AS Kai Sotto goes deep in training to become the first homegrown Filipino to make it to the NBA, another Pinoy is already a step closer to achieving the momentous feat – in the video gaming world.
Rial Polog Jr. was the only Filipino to become eligible to join the NBA 2K League draft last March in Brooklyn, just falling short of officially making it as only 76 players were drafted among 198 aspirants vying for spots on 21 teams in Season 2.
But Polog considers the chance of getting drafted in the premier professional 2K league in the world an achievement in itself.
“Honored pa rin ako na maging first Filipino,” said the Quezon City native, who watched the draft on livestream from the Philippines. “Hindi tayo mag-i-i-stop. Hopefully next year, may ma-da-draft ng Pinoy.”
“Yun yung the best, kasi US, tsaka NBA na mismo ang nagpaliga,” he added, referring to the NBA 2K League, which is a best of its kind. “Parang tayong mga Pinoy, ‘di ba? Wala pang nakakapasok ng NBA. Hopefully, si Kai Sotto.”
Before the 29-year-old Polog became good enough to represent the country in the top gaming league for ballers in the world, he was a regular kid who loves to play NBA on a gaming console as a pastime, starting with NBA Live in the early 2000s when he was still in elementary.
He eventually shifted to NBA 2K and started to play competitively in 2013, joining his first tournament at a PlayStation 4 shop along Taft Ave., Manila on the prodding of his big brother who saw his potential at a young age.
Polog may have lost in his first foray, but reaching the semifinal round on his first try convinced him that he has a future in competitive Esports.
Just a month later, he returned to play in the same tournament and won it, pocketing the P10,000 prize.
He put himself on the international map in 2016, ruling the first NBA 2K Asia tournament in Taiwan after winning the Philippine qualifiers along with another Filipino against around 1,000 participants.
Playing under the PlayBook banner, Polog’s teammates won the 2017 and 2018 editions, before he regained the NBA 2K Asia crown this year to become the first two-time champion of the tournament, taking home the $6,000 (around P315,000) prize.
Then he joined the NBA 2K League qualifiers in Hong Kong where he was among the six Asians who qualified and became eligible for the draft.
Like NBA rookie hopefuls in pre-draft camps, Polog sat for four NBA 2K teams interviews via Skype with potential clubs.
Despite getting left out in the pool, Polog remains confident and hopeful that he – and other Filipino gamers – will eventually make it to the NBA 2K League.
He still has to go through the tryout process in the APAC Invitationals to become eligible again for next year’s draft.
If drafted next season, Polog, a dad to a boy turning two this year, would have to leave his family and work for half a year as the NBA 2K season runs for six months that could potentially earn for him a $35,000 salary for the duration of the contract.
He won’t think twice of doing so.
“Dun ako maninirahan. Pwede na rin,” Polog said, referring to the salary of roughly P1.8 million. “Kasi malaking opportunity na yun pag na-draft ka. Hindi lang salary makukuha mo – may benefits, tapos yung endorsements siguro, tapos pag balik mo sa Pinas, pwede kang makilala.”
“Siguro next season, mag-gra-grind lang din talaga ako ulit, kasi alam ko may potential tayong mga Pinoy,” he added. “Magka-level lang tayo feeling ko – hindi sa pagmamayabang. May laban tayo dun.”
Grinding out, though, doesn’t mean he plays 24/7.
A graduate of BS Information Technology from STI Dasmarinas, Cavite, Polog actually has been working as an IT specialist for a government agency in Quezon City for five years now.
When he gets home, he starts NBA 2K practice at 7 p.m. and ends usually at midnight, sometimes until 1 a.m.
“Bina-balance ko rin,” Polog stressed. “After work, diretso sa bahay. Pagka-bihis, laro na agad. Ganun talaga ka-dedicated sa paglaro. May discipline din naman.”
Polog — who plays two different modes: quick game for NBA 2K Asia Tournaments, and MyTEAM for NBA 2K League — usually taps the Golden State Warriors, the top-rated squad in the game, as his go-to team. When his opponent picks the Warriors first, he will counter by choosing his favorite team and player – the Oklahoma City Thunder and Russell Westbrook.
NBA 2K tournaments don’t allow “mirror matches” so two gamers can’t choose the same team. A toss coin determines who gets first pick.
“Syempre pag mga competitive tournaments, malakas Golden State eh, so yun talaga yung first team ko, kumbaga pang-harang mo sa mga malakas na teammates ko,” Polog explained. “Haharangan ko sila ng Golden State ko. Kasi alam ko yun din ang first team nila eh, kumbaga pautakan lang din sa 2K.”
Polog keeps opponents guessing by having an all-around game, turning to Kevin Durant for his drives and shooting, while maximizing Steph Curry’s shooting accuracy.
“Balanse lang din,” he said. “More on drive and kickout. Mahilig din ako sa isolation plays. Minsan five-out, minsan may screens din.”
He added: “Iniiba ko yung flow ng offense ko para unpredictable. Kasi pag one-dimensional ka, ‘di ba – kahit sa real life naman – puro iso[lation], mafi-figure out din ng defense ng kalaban.”
But like in real life, offense only gets you so far.
“Aralin nila yung defense, kasi para sa’kin, defense wins championships talaga,” Polog said, advising players to find out about tips and tricks on YouTube. “Kung beginner ka, aralin mo yung defense at tips ko sa kanila, mag-research sila,”
Once newbies are equipped with the experience and knowledge, Polog believes it’s only a matter of time before Pinoy gamers make it to the NBA 2K League.
“I believe na tayo yung the best sa Asia. Naniniwala din ako na may laban tayo sa ibang bansa like sa America, Europe, or sa Africa.”