NBA 2K League shows the art of trash talk

Elevated to an art form by Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, talking smack is now a massive part of competitive videogaming, for better or worse.

2k player Daniel “DT” Tlais yells at an opposing player during the 2K League All-Star Game at the NBA Headquarters in New York. (Jackie Molloy)

NBA HEADQUARTERS, NEW YORK Daniel “DT” Tlais loosened his grip on a PlayStation controller and looked across a bank of screens at the competition. It was time to get in their heads and finish the game.

“Fat boy!” he yelled across the NBA’s 16th-floor atrium that, two hours into the NBA 2K all-star video game tournament, reeked of sweat and body spray as much as any hardwood court.

His target, Antoine “Antoinelove” Times, judiciously retaliated, raising a middle finger above the monitor on which his virtual point guard was guarding Tlais’s power forward. But Tlais kept up the assault, whispering, “Fatty, fatty, fatty, fatty” into his headset as the clock ticked down toward his team’s victory, 22-17.

So goes the ancient art of trash talk in 2023. After blowing up in boxing rings and basketball courts in the 20th century, the sport-within-a-sport of enraging your opponent has met the roughly $180 billion-dollar-a-year video game industry, where tactical insults can fly at the speed of mics between players on different continents.

The September tournament was a bit of a throwback, a chance for the best of NBA 2K’s millions of players to shout in each other’s real-life faces, which many of them did repeatedly, calling out missed shots and bragging about their awards.

None of this seemed to bother the tournament’s officials. On the contrary, NBA 2K has embraced jibe culture. Players can spend in-game currency for a chance to get a Trash Talkers Larry Bird character card, and recruiters for the NBA’s official esports league have been known to assess a potential signee’s smack talk skills.

“These guys are the best in the world at what they do,” said the league’s former president, Brendan Donohue. “So any little advantage they can create by getting in somebody’s head or intimidating them or making them a little more nervous than they might already be … It’s a competitive edge.”

There’s also what Donohue calls the “WWE part of it” — the marketing potential in viral clips of players shouting and badmouthing each other, which the league eagerly shares and promotes. “It’s almost like a trailer,” he said.

“The beauty of it is that they trash talk and go at each other, but then after the game they’re hugging each other,” he added. “It’s all part of the game.”

Indeed, Tlais blew Times a kiss and told him, “I love you” in the middle of his verbal attack, and the two players warmly high-fived at the end of the game. Like so many NBA stars before them, they drew a line between strategic trash talk and real hostility — something that can’t necessarily be said for millions of more casual gamers.

Nearly every major video game publisher appears to tolerate some form of trash talk while forbidding more toxic behavior. You can press a button to taunt other players in Blizzard’s competitive shooter Overwatch or Psyonix’s car racing-soccer mash-up Rocket League, even though harsher language might get you banned. Xbox instructs players on the difference between banter “that encourages healthy competition” and punishable harassment. (“Get wrecked” is fine. “Get out of my country” is not.)

“The NBA 2K League does not tolerate any hate speech inside or outside of competition,” a spokesperson for the league said in a statement. “We require all players to uphold the code of conduct and behave respectfully and professionally in all interactions. If any player engages in trash talk that involves hate speech, that player would be disciplined accordingly.”

Hurling insults to get an edge in a fight is hardly a modern innovation. In “Gladiators: Violence and Spectacle in Ancient Rome,” the author Roger Dunkle wondered if Pacideianus was essentially trash-talking his opponent when he bragged before a battle: “This is the way it will happen: I myself before I receive his sword in my face, will thrust mine in that wretch’s stomach and lungs. I hate the man.”

ESPN traced professional boxing’s history of trash talk at least as far back as the 1900s, when Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight champion, cracked at Tommy Burns in the ring: “Poor little Tommy, who told you were a fighter?”

It came into its own on the basketball court during Michael Jordan’s era, according to sportswriter Jack McCallum. He recalled Jordan and Magic Johnson verbally sparring on the court, walking the line between bravado and bullying. “When I heard it, I was astonished because I thought they were good guys,” McCallum said.

He wasn’t alone. “According to the prevailing customs of the National Basketball Association, outplaying an opponent is no longer sufficient — you have to rub his nose in it like an untrained puppy,” Peter de Jonge wrote in the New York Times in 1993.

NBA 2K League player Connor Hardin a.k.a. “Connor” insulted one of his opponents during the All-Star Game in New York on Sept. 22. (Video: NBA 2K League)

Some players went to the press to argue there was no real malice in it. “Trash talk is misunderstood,” said NBA legend Grant Hill in a 1998 interview with Playboy. “It’s not vulgar. Nobody says he’s going to beat you up after the game. It’s more interesting. Guys who talk are trying to get inside your head, to make you doubt yourself.”

Nearly three decades later, a pro NBA 2K player will tell you much the same thing.

“I want to make people feel uncomfortable,” said Anthony “ANT” Costanzo, the MVP of the 2K League’s 2023 season. “When you’re playing under the bright lights and the pressure of playing in the league with all the cameras and everything, all those things add up and they get to you. So if I can do anything to kind of sway them in that direction, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

The rise of video games brought competitive gaming into millions of homes, and opened up lines of communications between players not possible on any field or court. A new generation of trash talk was destined to follow.

Before voice-chat technology became ubiquitous — think early-2000s games like “Call of Duty” and “Halo” — many players were stuck typing out their insults, which led to shorthand like “pwn” (possibly a portmanteau for power and ownership over an opponent) and “gg ez” (i.e., easy win for me.)

Nonverbal methods of humiliation were also invented, the most famous being spamming the crouch button over a downed opponent to squat on their virtual face. The move recalls NBA veteran Allen Iverson’s iconic step over of Tyronn Lue in the 2001 NBA Finals, but gamers know it as teabagging, after a sexual act we won’t describe in a family newspaper.

Teabagging has recently turned into a fulcrum point in a public debate over the acceptability of competitive taunting. The gaming website Kotaku documented how it’s been used to harass women, and last year Riot Games suspended two pro players from tournaments over the issue.

That’s how thorny the conversation has become around a decades-old taunt involving a single button — never mind the cusses, racial slurs, homophobic and xenophobic language, and bullying that commonly gets lumped in with trash talk over voice chat, which is now a standard feature in most major competitive games.

“People don’t really understand how to properly express themselves, which often results in what people consider very toxic behavior,” said Dennis “Thresh” Fong, who was one of the first professional video game players, and now runs GGWP, a company that sells AI-based systems to help game developers distinguish between banter and toxic abuse.

NBA 2K League player Daniel Tlais a.k.a. “DT” screamed at one of his opponents during the All-Star Game in New York on Sept. 22. (Video: NBA 2K League)

As a pro player in ’90s games such as “Quake” and “Doom,” Fong had a firsthand view of the digital evolution of trash talk alongside malicious harassment — which he noted often blur into each other.

“You’re often actually playing against people from all over the world, which means from all walks of life, different cultures,” Fong said. “What’s acceptable in one place is unacceptable in another. And part of why it gets exacerbated in gaming is because you’re also thrusting them into a highly competitive, stressful, dynamic environment.”

And its worst, he said, trash talk turns into genuine anger, and is as likely to be directed at a player’s teammates as their opponents. “The vast majority of people out there who end up involved in toxic incidents are not actually bad people,” Fong said. “They just don’t know any better.”

In other words, effective trash talk might boil down to skill.

“When great players do it, it’s accepted,” said Jim Gray, a longtime sportswriter who considers Muhammad Ali’s ringside trash talk a form of art, not easily replicated. When it goes too far, he quipped, “it’s not trash talking. It just becomes trash.”

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