How NBA 2K, Madden and FIFA 20 connect Denver Nuggets locker room
Vlatko Čančar is thousands of miles away from his previous professional basketball team, Liga ACB’s San Pablo Burgos. He’s even further from his hometown of Koper in Slovenia. He’s 5,428 miles away to be exact. In Čančar’s NBA rookie campaign, he’s had to adjust from being a top player in Spain to a player fighting to carve a role on the Nuggets while also fitting into a new city and locker room.
One way he’s been able to do that is firing up the gaming console and taking on teammates in “FIFA 20.” He, Nikola Jokić, the Nuggets franchise star, and Juancho Hernangómez, a 2019 FIBA World Cup winner with Spain, have developed a close-knit but testy rivalry in the sport. Čančar prefers to play with his favorite club AC Milan, but when he’s going in for an assured win, he’ll rock with 2019 Champions League winners Liverpool. The stats on the rivalry are murky and depends on who you ask.
"Yeah, I played with them [Jokić and Hernangómez] but they don't want to play with me anymore because I'm better than them.” Čančar told Nuggets.com in December. “So, I'm kind of left on that.”
Jokić, on the other hand, vehemently denies ever losing to his Slovenian teammate. He confidently boasts his record using Manchester City in the game.
“I've only played him two times and I beat him two times, 6-0,” Jokić quipped to Nuggets.com.
Hernangómez prefers to be diplomatic, highlighting that the trio plays a variety of games together throughout the season.
“Vlatko came from Europe, same as Joker, we’re always hanging out,” Hernangómez explained. “He plays PlayStation and Fortnite too, we bring our [gaming] suites on the plane and we play Mario Bros.”
But gaming among teammates isn’t limited to the Nuggets’ European contingent. In a locker room that’s filled with players from different regions and even countries, video games provide a way to develop relationships and chemistry through something they’re familiar with—competition. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone is all about it.
“I think as society changes, it used to be you'd write someone a letter. Then it got to a phone call, now it's texting and guys can play video games," Malone told Nuggets.com. “Whatever that interaction it is, I think it's important [for guys to stay connected].”
Here are some ways video games impact the Nuggets locker room:
The overwhelming favorite and the battle for second
NBA 2K is the most popular basketball video game for fans of the sport. It is also easily the favorite in the Nuggets locker room. Whether it's playing against one another, or checking out their own ratings or even appearances, it is clearly the most important game for the team’s players. For example, Čančar was enjoying playing 2K with a Nuggets teammate until he saw his own avatar. The game ended at that point.
“I looked so horrible [in the game],” Čančar said with a grin. “I didn't want to play it anymore.”
Second-year forward Jarred Vanderbilt can sympathize with Čančar.
“This year, I actually got my face scanned, last year, I didn't have a face scan, so I didn't even recognize who I was when I played,” Vanderbilt said. “My rating went up a couple of points. It's aiight, we'll get the rating up a little higher.”
It is also isn’t uncommon for Nuggets players to connect via social media with 2K developers. Jamal Murray regularly hollers at Ronnie 2K, the game’s ratings czar, about his overall rating on IG story. When he’s not doing that, he’s challenging fans in the game. And Michael Porter Jr endeared himself to Mile High Basketball base by inviting people to his apartment to go head to head.
Madden and FIFA vie for the second-favorite game in the Nuggets’ locker room.
Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Monte Morris, all former high school football players, are among those fancy Madden whereas Jokić, Čančar, Hernangómez and Jarred Vanderbilt are among a growing group of players who are FIFA heads.
“I'm pretty good, I actually play FIFA more than I play 2K for some reason,” Vanderbilt explained. “I just like the game. There's only a couple of us who actually play FIFA. It's pretty good, I like it, it’s fun.”
Keeping guys in the fold after G League assignments
Video games helped Čančar acclimate to Denver, but they have also served as a way to stay connected amid G League assignments. Čančar, Bol Bol, Jarred Vanderbilt and P. J. Dozier have had multiple trips to the NBA’s developmental league, with the stints serving as valuable opportunities for playing time. When the group is away or back in Denver, the controllers are out and trash-talking commences.
“Whether it’s Bol, P.J., Vlatko, Jarred as they are down in the G League, it's really important for them to know that they are gone, but not forgotten,” Malone said. “They are still a part of our team.”
Craig vs. Harris: The Showdown
“If I had to do rankings, Gary’s No. 1 in Madden,” Morris told Nuggets.com. “I maybe beat him like twice.”
When Craig, a self-proclaimed top-level player in the popular football game, heard about those comments, the reserve small forward issued a challenge to the Nuggets starting shooting guard.
“I’ve never played Gary, so maybe we need to make that happen,” Craig said. “If I’m playing Gary, I’m going live [stream with it]!”
A few weeks later after a practice, Harris obliged. The results speak for themselves.
The normally-reserved Craig walked into the Nuggets’ family room at Pepsi Center confident, saying “Let’s do this!”
Harris and Craig sat on a couch in front of a 70-inch television and loaded Madden 20 on an Xbox. Harris was business-like in his approach.
“Check the settings. Are the rosters updated?” Harris said, upon entering the room.
Then, the two men finally engage in picking their teams. To Craig’s bewilderment, Harris selects the New York Giants to face his teammate’s significantly-higher rated Kansas City Chiefs.
“Saquon,” Harris concisely replied.
The game loads up and Craig somehow runs back a touchdown with Anthony Sherman, Kansas City’s fullback. Harris is animated with his eyes wide open.
“What's your settings, bro,” he asks.
While Harris is set at All-Madden, the hardest level of difficulty, Craig is set All-Rookie, the beginner setting. Craig and Harris restart the contest and this time, and the results are dramatically different.
Harris received the ball at the 30-yard line and proceeded to feast with Giants star Saquon Barkley in a one-man show for the ages. Harris, who played wide receiver and safety in high school, is using his knowledge of the sport to his advantage, calling O-Line shifts and different protections for the gifted running back. With Harris’ Giants just 20 yards from paydirt, Craig adjusts his defense to stack the box to cut off the run. Barkley weaved through four defenders and when he was met by one at the goal line by one more, the back hurdled to get in and score. Harris looked at Craig with a smirk.
Moments later, Harris has the ball again with two minutes remaining in the first half. Craig has started to figure out Barkley, stopping the previously on-fire back on the first two downs of the possession. On third and 10, Harris calls an audible and uses wily-old vet Eli Manning to find a curling Golden Tate for another score.
“Eli is back,” Harris proclaims.
Craig nods his head as his Chiefs go into halftime down 14-0. The two men are about to resume action when they are called in for a team-building event for Christmas down the hall.
“Hey, keep that game paused,” Craig said. “I can still come back!”
Harris smiled and gives Craig a pound.
“Sure, you can,” he replied.
Full footage of Harris and Craig's epic showdown will be released during the Jan. 15 Nuggets game against the Hornets, courtesy of Western Union's Augmented Reality content series.