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.
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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.
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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.
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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.”