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This Atlantic City gamer makes a living playing NBA 2K

Overlooking a golf course in Sacramento, California, is a three-story mansion, decked out with a giant pool, hot tubs and massive TVs.

It’s not occupied by a movie star or CEO, but by 25-year-old Atlantic City native Christian Collazo and his five teammates.

Over the summer, Collazo was paid $32,000 to live there and play in the NBA’s first professional esports league as a small forward on the Kings Guard, an offshoot of the Sacramento Kings basketball team.

“It doesn’t feel like work. I’d wake up every day, jump in the pool and go play video games,” said Collazo, a 6-foot-3 college student who plays actual basketball in his spare time.

Collazo was drafted into the NBA 2K league in April following a slew of auditions, interviews and cuts. During the season from May to August, Collazo practiced the game at least six hours a day before flying to New York City on weekends for tournaments.

Inside a Queens studio filled with massive TV screens, blaring announcers would detail each play to thousands of viewers tuned into a weekly online show as camera crews captured the action.

Collazo has even branded himself with a new gamertag, cowboyxcollazo. At matches, he dons a bandanna and black tracksuit with the Kings Guard’s lion logo.

“It’s almost like the real thing,” said Collazo as he stares at a computer monitor Tuesday afternoon. With a look of complete concentration, he quickly taps the controller’s buttons and effortlessly dunks the ball.

The young gamer — who is still getting used to signing autographs — was on an entirely different path just a few years ago.

Growing up on Sovereign Avenue for nine years, Collazo graduated from Absegami High School in 2011 after he moved to Egg Harbor City. Gaming wasn’t part of Collazo’s routine back then. He spent most of his time playing varsity football and basketball.

After graduating, Collazo worked at the former Revel Casino Hotel and Golden Nugget Atlantic City. At 20, he packed up for Orlando and enrolled at the University of Florida with a goal of being a chemist.

But between classes, Collazo played a lot of “NBA 2K.”

“When I was younger, my mom would always say, ‘Hey, stop playing games and do your homework,’” Collazo said. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Earlier this year, Collazo decided to try out online against more than 72,000 people from across the globe for a coveted spot on the NBA’s new esports league.

A few months later, Collazo got a call from a league representative in New York City with good news: He passed two rounds of cuts and was ranked among the top 102 players in the world. Collazo’s chemistry classes took a backseat, and he left school for a semester to focus on his gaming.

“I went nuts,” said Collazo. “The lady couldn’t even talk when she called me.”

Now that the season is over, Collazo is a “free agent” waiting to be drafted for the 2019 season. In the meantime, he is back to his normal life as a student, spending weeknights cramming for organic chemistry exams.

His success in the league comes as Atlantic City looks to position itself as the esports capital of the East Coast. The industry is expected to generate $1.3 billion a year by 2020.

The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which oversees the city’s Tourism District, is working with consulting company INGAME to bring several competitions either to Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall or the Atlantic City Convention Center next year.

Technology company Continent 8 is investing millions to build a 6,000-square-foot data center to supply Atlantic City with the servers and internet connections needed for huge online matches.

The data center, a room inside the convention center, will house power sources and backup generators to ensure competitions run smoothly, said Barbara DeMarco, vice president of Porzio Government Affairs, a lobbying firm based in Trenton.

“Having the infrastructure is really the first step to bringing esports to Atlantic City,” she said. “Everything that comes after is a domino effect.”

Continent 8 recently signed the lease, and the data center is expected to be up and running by the end of March.

For Collazo, who grew up playing “Killer Instinct” on Super Nintendo, the massive projects being dreamed up in Atlantic City are exciting.

Half a mile from his childhood home, Caesars Atlantic City last year hosted the city’s first competitive video gaming event. Harrah’s Resort followed this year with a Rainbow Six Siege Pro League event.

“I’m optimistic about Atlantic City being a big esports market,” Collazo said. “It’s gonna draw eyes big time.”

Scenes from Black Friday: Early risers, giveaways and the final days of Sears

MAYS LANDING — Even though temperatures were below freezing Friday morning, a line of shoppers ready with chairs and blankets stretched outside the Hamilton Mall, waiting for it to open at 6 a.m.

“We’re here for all the different giveaways and the deals at the stores,” said Candice Greenley, of Egg Harbor Township.

As mall security opened the doors, shoppers scattered either to the customer service desk, where they were offered coupons and giveaways, or to their destination stores.

However, their steps lacked the same energy seen in years past.

The reason, some suspect, is the convenience of online shopping.

Joe Beach and his daughter Brittany Beach-Gandy, of Vineland, said they have noticed a drop in shoppers over the past 10 years that they’ve awakened early to go Black Friday shopping.

“I think every year it’s less and less people because people buy online,” Beach-Gandy said. “I think they have to give away stuff to get people in.”

The holiday shopping season presents a big test for the U.S. economy, whose overall growth so far this year has relied on a burst of consumer spending. Americans upped their spending during the first half of 2018 at the strongest pace in four years, yet retail sales gains have tapered off recently and the pace of homebuying has fallen.

Sales totals over the next month will be a good indicator as to whether consumers simply paused to catch their breath or if they feel slightly less optimistic about the economy heading into 2019.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, expects holiday retail sales in November and December — excluding automobiles, gasoline and restaurants — to increase as much as 4.8 percent over 2017 for a total of $720.89 billion. That growth would mark a slowdown from last year’s 5.3 percent, which was the largest gain since 2010. But the figure is still healthy.

