A golden ticket is a fleeting thing.
THE TICKET, an end-of-season play-in tournament unique to the NBA 2K League, is a golden chance for a team to make its way to the NBA 2K League Playoffs. THE TICKET is the tournament of hopes and dreams
First-year head coach Mike Newton, who is also part of the Santa Cruz Warriors coaching staff, led Warriors Gaming Squad to a franchise-best 13-3 regular season record and a 2020 NBA 2K League Playoff berth. While he’ll watch THE TICKET from the sidelines—playoff teams need not compete this year—he’s excited by the tournament’s uniqueness and its playoff implications.
“I love the play-in tournament,” Newton enthused. “The team that wins THE TICKET will be hot and full of confidence. It could possibly be a team, like 76ers GC or Blazer5 Gaming, that hasn’t had a traditionally great year, but snuck in and got hot at the right time. That team could possibly make a lot of noise [in the playoffs] and make things interesting.”
“THE TICKET is the most difficult banner to win of all three,” said Tommy Abdenour, who coached Warriors Gaming squad from 2018 to 2019. “The chaos, the automatic playoff berth, plus [in 2018 and 2019] the addition of the highest purse of the tournaments. The stakes are just higher.”
In 2018, the inaugural THE TICKET tournament featured one play-in game before conventional 16-team bracket play. Warriors Gaming Squad lost to Kings Guard Gaming in the play-in game, and Kings Guard subsequently upset top-seeded Blazer5 Gaming in the first round.
The loss to Kings Guard Gaming was a reminder for Abdenour, now a coach at Lindenwood University, of just how important the tournament was. “The hardest part about losing in the Ticket, especially in the previous format, was knowing that our season was done. We had no chance of playing in the postseason.”
THE TICKET in 2019 was a different story. Warriors Gaming Squad had already won THE TURN Tournament earlier in the season, and, just like THE TURN, Warriors Gaming Squad rode hot shooting and staunch defense through the tournament. Every game was a close one, with Bsmoove hitting a buzzer-beater to defeat Raptors Uprising GC and leading WGS past Magic Gaming in a two-point semifinal win.
“One thing about tournaments, is the further you advance, the better you are playing. You’re in a groove, but so is everyone else,” Abdenour said. “We were in a good groove offensively and defensively from how we played the whole tournament.”
In the finals, WGS held Pacers Gaming and star big man Ramo—against whom WGS has played more tournament games than any other player—in check to cap off the tournament with a 59-49 win. Warriors Gaming Squad became the first team to win two tournaments in a single season and claimed the first golden ticket for the Dubs.
“It was a fun experience and a very memorable one,” recalled Bsmoove, who was named tournament MVP. Along with two-year center Type, Bsmoove was one of only two WGS players to go from play-in game elimination in 2018 to play-in tournament glory in 2019. “With my play last year and getting THE TICKET MVP, it just felt good to prove myself and show that I wasn’t kept here for no reason.”
Another player on that Pacers Gaming finals team? Matty, whom WGS drafted in 2020 and who has turned into a key starter on the 2020 playoff team.
“It’s pretty crazy to think about,” the former college point guard said. “Now we talk about all the games we played against each other from last season. I’d always respected the players here on WGS and it was somewhere I really could have seen myself as a 6th man. It’s still surreal.”
Pacers Gaming used its momentum from THE TICKET to propel itself into the 2019 playoffs. The 2018 tournament winners, Knicks Gaming, famously upset Blazer5 Gaming in the first round before winning the league’s inaugural title. The 2019 THE TICKET winners also pulled off the first-round upset of Blazer5 but fell short to eventual champions T-Wolves Gaming, who won its final seven regular season games and was easily the hottest team in the league by the end of the regular season.
With Matty in the lineup, Warriors Gaming Squad won its final seven regular season games. The former Pacer knows how important late-season momentum can be.
“I feel like our last two champions prove that it’s not about how you start in this league but how you finish,” he said. “The Knicks won THE TICKET and rode that momentum, and the T-Wolves were the hottest team by far going into last year’s playoffs. Hopefully our regular season momentum carries into the playoffs even though we haven’t had the tournament success we’ve wanted this season.”
Even with the late-season surge, Newton is glad to have a tournament-tested roster for the playoffs.
“It’s definitely good having a veteran group,” Newton said. “They’ve been there before and my team in particular knows what it takes to win. It’ll be very interesting and I’m just looking forward to hopefully making a run in the playoffs.”
THE TICKET Tournament has a new format in 2020. The prize pool is gone, but the stakes are just as high. The tournament now takes place after the regular season, and with nine of 10 playoff spots already locked up, urgency is at an all-time high. Teams now compete for a chance to play the No. 10 seed for a playoff berth, whereas in past seasons the winner of THE TICKET was usually the first team to officially clinch a playoff spot.
“The new format is good,” Bsmoove opined. “It isn’t really a bailout, and I do like how the 10 seed has a spot in the finals to play the winner of THE TICKET. You really have to earn that spot.”
Others are more cautious. “I’m a really big fan of the fact that all the non-playoff teams have a chance to make the playoffs by way of THE TICKET,” Matty said. “However, I’m not sure how to feel about the 10th seed getting an automatic bid to the finals.”
Whatever the format, THE TICKET is one of the most exciting weeks on the NBA 2K League calendar. The tournament offers immediate redemption in-season or a reversal of fortune in just a year, as Warriors Gaming Squad showed by going from early elimination in 2018 to tournament champions in 2019.
With playoffs, hopes, and dreams on the line, we’ll see which team follows in WGS’s footsteps this season to claim the elusive golden ticket.