The NBA 2K series is one of the biggest and best-selling franchises in gaming history, having sold over 90 million copies since its first release in 1999. Considering its immense popularity over the years, it makes sense that the only basketball simulation on the market gets its own league, similar to the one it’s based on.
Enter the NBA 2K League.
2018 was the NBA 2K League’s inaugural season and featured 17 teams, each based on an NBA franchise. In the three years since, the league has grown to 23 teams – 22 with NBA affiliation, with Gen.G having their own team in Shanghai. What’s more, this past season, we saw 2K League broadcasts on Twitch rise by 69%.
With the league slowly growing in popularity, it would only be right to talk about one of the fastest-rising teams in the league: Kings Guard Gaming (KGG), the Sacramento Kings’ 2K League affiliate. In particular, we need to talk about one of the men responsible for turning the team around: head coach Del Layton.
We at Stropse took this interview to sit down and learn about Layton, who went from being a professional player to head coach. We spoke with him about his journey and how video games have ultimately helped him get to where he is today.
Though Layton experimented with different sports and activities growing up, the one constant was basketball. While he struggled in other fields, basketball came naturally.
“I was a little bit taller than most kids but I was never like a big man,” he said. “I could handle, I could shoot, I could do everything.”
Ease of access helped Layton hone in his love for basketball — most of the time, all that’s needed is a ball and a hoop to play. It was through this accessibility that Layton was able to stay out of trouble, even when his life was beginning to take unexpected turns.
“I know growing up, I had a two-year period where I was kind of hanging out with the wrong crowd,” Layton recalls. “I’m getting involved in stuff I probably shouldn’t have been, wasn’t really focusing on school or sports.”
His decisions took a toll on his basketball career, and instead of being a starter on his high school’s junior varsity team as a freshman, he was left to pick up the pieces of what remained of his basketball career. Layton says that he could have “been at another level” had he decided to focus solely on basketball early on. However, once he fully realized the path he was headed down, Layton uprooted his entire lifestyle and began to fully invest in basketball as a means to improve his life.
Layton found a new friend group, which consisted of his teammates; spent more time in the gym to work on his craft; and began using basketball practice – and basketball as a whole – as a safe space to have fun and get all the stress out of his life.
He eventually made the 2nd Team All-District in high school. However, it was during this time Layton really got invested in video games, particular NBA 2K8. Although his family had always had video games around the house – he played Rayman, Crash Bandicoot and some Dreamcast titles like the original NBA 2K – NBA 2K8 became part of his daily routine.
“My life literally became ‘you wake up, you go to school, you come home, you do homework, you go to the gym, you come back home, you eat dinner, you shower, and you play video games until you go to bed and you repeat again’,” Layton remembers. “That was my life for the rest of high school.”
Being the ultra-competitive person he was, when he noticed NBA 2K8 had a leaderboard, he became “obsessed” with beating the number one player. Thus began his career in competitive gaming. In 2017, he started the Pro-Am brand “Trust The Process” and was one of few players to qualify for the “Road to the All-Star” competition on NBA 2K17 – among other achievements – on his way to building his name in the NBA 2K community.
Although he was a competitive player, coaching became more of a focus for Layton due to his background as a point guard. He likened his situation to Atlanta Hawks point guard Rajon Rondo’s: he felt like his basketball IQ was higher than most players and wanted to be involved with basketball in some capacity after he hung up his sneakers.
As a result, he began training kids in the Houston area – where he’s from – and eventually began working with the National Basketball Academy sponsored by his hometown team, the Houston Rockets. By working with other coaches who knew the business side, Layton got a taste of what coaching was really like.
Within three years, Layton’s quest was fulfilled when he became the Varsity Coach for Texas private school Faith West Academy’s boys basketball team, where he continues to coach today. While coaching at Faith West Academy, Layton turned his attention to the 2K League.
Layton remembers just how difficult it was to land a coaching position because the NBA 2K League community is so small and said a little luck was involved in his hiring.
“A lot of times in manager and coaches roles, organizations don’t even go the community route,” he said. “They try to keep somebody that’s already within the NBA organization or try to bring somebody that they might know.”
Layton says that though he was already at a disadvantage, he remained determined. He emailed every team that needed a head coach and was denied several times. Nevertheless, Layton was eventually contacted by KGG, who were looking for a change of direction after finishing their inaugural season with one of the worst records in the league.
One of the players on that team was from Houston and someone Layton knew from his days playing competitively. Though it’s not clear if the player let the team know of Layton, he made sure to make himself a valuable commodity during the interview process.
“We had probably three or four interviews,” Layton said. “Within two weeks, I was hired. It was a really quick process, but it was detailed within that process.”
Something that prepared him for the process was his meticulous preparation — he compiled over 10 pages worth of notes on the team and where he wanted to take them moving forward. Layton also says his knowledge of the community helps him because he knows the players better than anyone else since he played against them; therefore, he can determine if a certain player fits into the culture he’s building in Sacramento.
Building a new culture from scratch is never easy. However, because of his experience as a competitive player, Layton says the transition from player to coach was made easier because the players already knew him, albeit from his gaming handle.
“I’m one of you guys, I’m just in a different role than you right now,” he said. Layton says he related to the players more easily because he understood the grind of the game, playing into the early morning in order to get better and playing different tournaments and Pro-Am leagues with or against them.
As a result, Layton and General Manager Ian Wheat generally have an idea of which players to draft, which to retain or trade for and so on. Mainly, the duo are looking for players who are not only good, but also have people and life skills. More than anything, he’s looking for players based on their specialty and how well they can play their role.
With this in mind, Layton has helped KGG improve exponentially since taking the helm. In his two seasons, he has compiled a 21-11 record, reaching the playoffs both times. As his team continues to build chemistry, Layton feels the team has a “really good balance” to finally win a championship, especially since that’s his number one goal right now.
“You’re not just going to win a championship overnight. It’s going to take a lot of wins, a lot of losses, a lot of arguments, a lot of late nights, a lot of disagreements,” he said. “It’s just up to me and the guys to buy in and for me to lead these guys and I think we’ll be OK.”
We at Stropse wish Coach Layton nothing but the best in his future endeavors and can’t wait to see how Kings Guard Gaming fares this upcoming season in their quest for the ever-elusive championship.