KOHLER, Wisconsin – Stephen Lay’s legs shook as he bent over to touch his hands to the ground out in front of him on a green yoga mat while balancing one foot on a block.
The 23-year-old professional gamer’s fingers are much more nimble tapping the keys on a controller than his legs are folding into yoga poses.
Lay and his teammates on the Bucks Gaming NBA 2K team were in the middle of a 60-minute yoga class as part of a wellness retreat. The video game players, part of the rising class of esports athletes, spent three days at the spa before practices begin.
Yoga – and the world of the NBA 2K League – is new to Lay. Lay (he plays as Slayisland) was drafted by the Bucks as a first-round pick just a couple of weeks ago.
No, they don’t play on the court like Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Bucks take the team, and the more than 30 million people who watch esports, seriously.
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For the first half of the class at Yoga On the Lake, the players learned simple moves that could be performed from the comfort of their gaming chairs.
Instructor Greg Cartwright adapted essential yoga poses like cat-cow performed on hands and knees for a seated position. The players don’t just spend hours seated for games and practice – they’re also flying to New York every week during the season for competitions.
The NBA 2K League is a professional esports league co-founded by the NBA and Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc.
Jovan Tenner, a 25-year-old player from Houston, stretched out his shoulders holding a black canvas strap above his head.
“Over the years, my posture playing the game – I’m hunching over a lot,” said Tenner, who goes by the tag BigMeek. “I need to be more up, more out. That was nice like being square. I’m always bent over.”
Focus on mindfulness
Kya Diehl, the health and wellness coordinator for Destination Kohler, scheduled the team’s three days of self care.
“Last year they saw a lot of arguments and the stress level was so high,” Diehl said. “They’re young guys. They don’t know how to cook for themselves. They don’t exercise. They just live a college lifestyle but they’re trying to have a career. We wanted them to focus on mindfulness.”
For the retreat, the men relaxed at the spa with a hydrotherapy Vichy shower, manicures, pedicures and acupuncture. They learned ways to unwind beyond video games with yoga, a cycling class and a virtual golf simulator. A chef gave a lesson in preparing healthy snacks like vegetable chips and hummus.
Though the season begins in just a couple weeks, the players didn’t pick up a controller during the few days in Kohler.
“They get so much exposure to the game – we just want them to focus on what they want out of this experience, bond and then we’ll have training camp,” said the Bucks esports manager Andrew Buck.
For the players, the basketball-based video game is a passion that turned into a career opportunity. The Bucks’ roster ranges in age from 22 to 27 – an old team for a league that often recruits teenagers. What was once a release – playing NBA 2K – is now a source of stress.
The NBA 2K League is only in its second year. Two of the Bucks’ six players – Aaron Rookwood and Tenner – returned to the team. The NBA 2K League begins April 2 and runs for 18 weeks. The players’ salaries start at $32,000 for about six months of work with the team, living together during the season at the Moderne.
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Rookwood, a 25-year-old player from Mount Vernon, New York, is prepared for the stress when the team returns to Milwaukee for the season.
“We know how long we’re going to grind,” Rookwood said.
The trip to Kohler was a break from a typical day for the team. They hold practice for three hours in the morning before stepping away from the game for lunch and reviewing film. The afternoon is spent in practice for another few hours of gaming.
“You’re not at home, you’re not in the comfort of your own home,” Rookwood said.
“You’re actually playing with teammates, living with teammates for six, seven months, traveling every week to New York City for games. The preparation is different.”
Rookwood changed his tag to Arooks for this season.
“Last year became busy,” he said. “The season was long and stressful. This weekend is letting me put things in the back of my mind.”
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