He Got Game

By Seth Berkman #91

Watching the evolution of Gordon Hayward has been like transitioning from an Atari to Xbox One. He arrived largely as an unknown at Butler and took the Bulldogs on a Cinderella run through the NCAA tournament all the way to the national championship game. Hayward then showed flashes of promise as a rookie with the Utah Jazz; not satiated, he upgraded his repertoire to where he’s making his first All-Star Game appearance this weekend in New Orleans.

Gordon was also a pioneer in the crossover between eSports and professional sports. While much of the League is filled with NBA 2K and Madden heads, Hayward steps his affection for gaming up a notch and was one of the first professional athletes to earn an eSports endorsement deal. We talked with Hayward about his dual competitive careers on the eve of his trip to the Big Easy.

What’s your gaming battlestation like at home?

At home I have kind of like this room upstairs over the garage, I put my PC and Xbox and stacked a couple of monitors, dual monitors, one on top of the other. On the road I always bring my laptop, mouse, mousepad.

Once, at Butler, you had to call head coach Brad Stevens for permission to play in a gaming tournament?

I do remember that. It was for a Halo tournament and there was money involved and I didn’t know what the rules were. In college, all my teammates knew that I played videogames. My weekends would be playing Halo with my friends. They gave me a hard time about it. But it’s something I loved to do.

Have you ever been to events in stadiums?

I got a chance to go to the League of Legends finals this past fall and it was incredible. It was at Staples Center. The whole thing was packed and teams were on each end. I went to a StarCraft event in like 2011 that was in Atlantic City and that was really cool, too. I went there four, five years ago. It was in a major showroom in Atlantic City, but now they’re doing events sold out in Staples Center.

What do you make of the future of e-gaming? Scholarships are offered, the Big Ten Network is going to broadcast contests.

I remember hearing one of the first schools that did it, Robert Morris, but now they’re starting to have big universities, big time sports universities fielding teams and giving out scholarships and that’s really cool—giving guys who are into games a chance, who put a lot of time in it and compete in the same type of environment I got to compete in in college sports.

What did it mean to you to be one of the first pro athletes to sign an eSports endorsement deal, with HyperX?

I was really excited because I watch a bunch of streams, especially when I’m on the road, either on the bus or playing at the hotel. I knew they were heavily active into eSports and I was just excited that they reached out and I have a chance to work with them. They send me all their products and I’ve gotten a chance to shoot some videos with them and it’s great working with them.

Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

I hear Rudy Gobert is a big gamer. Anyone else on the Jazz?

I think especially today, a lot of the players in the NBA grew up playing videogames. I would say most of the guys on our team, the guys that are under 30, probably would all play videogames, but I think the difference is they are casual gamers. Not many are into eSports. A lot will play NBA2K or Madden or FIFA, but not many are into League of Legends or Hearthstone or Counter-Strike.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Can you utilize aspects of eSports on the court?

There’s definitely a lot of similarities between videogames for me and on the court. I think community is a huge one and communication at all times—where the enemy is at, where you’re at, and you can work together to get a common goal. Same thing with basketball—talk to know what play you’re running, talk on defense if a screen is coming. That’s definitely very similar, and for me, I’ve never been a great communicator, a vocal guy, so that’s something that has helped me out. Also, the pressure situations. I’m not a pro gamer by any means, but I can remember playing in the Halo tourney with money on the line. It’s definitely intense and the same thing on the basketball court when you’re down one and have to make a play.

How are you going to approach the intensity of All-Star?

I don’t really know how I’m going to approach it. I just don’t know what to expect. I’ve been given advice to not do too many things because you’ll run yourself ragged. I’m just going to go in with an open mind to be honest.

Same approach with the Skills Competition?

I was just excited to be given the opportunity, and at the same time, definitely a little nervous because it’s something I’ve never done before.

Do you feel the Jazz have been underappreciated this season?

I think for us, we’re in the West, and the time difference affects where people out east don’t get a chance to watch us and stay up late. We haven’t had too many national TV games either, but I don’t think that’s something we’re worried about as a team. We’re just focused on trying to get better each game.

You’ve had a breakout season. Besides working on your footwork and finishing at the basket, what else did you work on in the offseason?

I think I wanted to be more consistent of a shooter, and that goes along with the footwork that I worked on. More balance. I put a lot of time into those things.

What was it like working with Kobe Bryant?

It was something where I felt like reaching out to him in whatever way could only benefit me. The whole experience, it was like three or four days and really helpful to me, and I’m appreciative of his time. The chance to work with him on the court and get a little knowledge from him was awesome. He also gave me a contact so I can hit him up and pick his brain.