The retail economy also is tilting steeply toward online shopping. Over the past 12 months, purchases at nonstore retailers such as Amazon have jumped 12.1 percent.

Meanwhile, sales at traditional department stores have slumped 0.3 percent. Adobe Analytics, which tracks online retail spending, reported Thursday that Thanksgiving should reach a record $3.7 billion in online retail sales, up 29 percent from the same year-ago period.

A holiday tradition

Wearing a Santa hat and circular sunglasses with bright red lenses, Nadina Fornia, of Egg Harbor City, said she hasn’t missed a Black Friday shopping trip since she started the tradition almost 30 years ago.

Fornia said she noticed fewer people than she’s seen over the past two decades but blamed the cold for keeping shoppers away.

“Cyber Monday is maybe a little better because you can have the warmth of your home and do it, but (for) other little things, it’s just easier to come to the mall and buy it yourself,” she said.

Nearby at the Best Buy in the Consumer Square shopping plaza, Janelle and Eric Thars, of Galloway Township, attended the store’s morning opening but left empty-handed. They said they got to see the store’s deals but planned to shop online instead.

Best Buy attempted to curb the at-home shopping trend with in-store incentives.

“The deal was only for this morning,” said Sophia Johnson, of Absecon, who was first in line to pick up the advertised $250 Smart TV doorbuster. Ten minutes after the store opened, Johnson and her husband were out the door, TV in cart.

Adobe Analytics predicts Cyber Monday will remain the overall revenue leader for Thanksgiving weekend with both the highest predicted revenue of $7.8 billion and the fastest growth at a rate of 17.6 percent.

Mariah Chapman, 20, of Linwood, went Black Friday shopping for the first time with her friends. They grabbed coffee beforehand and sat in patio chairs outside the mall entrance.

But Chapman, 20, said she had higher expectations for the experience.

“I thought it’d be, like, more people,” she said.

Crystal Rodriguez, manager of marketing at the mall, said this year’s turnout met the mall’s expectations. Within an hour, 200 people had entered the mall’s $2,000 mystery giveaway.

Sears, which plans to close for good Sunday, still had some shoppers strolling through after its 7 a.m. opening looking to take advantage of the store’s heavily discounted items.

“It’s kinda sad,” said 16-year-old Julia Bannan, of Egg Harbor Township. “It was like the first store, and now it’s empty.”

Bannan, who was shopping with her friends and mother, hoped to find a good deal on a sweater but found with the last bits of inventory on sale, there was little left in the massive anchor store.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

PHOTOS from Black Friday in South Jersey

Atlantic City casino profits down after opening of Hard Rock, Ocean Resort

ATLANTIC CITY — The introduction of two new casinos to the resort’s gaming market contributed to a reduction in profits for the city’s gaming industry, according to third-quarter numbers released Friday by the state Division of Gaming Enforcement.

“Industry profits were down in light of the new competition that entered the market,” said James Plousis, chairman of the state Casino Control Commission. “On a positive note, compared to last year, over 6,300 more people were working in the industry, and there were nearly 5,400 more full-time jobs.”

The numbers also reflect an increase in spending at casinos, as net revenue increased nearly 18 percent over the same quarter last year. But with the addtion of two new casinos, and likely increased spending by all properties, profits shrank.

Ocean Resort Casino and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City opened June 27. The additions of the two properties brought the total number of properties in the resort to nine.

Gross operating profits for Atlantic City’s casino industry in the third quarter, which includes July, August and September, were $213.7 million, a decrease of 15.3 percent from the same quarter in 2017, when that figure was $252.3 million.

Gross operating profit reflects earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and other charges, and is a widely accepted measure of profitability in the Atlantic City casino industry.

Tropicana Atlantic City saw the biggest drop in profit, down more than 31 percent to $31.8 million from the same period last year. Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa was down nearly 22 percent to $63.2 million, and Resorts Casino Hotel was down 14.7 percent to $9.2 million. Harrah’s Resort was down 5.6 percent to $35.9 million, and Caesars Atlantic City was down 2.5 percent to $28.7 million.

Among internet-only entitles, Resorts Digital was down 83.3 percent to $2 million, and Caesars Interactive NJ was down 69.4 percent to $1.1 million.

For the first nine months of 2018, gross operating profits were $508.7 million, a 9.3 percent decrease from the $560 million reported for the same period last year.

During the third quarter, the city’s casino industry generated more than $919.9 million in net revenue, compared with nearly $781.2 million during the same period last year.

For the first nine months of 2018, net revenues were $2.2 billion, a 6.4 percent increase from the $2 billion reported for the same period last year.

“Clearly the gaming industry’s growth has been beneficial for Atlantic City, the region and the state,” Plousis said.

The addition of the two new casinos brought more people to the city, according to Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University.

Vehicle counts at the Pleasantville Toll Plaza on the Atlantic City Expressway increased by 6.3 percent, going from 5,472,997 vehicles in 2017 to 5,818,652 in 2018. Passenger counts at Atlantic City International Airport followed a similar trend, showing a 2.8 percent increase in volume for the quarter.

“Sustained growth in the lodging segment demonstrates the resilience of Atlantic City as it continues its transformation from a gaming-centric market to a multifaceted destination resort on the East Coast.” Pandit said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report