Warriors Gaming Squad manager Rustin Lee is an OG in the NBA 2K League world. Lee has been part of the league since its inception, he also worked on the development of the game in its early years. Lee brings years of experience as a gamer, manager, and real-life hoops coach to the table.
I had an opportunity to pepper him with some questions about his journey and what it takes to be successful in the NBA 2K League.
BM: Rustin, I know you spent time working as a producer on the NBA 2K franchise, back in the early days. Talk to me about your transition from that role into your current one.
RL: When you say “back in the early days,” you aren’t kidding. We’re talking about THE very first NBA 2K game that was released on Sega Dreamcast! The game has evolved so much since I was at 2K that everything about the game had to be relearned when I became manager of Warriors Gaming. The way these top guys play the game is so different from the way I’ve always played the game. I rely on motion and basketball IQ, whereas these guys want their teammates to be stationary and use 2K IQ. One thing that hasn’t changed is I still love the game, 5 vs 5 mode in particular, and my experience working at 2K has only given me a greater appreciation of the current development team and what they’ve been able to achieve in this next generation of NBA 2K.
BM: Managing people is one of the most underrated and somewhat intangible skills one can have, and each group under your charge can bring their own challenges. Tell me what it’s like managing young adults, especially in an Esports environment.
RL: Prior to joining WGS, I coached high school basketball for over 10 years. I think that, and being a parent of a 22 year old son and 20 year old daughter, gave me some great reference in terms of how to relate, how to motivate and communicate effectively, and also I was able to find my sweet spot as a coach and manager in terms of my own personal style. I expected these Esports athletes to be very similar to the kids I coached, but was surprised in the first couple years to see how different they were. In a lot of situations with 2K players, they haven’t experienced much life beyond the confines of their own homes. In the 2K league, you can’t make them do sprints to teach them discipline, and they don’t go back home to their parents after practice. The one thing that did remain consistent between coaching basketball and managing 2K players is the value of teaching life lessons – that’s the great common denominator. If people see you’re on their side, and trying to teach them things that ultimately benefit them, it builds trust in your relationship, and everything good grows from that point on – maturity, accountability, leadership, unselfishness, integrity, etc. Everything you want from good teammates and players.
BM: WGS’ roster has evolved year over year. You had the trailblazing Chiquita on your squad, BSmoove, Vert, and several other memorable players. Tell me about your Season 4 team and how it compares to the other squads you’ve had in the previous three seasons.
RL: Our body of knowledge about what it takes to be successful in this league has grown so much since Season 1. That tough season was a blessing in disguise since it allowed us to experience things we never wanted to experience again! Some great players have walked through these WGS doors, each one of them had a part in us becoming who we are today. Unfortunately we’re only able to keep three players every year, so that makes it a challenge for continuity and continued success.
Looking ahead at our Season 4 squad, I think every one of our staff and current rostered players are excited about who we came away with in the draft. We really hated to lose Bsmoove, he could have easily been a Warrior for life. But you have to give value to get value, and we really felt we needed to focus on getting our defense back to the level it was in Season 2. I know a lot of people are wondering why we “blew up” the team that won two tournaments and made it to the Finals. But we aren’t in this to place second, and although we were confident we could have another long playoff run by just adding another piece, we weren’t sure if that would give us enough to win it all.
2KL and the meta is always evolving, it’s tough to stay ahead of the curve and predict where the gameplay is headed. But I think we’ve added a renewed focus on defense and great roster versatility, so we can hopefully adapt to whatever unforeseen changes come up. Adding Hezi and Antoine gives us two of the most versatile, defensive minded players you’ll see in the entire league. When I say versatile, I mean playing multiple positions at an elite level. In KayAus, you’ve got a proven winner who’s won like 25 Pro-Am championships, someone who will bring great positive energy and do all of the intangibles that produce W’s. We think we’ve put ourselves in a position to be a more competitive team than we were last year.
BM: I wrote an article last week that examined the draft ahead of Season 1. Most of the players taken in that first round haven’t enjoyed a ton of team success, at least not from a championship standpoint. Team building in the NBA 2K League is a different animal. What have you learned about building a roster, especially after having a successful 13-3 run in Season 3?
RL: In Season 1, you had five starting slots to fill and a bench spot. Within those five spots, you had to pick guys from the position they qualified at, and you could not pick more than one from any position. The amount of draft prospects was equal to the number of slots available, so you were very limited in terms of how creative you could get. So the draft became more about positional strategy for us and others.
Compare that to now, where you have over 250 prospects, way more prospects than spots, so you really have to lean on your scouting now. Not only are we evaluating everyone from a talent perspective, but really honing in on who will fit our players’ vibes and our WGS culture. That’s another reason we’re excited about this year’s roster. Not only did we get talent and versatility, but we got guys with great personalities who bring a ton of positive energy. In a season that can become very long and tedious, that positive energy goes a long way.
We’re extremely fortunate to have a [point guard] like CB13, he’s like having another assistant coach and manager in a player. He’s responsible for a lot of our consistency and success, having someone like him allows us to take chances elsewhere. He and Gradient have been one of the winningest duos in the league, and Sammie (Gradient) really did a 180 with his leadership last year, we’re expecting him to build on that this year. And to have a sixth man like Matty is so valuable, he keeps it real with the guys, brings great energy and leadership, real world basketball IQ and he can come in and start at any time with zero drop-off.
So I think what we’ve learned about building a roster is you have to have the right balance of leadership, talent, personalities, work ethic and energy to keep everyone in the right headspace. Having the leadership we do with Kirk, Hunter and Mike, there’s a lot of support behind our players and mentors to hold them accountable.
BM: OK, let’s talk about NBA 2K League and Pro-Am gameplay specifics. What do you see as the most important trait for each position, PG, Locks, Sharps, and Bigs (PFs and Cs)?
PG – leadership, getting everyone involved, taking care of the ball
Sharps – patience, timing /spacing, being a factor on defense
Locks – communication, aggressiveness, knowing PG tendencies
Bigs –pick n roll defense, controlling the paint, communication
Those are a few of the more important qualities, but of course there are others. One thing I’ve noticed in 2K is that great teamwork and guys who fit together, beats talent every time. In other words, a team with good players who play good defense and are unselfish on offense, will beat a team of “All-Stars” who want to troll all game and try to win it at the end.
Brian Mazique is a life-long hoops junkie and a fan of the NBA 2K franchise since its inception in 1999. Professionally, he has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, and has covered sports and video games for the past 15 years for a variety of platforms, including Bleacher Report, Forbes, and Heavy.com. The views on this page are that of this writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA 2K League or its clubs.