It was a Sunday afternoon in January 2015, and the Miami Heat had just made swift work of the Chicago Bulls in a nationally televised game on ABC. It was an introduction of sorts for Heat center Hassan Whiteside, a mercurial big man whose career was still in its infancy.
Despite being limited to just 25 minutes on the court with an ankle injury, Whiteside dropped 14 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked an absurd 12 shots. It was one of the most impressive triple-doubles in recent memory.
As he strolled over to sideline reporter Heather Cox for a well-deserved postgame interview, Whiteside only had one thing on his mind. When Cox asked the center what inspired his performance, he rambled through a few sports cliches before pausing.
"I'm just really trying to get my 2K rating up," Whiteside said.
Later that night, Whiteside opened Twitter and slid into NBA 2K community manager Chris Manning's DMs. He had one more thing to say.
You see that triple-double? Whiteside wrote. My rating should go up.
Whiteside's comments were a prelude of sorts for the rapidly growing phenomenon of player ratings, the numbers driving the video game industry's most popular NBA franchise. Every NBA athlete's virtual counterpart has a rating, based on myriad individual attributes that dictate how said player performs. For common users of the game and players alike, those digits have become ingrained in NBA culture.
As 2K readies the release of NBA 2K18 in mid-September, the company has been methodically revealing player ratings for some of the biggest names in the sport on Twitter, unveilings that have become as anticipated as who's next to perish on Game of Thrones. As debates over Kevin Durant's being a 96 or Gordon Hayward's earning an 88 fly every which way, it's all still a little surreal to the man behind the calculations.
"I got my degree in middle-childhood education," says Mike Stauffer, NBA 2K's player-ratings guru. "I was a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher. But I was always a passionate sports fan, and I've always been really into statistics. A hobby became a job."
That transition began in an unlikely place: the expiration of the NBA collective bargaining agreement. The NBA lockout ahead of the 2011-12 season not only chopped a handful of games off the regular-season schedule, but it prevented every rookie who was drafted that summer from appearing in NBA 2K.
Frustrated, Stauffer populated each rookie himself, turning his creations into a downloadable roster update available to anyone who played the game. It blew up. Stauffer's rookie class was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, making enough of a splash for 2K to reach out to him and bring him in for an interview. And that was that.
Stauffer, who says he "lived" on Basketball Reference as a base to create the player ratings that made up his own rosters, has been constantly tweaking his secret formula since he arrived at 2K ahead of the release of NBA 2K15.
Pre-Stauffer, 2K used 20 or so individual player attributes to create a player's overall rating. Today, it uses more than 45. Stauffer scours the web for data, from the newly introduced "hustle stats" to all of NBA.com's SportVU data, to better inform his ratings.
He revamped how the game treats "specialists" like Tony Allen and Kyle Korver so that their ratings better reflect the value they bring to their respective teams, even if their numerical stats don't. Manning, 2K's community manager, browses Twitter, interacts on 2K's Reddit and fan sites like Operation Sports and then shares influential gamers' ratings opinions with Stauffer.
It's a fine blend of multiple variables that spits out a single number, and that number becomes king—sometimes to the dismay of its creator.
"It's not like as the ratings guy I say, 'Oh, Kyrie? He'll be a 90,'" Stauffer says. "We rate all the individual attributes, and whatever we put through our formulas that we constantly tweak gives us an overall value. I'm proud of what the results are. I think we get a pretty accurate representation of how good these players are and their different skill sets."
Unfortunately for Stauffer, overall player ratings continue to dwarf the individual attributes that birth them. And as NBA 2K grows in popularity, the responses to the latest ratings reveals have been louder than ever…and they're coming from NBA players themselves.
Irving, 2K18's cover star, appeared in a video a few weeks ago voicing his mild displeasure with his 90 overall rating out of 100. Washington Wizards point guard John Wall took things a step further, tweeting Ronnie2K "u a joke!!" when his 90 rating was finally revealed.
"Everybody has an opinion on ratings, which I love," Manning says. "When Whiteside was on that nationally televised game, that was kind of the moment that 2K ratings accelerated in the eyes of the fans and the players. It's crazy that at times it seems players care more about their 2K rating than how they're performing on the court."
Whiteside is far from the only player to talk shop with Manning in his DMs. One player told Manning he was going to develop a sky-hook so he could get his post-game rating up. Another vowed to shoot over 40 percent from deep to boost his three-point shooting rating, because he wasn't hitting threes as himself in the game. For Stauffer, who sees and hears every opinion, he understands the somewhat thankless position his occupation puts him in.
"I look at it almost like I'm a referee," Stauffer says with a laugh. "No one's going to be like, 'You rated me perfectly!' You don't get that kind of feedback. But you learn a lot. It's been cool to get some perspective from the players on their individual ratings. They all care. But it is hard when some of your favorite players don't love your rating."
Now, with a newly formed Pro Am eLeague sanctioned by the NBA set to debut in the fall, the debate over player ratings will only get more intense. Some of the best NBA 2K players in the world will soon be in front of cameras more than ever before, and their opinions carry weight.
Ask Artreyo Boyd—better known as Dimez and the point guard for team Still Trill, which took home $250,000 after winning an NBA 2K17 Pro Am over All-Star Weekend—for his thoughts on player ratings, and let the pontificating begin.
"The ratings reveal on Twitter is cool," Boyd says, while voicing his anticipation at finding out what LeBron James will be rated in NBA 2K18. "The ratings are mostly accurate, and the game improves every year."
But press Boyd a little further for a deeper opinion on those ratings, and one of the best NBA 2K point guards in the world doesn't hesitate.
"LeBron is rated high, but he need to be better in the game. He's too easy to be guarded," Boyd says. "And as far as constantly underrated? I'd go with Devin Booker."
There are parallels between the growth of Whiteside and NBA 2K since that wintry afternoon in 2015. Though the video game franchise was by no means an unknown, its popularity has skyrocketed through revamped graphics, smoother gameplay and a killer My Player mode. Whiteside has gone from a deer in headlights to one of the NBA's premier big men and something of a social media maven.
As the game that helped both Stauffer and Manning turn their passions into a career continues to blossom, sometimes they like to kick back and take it all in.
"I don't envy the guys that have to do ratings, Mike's team and the developers, because I think it's such a tough thing," Manning says. "But it's always fun when NBA 2K is ingrained in NBA culture, and I think 2K ratings are a big part of that now."
For Stauffer, the ratings grind doesn't stop. Once the rest of the initial player ratings are revealed, he'll get to work on post-release roster updates that will drop throughout the season. He's always building on that formula, poking and prodding it until it comes as close to perfection as possible.
"To me, the process is never-ending," Stauffer says. "But it's crazy to think about the kind of impact that you have when you're working so hard all year to get these ratings as accurate as possible."