LANDodger: The ABA and eSports

BY Andrew Miesner / March 22, 2009

The ABA and eSports

Written by Mike “LANDodger” Luxion

(This is an editorial piece.  The opinions in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of compLexity Gaming or its parent company.)

It’s no secret that I’m a huge sports fan. I love baseball. Basketball? Yes please. And throw in some football, too, if you could. I try not to think about hockey, but I that’s only because I have a limited amount room in my brain (some might say very limited) and when you’re busy thinking about the Kansas City Royals farm system and how it hasn’t produced enough big-league talent, you gotta make a choice. I chose hockey.

But aside from the day-to-day minutia that consistently occupies my time, I’m also a big fan of learning how our current sports leagues came to be. Big-picture things. Not so much why the Pittsburgh Pirates are the new poster boys for the Inept Franchise Club, but how the league itself came into existence. What hardships did the founders face along the way? How close did they come to going broke, and how did they come back from the brink? Who took the league by the scruff of the neck and dragged it, kicking and screaming, into new eras – like Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier?

I love those stories enough on their own merit, but what I love even more is looking for ideas and concepts that apply to competitive gaming.

I have plenty of little anecdotes and parallels, but recently I came across a mother lode of great stories in the form of a book called Loose Balls. It’s about the creation and life of the American Basketball Association – an upstart basketball league that vied with the NBA for national attention, players, and revenue, before eventually merging with their competitor to help form the league we’re still watching to this day. For those of you not up to speed on your ABA history, some of the most famous NBA players got their start there (Julius “Dr J” Erving is probably the most well-known), not to mention a handful of current NBA franchises (Indiana Pacers, New Jersey Nets, San Antonio Spurs, and Denver Nuggets).

But before we continue on our journey down ABA Lane, which I promise is a very fun lane, I want you to think about all the reasons why people disliked the CGS and any other eSports league. Think of all the controversy around the CGS, the changes to Counter-Strike, all the accusations of favoritism and all the flak for both players and GMs. Remember all the CEVO controversy, or how people always think admins are corrupt, incompetent, or both. Take all the drama you’ve heard about and let it marinate for a little bit.

Do you have all those things fresh in your mind? Good. Now read this story from Max Williams, Dallas’s General Manager, because I guarantee those problems will look small in comparison:

[The [inaugural ABA] draft was coming up and I made some calls to coaches I knew, did some checking around, got all the basketball magazines I could and put together a draft list. I gave it to [Dallas owner Roland] Speth and figured we’d talk about it in a few days.
    One day, Speth said to me, “Well, we had our draft.”
    I said, “What are you talking about?”
    He said, “It happened so quickly. They just said the draft was tomorrow. I couldn’t find you so I went to New York and I took your list along and I did the draft.”
Of course, the reason he went to the draft by himself was that Speth didn’t want to spend the money to take me, too.
    I said, “You should have taken me. You don’t know anything about players.”
    He said,” I got the first give guys on your list.”
    I said, “That wasn’t a talent list. That was a list of players in alphabetical order.”
    He said, “Oh.”
That was it – “oh.”
So the first draft pick in the history of the Dallas franchise was Matt Aitch from Michigan State, because his last name began with “A.”]

Yikes. And you thought Mark Dolven was controversial.

Remember all the CEVO controversy, or how people always think admins are corrupt, incompetent, or both. Take all the drama you’ve heard about and let it marinate for a little bit. If that’s not your cup of tea, you might like stories about Cliff Hagan, Dallas’s star player and coach. He once got into a fight 30 seconds into a game. That’s not remarkable, though. Hagan was a bit of a loose cannon (probably a bad thing given his role as star and coach). He even bloodied up Max Williams, his boss and victim of the above story, in a pickup game after telling Williams (as he did every pickup game) “let’s play this one for blood.”

What made this particular instance noteworthy was that it came on a promotional day: Kids Day. There were around 7,000 people in attendance (a huge crowd for the ABA), and most of them were children. And still, 30 seconds into the game, the star player/coach got himself ejected. Needless to say, the front office wasn’t very happy. They talked to Hagan afterwards, and Hagan told his bosses “if I can’t fight, I can’t play.” So what did they do? They made him a full-time coach, of course. But not just any old coach. They made him dress without his basketball shorts (just warm-ups and underwear) to prevent him from subbing himself into the game.

It doesn’t end there, though. Fast forward later in the season, and one of the players warned their GM that Hagan had put his shorts on underneath his warm-ups. It looked like Hagan was tired of sitting on the sidelines for whole games. Williams started to worry. And sure enough, with 40 seconds left and the game tied, Hagan subbed himself in. And it didn’t take more than five seconds before he cold-cocked a guy (though the official never saw it, luckily for Hagan).

Those are a couple of my favorite parts of the book (along with Babe McCarthy’s phrase: “we’re gonna cloud up and rain all over them!”), but the biggest takeaway, the big-picture one, is how the ABA survived.

I mean, think about what would happen if Dave Geffon had missed the first CGS draft and somebody had, in alphabetical order, drafted players off his list. Or what would happen if there was a real trouble-maker in the league, not just guys that run their mouths every once in a while or in the heat of competition. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. The ABA owners had mountains of debt, pitifully bad attendance in some areas (one game reportedly had 98 spectators), a dominant competitor (the NBA), open tryouts, secret drafts, and God only knows what other legal, financial, and PR problems.

I don’t know about you guys, but any league able to survive all that crap has to have a few things worth imitating. So what was it that carried them through? To be honest, it’s a very complicated answer. In every story there are heroes, timely events, and luck. But I think the underlying principle is very simple: the thing that got them through was love. A pure love of basketball. Out of that came the stubbornness to find new owners to replace ones that couldn’t stomach the game anymore, or who were in it because they thought it would be profitable. It gave them grit. Resiliency. It gave them the will to continue onward when teams had to fold and the NBA was taking their best players.

It gave them more that, though. It also gave them a huge leg up on their competitors in a few key aspects. I mentioned the franchises that came from the merger, but the ABA changed basketball in much more significant ways, which is saying a lot when you think about the impact of, say, the San Antonio Spurs. The ABA was the first basketball league to use the three-point line. They also invented the Slam Dunk Contest and they kept better stats than their basketball brethren. Notably, the ABA tracked offensive and defensive rebounds (the NBA made no distinction), turnovers (not in the NBA), steals (not in the NBA), blocks (not in the NBA), and team rebounds (not in the NBA).

I don’t know about you guys, but when I look at what they went through and I look at what now-defunct eSports leagues went through, I get the feeling we’re missing that love in key places. The CGS is the most obvious example, but there are more. If the CPL truly loved gaming … well, complete the sentence however you wish, but I’ll just say that it would have had a much, much different history.

The problem with that lack is obvious. The people that love gaming are the only ones that are going to grow the sport in the same way the ABA helped grow basketball. They’re the same people that won’t follow tradition just because it’s there. They’ll introduce a three point line or new stats. They’ll push boundaries and challenge conventional wisdom.

And if (when) those things don’t work, they’re also the people willing to push through the failure. They can have a horrible season, lose money, and come back for a second round. And then they’re willing to admit that season sucked too, dust themselves off, and still try out new things. They take the best parts of whatever they have, adapt, and build on those because they’re not looking to maximize profits, they’re looking to sustain growth in something they believe in.

And like the people that started the ABA, they also the people that won’t take no for an answer. We have them in gaming, too. I just wonder what the scene would look like if that’s all we had.