Chris Cantrell’s love for playing began with innocent card games with his sister, Catelyn.
Simple Pokemon battles soon turned to intense Madden competitions with his friends, and Chris became absorbed with a passion for playing sports.
It wasn’t dressing in the football gear or kicking a ball into a net that drew his interest. It was perching in front of his bedroom TV and immersing himself in the virtual world of sports.
He’d come home from high school in Jacksonville and rush straight to his television, where he’d stay for six-to-eight hours playing video games.
His PlayStation and controller became his football and basketball gear. And after years of developing his craft, Chris found himself climbing the ladder in the professional gaming community rung by rung.
NBA 2K was Chris’ sport of choice, though he had little knowledge of basketball before then.
He’d become acclimated with the esports world from watching popular organizations like FaZe Clan and OpTic Gaming battle in Call of Duty Tournaments.
“I was like, ‘Dude, these guys are playing video games for a living,’” he said. “At the time, I was like, ‘That’s not gonna be me.’”
Chris (gamertag “KontruL” when playing NBA 2K) got into the competitive scene in 2016 when he qualified for a $250,000 tournament called “The Road to Finals.”
He didn’t win the tournament, but at that point, he realized the magnitude of the gaming world, and that it was something he could seriously compete in.
“I realized like, I’m pretty good at the game,” Chris said, “but I still didn’t think there would ever be a league or anything like they got now.”
His career began to take off after that. He continued to put hours into the game and started winning tournaments.
In 2018, he got the chance to travel to New York City to take part in the inaugural NBA 2K League Draft.
He had been on a plane just once in his life when he moved from Hawaii, where his dad, Tim, was stationed in the Navy, to Jacksonville as a 3-year-old.
He now found himself alone and heading to a new city, only bringing with him a love for gaming and hope for an opportunity to propel his career.
On the night of the draft, Chris sat nervously in his black-cushioned seat in the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, waiting for his name and photo to flash across the jumbo screen.
He expected to go late in the first round or the second round, so when managing director of the NBA 2K League Brendan Donohue called his name, announcing he’d been picked eighth overall by Magic Gaming, everything about the gaming world that once seemed like a dream became a reality.
“I thought about all the time I put into the game,” Chris said. “I realized it actually is paying off now. That there is actually a career path for putting in hours for videos games. It’s not just pointless playing just for casual fun. It’s more than that now.”
Chris played six-to-eight hours a day in preparation for his first season as a professional gamer.
He lived with two of his teammates in a three-bedroom apartment in Orlando, Florida. They trained and traveled to their events together.
Once the season started, their competitions took place weekly in New York from May to August of 2017. They were, on average, attended by about 200 people while simultaneously being watched by thousands more at home on the Twitch streaming service.
He averaged 14.4 points per game in his first season with Magic Gaming, and the team went 8-6.
One of his favorite memories from the season was sitting courtside at the final Orlando Magic home game of the 2017-18 season.
He met some of the players, including rookie center Mo Bamba, and couldn’t believe how far video games had taken him.
“I didn’t realize how tall they were. (Bamba) towered over me, ” Cantrell said laughing. “But he was so down to earth. It was just so fun talking to him and meeting him.”
The NBA 2K League added four more teams during the summer of 2018, and Chris was selected by Lakers Gaming with the fifth-overall pick in the September expansion draft.
With the excitement of joining a new team came the startling realization that he’d have to leave his family and the comfort of Florida to move across the country for the upcoming season.
But Chris remained optimistic, understanding that he had the chance to join one of the biggest brands in sports.
“Los Angeles, there’s so much to do there,” he said, “and there’s a lot of opportunity there, so I was super excited when I saw that I was picked to LA.”
And as a journalism major at the University of Florida who is graduating in December, Chris has to find a balance between his gaming and school schedule. He takes three online classes and does his work late into the night after practice.
The new season starts on April 4 in THE TIPOFF Tournament at 9 p.m. against the Celtics Crossover Gaming, and he said he knows his team will be a playoff contender.
But for Chris, this is still just the beginning of the journey.
He expects that in five years, gaming will be one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. Esports has already drawn the interest of younger generations, and if Chris has anything to do with it, the gaming world will change the way people look at sports.
“I just want to be involved with the league as long as I can,” he said. “I want to see it grow. Whatever position I am with the league, I just want to be involved for as long as possible. I just want to see it grow.”
Follow Alanis Thames on Twitter @alanisthames and contact her at [email protected].
Follow Dylan Rudolph on Twitter @dyrudolph and contact him at [email protected].
Correction: March 29
A correction was made to a previous version of this story that said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called Chris' name at the NBA Draft. Managing Director of the NBA 2K League, Brendan Donohue called his name.