NEW YORK (AP) — After over three hours of sitting, waiting and stressing, Chiquita Evans heard her name called. She stood, smiled and put on a Warriors cap, striding to the stage backed by the loudest applause of the night.
Someone put a microphone in front of her and asked her how it felt. That’s when she finally choked up.
”It changes everything,” she said. ”It means everything to me.”
Evans became the first woman ever drafted into the NBA 2K League on Tuesday night, going in the fourth round to Warriors Gaming, which is operated by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. A former college and semipro basketball player, Evans is now the esports league’s first female pro, one of the 126 players who will make between $33,000 to $37,000 per season, plus benefits and team housing.
No more sessions as a trainer at Planet Fitness. The Chicago native is heading to the Bay Area.
”It feels surreal,” she said.
Evans was one of two women who qualified for the 2K League draft this year through the league’s online combine. The other, Brianna Novin, was not selected but could still sign as a free agent.
The NBA runs the league in coordination with 2K game publisher Take-Two Interactive, and it did not have any women for its inaugural season. Prior to last year’s draft, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called the lack of gender diversity ”a disappointment for all of us so far.”
The league set out to solve that problem by holding focus groups with top women gamers to spot potential barriers. One key problem: Data showed that male players weren’t passing the ball to their female teammates – something that wasn’t accounted for when the league analyzed players to build the 2018 draft pool.
”It made us put more emphasis on how good a player was when they got the ball in their hands,” said 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue. ”That’s the only part of it they can control.”
The league also monitored communication between players more carefully at this year’s combine, removing several players for sexist remarks.
That kind of harassment isn’t new to Evans, or women in esports in general. One of the biggest challenges for women is finding teammates for games that rely so heavily on teamwork. Female gamers can try to ignore an offensive, trash-talking opponent – and there are plenty of those in the 2K community.
But just like in real life, you can’t defend a pick-and-roll if your teammates aren’t willing to communicate.
Evans has done most of her competitive gaming with a coed team – right now, five of its 12 players are women – and that’s helped her thrive as a shot-creating small forward.
Her experience when gaming outside that team – with both teammates and opponents – hasn’t always been as rosy.
”I’ve had sexual remarks put towards me,” she said. ”I get told I should be back in the kitchen. ‘2K is not for women,’ I’ve had that. There’s no question about that.”
Evans also got loud pushback on social media when she announced last month – on her 30th birthday, no less – that she’d qualified for the draft.
”That’s the only time that it’s been discouraging for me,” Evans said. ”In that moment, because it was a great moment for me, and I felt like people ruined it.”
Other gamers at Tuesday’s draft were eager to welcome Evans and Novin.
”Male, female, dog, cat, frog, I don’t care,” said Alexander Bernstein, a returning player with 76ers Gaming. ”If you’re the best in the world, I feel like you deserve to be able to play.”
That doesn’t mean the women won’t face extra skepticism. Kimanni Ingram, another draft-eligible player, has played with Evans and respects the way she has navigated blowback from male gamers.
But even his compliments Tuesday came with a qualifier.
”She has the basketball IQ for a girl,” Ingram said. ”Most people would be like, ‘I’m playing with a girl. She’s not going to know what to do.’ She knows what she’s doing. You can tell.”
News of Evans’ selection traveled fast. Warriors coach Steve Kerr was asked about her prior to a game against Boston.
”I think that’s really cool that she’s passionate and inspired and broke a barrier,” Kerr said. ”That’s awesome.”
”Esports has become a huge thing now,” said Kevin Durant, Evans’ favorite player. ”More people who enjoy the game might get an opportunity to be professionals and make some money for themselves and make some money. I think it’s cool.”
Female gamers have had difficulty breaking into pro esports. Among the most popular circuits, League of Legends Championship Series and the Overwatch League have each had just one female player. Those women both received ample praise and criticism on social media.
The NBA wants to help Evans and Novin manage that. The 2K League has a transition program based on the NBA’s rookie symposium, and it added sessions specifically for Evans and Novin to help them navigate their potential barrier-breaking roles, including help with social media.
One item 2K hopes to change soon: The video game still does not include any female players. Unlike EA Sports’ NBA Live series – which includes WNBA rosters and the ability to create female players – NBA 2K is still male-only. Donohue says 2K is working to add women to future versions of the game.
That’s not bumming out Evans right now. She’s already building out her to-do list for her new home in Oakland.
”I’m going to see if I can do a real-life shooting competition with (Stephen) Curry,” Evans said. ”That’s what I was known for. See if I can shoot with the best.”