Jin Choe can’t remember whether the first video game system he owned was Nintendo GameCube or Microsoft’s Xbox. What he still clings to, though, is the memories of challenging a pair of cousins in games such as Halo and Super Smash Bros.
“Just being a competitive individual, whenever I would play with my cousins, I would always try to get better, and I would always try to beat them even though they were older,” he recalled. “And most of the time they would beat me.”
Choe, who immigrated from South Korea as an infant with his parents and grandparents to the part of Laurel in Howard County, has turned those losses into what some would deem a considerable win. He recently completed his second season participating in the NBA 2K League, a professional esports league of 21 teams backed by their corresponding NBA franchises.
Choe, 20, played for the Warriors Gaming Squad, helping the No. 8 seed upset top-seeded Blazer5 Gaming in the first round of the league playoffs before getting swept by T-Wolves Gaming in the semifinals.
T-Wolves Gaming, the No. 4 seed, defeated No. 3 seed 76ers GC in a best-of-five series in New York in early August to win the title.
Making a career out of playing a video game while earning a six-month salary ranging from $33,000 to $37,000 and living in club-sponsored quarters with a teammate — Chiquita Evans, the league’s only female player — still feels surreal for Choe, known by his gamer name Jinsanity.
“Even now, I find it hard to believe that I’m getting paid pretty good for doing something that I love,” he said.
Former Warriors Gaming Squad coach Tommy Abdenour, who left his post after the season, said he knew a little about Choe when he played for Wizards District Gaming but was impressed when he got to know Choe.
“He’s probably better than what I thought,” said Abdenour, a former NBA G League assistant coach who was the video coordinator for the Santa Cruz Warriors. “He’s more versatile than what I thought. He’s a better playmaker than I thought he was. … It was a true pleasure to coach him. There was nothing negative about him in any way.”
Choe, who graduated from Reservoir High in Fulton, emerged as an esports prospect when he competed in an NBA 2K League Combine in February 2018, outlasting a pool of 72,000 aspiring video game players to be one of 102 placed in the league’s first draft. He was selected by Wizards District Gaming in the fourth round as the 57th overall pick.
Wizards District Gaming coach Patrick Crossan recalled that Choe played every position but point guard.
“Anything we needed him to do, he kind of did,” said Crossan, a former NBA 2K player. “He played multiple positions for us, so we could shuffle guys around. … He’s a guy who could get his own bucket, but at the same time be a really good defensive player as well.”
Choe was thrilled to play for his hometown franchise and living on his own. While he scored 13.1 points, dished 3.3 assists and collected 3.1 rebounds per game, he acknowledged struggling when it came to cooking for himself.
“I think I’m equally bad at everything,” he said when asked if he had a favorite dish. “But I think I can make a regular chicken breast with a little bit of salad on the side.”
After the season ended, Choe was unprotected by Wizards District Gaming in the ensuing expansion draft, leaving him feeling “a little betrayed.” But the Warriors Gaming Squad quickly filled the void, using the 38th overall choice (third round) to grab him.
“Both times, I was super ecstatic and just ready to get out there and play,” he said of getting selected. “But the second time around probably felt a little bit better just because in the first draft, if you made the draft board, you were guaranteed to get drafted.
"But this time around, even though I was on the draft board and I had a guaranteed spot on the draft board, it felt a lot better just knowing that with all of these players in the draft, I finally got a spot.”
Abdenour said he and team manager Rustin Lee pounced on the opportunity to draft Choe.
“Knowing what they already had and how good he was for them, we were just surprised that they didn’t take him back,” Abdenour said of Wizards District Gaming. “He did exactly what they wanted to do, and we were just surprised. Happily surprised. It’s rare to see good players not get protected from year to year.”
Choe averaged 10.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists while starting 25 of 26 games this season at small forward, power forward and even center. In the Warriors Gaming Squad’s 67-45 rout of Blazer5 in the first of a two-game sweep in the league playoffs, Choe totaled 20 points and three assists.
Choe said the highlight of the season was when the Warriors Gaming Squad won The Turn tournament in Las Vegas in May and The Ticket tournament in Orlando, Florida, in June, becoming the first franchise in league history to win multiple tournaments in the same season. But he said losing to T-Wolves Gaming in the league playoffs stung.
“I think our season was a huge success, but at the same time, it was a little bit of a disappointment,” he said. “We only made it to the semifinals. I still feel like it wasn’t that bad of a season, but it wasn’t the result we were looking for.”
Choe said his father, Yong, has backed his pursuit.
“All my life, I played basketball growing up, and my dad would come to every game and would be really supportive of that,” he said. “So for him, this isn’t that much different than when he would come to my games. Even after the first season, he insisted that I should take a break, but I’m someone that values staying connected. So I got right back into school when the season ended.”
Choe initially enrolled at UMBC, but had to withdraw in the spring of 2018 to concentrate on his duties for Wizards District Gaming. He has since transferred to the University of Maryland, College Park and has juggled practices ranging from four to eight hours with an online course load aimed at attaining a bachelor’s degree in economics.
This year’s offseason could be as tumultuous as last year’s. The league has yet to give details, but Choe is resigned to the possibility that the Warriors Gaming Squad will be permitted to protect only a few players with the rest being subjected to the expansion draft.
Abdenour said a recent mock draft for 2020 projected Choe as a late first-round pick, which is why the team is intent on trying to retain him. Still, the uncertain future is “nerve-wracking” for Choe, who said he has become accustomed to living in Oakland, California.
“I would definitely prefer staying with the Warriors and building on what we did this year,” he said. “I feel like if we play our cards right and really work hard next season, we could be champions of the whole league.”