 followers.
There were several challenges along the way, with players' internet-connection strength, equipment and availability as the biggest ones, as well as following proper guidelines and protocol for safety against COVID-19.
"A lot of people didn't have capture cards [to connect their consoles to their computers for streaming purposes]," Harissis said. "That is key to making this happen. There were a lot of overnight packages through UPS and FedEx."
If not for the hiatus, the Suns would have had two games left on the regular-season schedule -- April 13 against Houston and the season finale on April 15 against the Lakers. As for whether or not similar content will continue throughout the summer, Harissis noted there are creative plans being worked on but nothing is confirmed at this point. Stoyer said that there will certainly be opportunities for gaming content when the NBA returns.
So, while Devin Booker can now call himself the king of NBA 2K among NBA players, the Phoenix Suns can also lay claim to the content championship crown among franchises in the NBA and perhaps all of sports.