After suffering the most devastating loss of his esports career, Ty DeBondt woke up the morning of Jan. 26 a defeated man.
The junior University of Northern Iowa physical education major, who specializes in the video game NBA 2K20, had surpassed about 1 million players in the second annual MyTeam Unlimited Tournament to make it to the top 16. He had a 10-point lead on his semifinal opponent with just minutes left to play. The $250,000 grand prize beckoned.
But then it all fell apart. He was crushed by the loss, which conjured up all the times he’d failed to reach the championships in the four sports he played at East Marshall High School in Le Grand, Iowa.
“I was down,” DeBondt said. “I was so upset. I had trouble sleeping.”
But just over a month later - thanks in no small part to an inspiring text from his brother - DeBondt was back on top, standing on a Los Angeles stage clutching a trophy as confetti fell around him. He was the first winner of the NBA 2K20 Global Championship and the $100,000 grand prize that goes with it.
“I was just like ‘thank God,’” DeBondt said. “There have been so many letdowns, even in high school sports, and that always hung over me. I was like, ‘finally, I was able to get it done.’”
He recalled the Jan. 26 text from his older brother Nate, his biggest supporter and one of the main reasons Ty was pursuing competitive esports. It had simply read: “this next week is going to change your life forever.” For DeBondt, it was a wakeup call.
“Without (the text), I probably would have just laid in bed all day,” said DeBondt, who plans to give his brother some of his prize money. “But I got back up and got on my feet, because I knew if I didn’t get top four at (the regional finals), I wouldn’t have the opportunity (to win the Global Championship) available to me.”
“He was absolutely demoralized after losing,” said his brother Nate DeBondt, 22. “He put in so much time and effort trying to prepare for that moment, so to come up short was crushing for him. But I knew he didn’t have time to mope, and I had to be there to help pick him up. I’ve seen him work so hard, and I just wanted it to pay off for him.”
Becoming a global esports champion while balancing his studies as a physical education major has been hard work. DeBondt spent 4-6 hours a day on the game during the fall semester, memorizing the jump shot releases of different players and perfecting his defensive rotations.
“My friends give me a hard time, but I want to make a career out of it,” DeBondt said. “I practice and try to become as good as I can, and it paid off.”
He hopes to pursue a career in esports but will finish his degree. “If you don’t love what you do, why are you doing it? I love working with kids and I love sports, that’s why I went into physical education. Now with esports, I love competing in NBA2K,” DeBondt said. “If my esports career grows, I’ll go down that route. If it doesn’t, I’ll have physical education, another thing I love to do.”
One of his professors, Fabio Fontana, department head and associate professor in the department of kinesiology, said DeBondt can combine his passions.
“Because he is a physical education major and an NBA2K champion, he could inform children about the fun of video games in ways that many of us cannot, but he can also instruct children and adolescents when to put video games away and play outside,” Fontano said. “We hope his teachings and gaming achievements will be a source of inspiration to younger generations in Iowa.”
Growing up, DeBondt didn’t even know a career in esports was possible, but the sport has grown exponentially. And he is far from the only competitive esports player at UNI.
Four years ago, Panther eSports, a student organization for esports competitors, had less than 20 members. Today, they have more than 300.
“Video games as a whole are becoming a cultural and social norm nowadays,” said Gonzalo Olaguez Duarte, president of Panther eSports. “We want to continue to help students compete in video games they are passionate about.”
The organization hosts game nights in the dorms, finds tournaments for specific competitive games for students and participates in UNI-CON, UNI’s annual gaming conference.
DeBondt is not a member of the group, because he said “NBA 2K” is more of a niche game compared to the more popular esports franchises such as Fortnite, League of Legends and Call of Duty. But Olaguez Duarte said Panther eSports will try to accomodate students that play any game.
And for those looking to seriously pursue esports, DeBondt has some advice.
“There are a lot of people that have given me grief for playing video games and tournaments and saying none of it would be real, and some of them are the ones that congratulated me,” Ty said. “If you have a dream, go chase it, no matter what people say.”