Like many people were last Wednesday night, Malcolm Miller was relaxing at home.
The 27-year-old Toronto Raptors guard was watching an old episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, scrolling through Twitter. Then he saw the news.
“I was just flipping through Twitter and I saw it and I was like, ‘Wow! We’re going on a hiatus,’” Miller said in a telephone interview.
Miller was shocked at the turn of events and — like a lot of people — seeing the NBA decide it would suspend its season amplified just how severe the COVID-19 pandemic really was.
And for Miller, perhaps it was doubly so because of the Western Conference road trip the Raptors had just been on. That trip included two stops in the state of California (where confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus had already been reported) and, of course, a game in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz and the NBA’s first two confirmed players to contract the virus, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.
“We were in San Francisco, we were in a couple of places that had a confirmed case. It was like, ‘Be careful. Make sure you wash your hands’ and everything, but when we got home and realized we had been around and had been in contact with some people who had tested positive, it made the situation a lot more real and a lot more tangible to everybody,” Miller said.
Because of this close contact, Miller and the rest of the Raptors were tested for COVID-19. These results came back negative but, in accordance with the advice of leading health professionals, the team issued a mandate for all members to self-isolate.
This directive came as a big eye-opener for Miller as well.
“There was a little bit of fear at first but after educating ourselves on it, realizing our part to play in it and how self-isolation will not only help ourselves but help those that might have worse symptoms than us or might be affected in worse ways than us it really became something real and we realized it was everybody’s responsibility as a society,” he said.
It also came with the revelation that Miller was going to have a lot of free time on his hands now just chilling at home.
Thankfully for him, while basketball is a huge part of his life, it isn’t the only aspect of it. Since undertaking self-isolation, Miller is using his free time to read up on cryptocurrency, finally get around to learning how to play that piano he got for Christmas and workout at home.
But as the self-proclaimed biggest gamer on the Raptors, Miller — like many other athletes stuck at home without much else to do — is also spending a noteworthy amount of time playing video games, turning to his No. 1 hobby to help pass the time.
Miller decided to do more than just play, though. With the recent release of Call of Duty: Warzone – the latest entrant in the ultra-popular Call of Duty first-person shooter franchise that combines classic Call of Duty trappings with the equally-as-popular battle royale game type that games like Fortnite and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds popularized – Miller, a Call of Duty series veteran dating back to 2005’s Call of Duty 2, decided to dive right in and start streaming on his Twitch account “spida1313”.
“It’s a pretty good game and it’s fun,” Miller said. “You can get lost playing it for hours.”
Miller is among many athletes who stream themselves playing games on Twitch. Others include Karl-Anthony Towns from the Minnesota Timberwolves, De’Aaron Fox from the Sacramento Kings, JuJu Smith-Schuster of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, former UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway and many, many more.
“Most of the guys that have been streaming have been doing it for a while now,” said Miller. “But now that there’s no basketball around it’s a way for fans to get in contact with the people that they like a lot.
“They’re able to see them competing in some kind of different fashion, and I would see it taking off depending on how long this hiatus is and how things go from here. There’s a lot of question marks with a lot of moving pieces, but this is kind of a fun thing to keep things lighthearted.”
Whether or not that situation develops — and if other athletes take their gaming time as serious as Miller appears to — Miller’s approach to taking gaming seriously is unique.
Recently, he reached out to the Toronto Ultra, Toronto’s pro Call of Duty esports team, to see if he could get any games in with any of their members.
The Ultra, and Toronto native Mehran “Mayhem” Anjomshoa in particular, were more than willing to oblige.
“I just saw his tweet and because I’m a huge basketball fan I immediately DM’d him and asked if he wanted to play,” Mayhem said over the phone.
If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.
The Ultra play in the Call of Duty League, a professional Esports league that launched in late January. Like the Overwatch League, the Call of Duty League features a number of city-based teams and was slated to travel around to all the various host cities on tour.
Like every other professional sporting event on the planet, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the Call of Duty League’s original plan to tour, including a June 27-28 weekend date in Toronto. As a result, matches will have to be played online moving forward.
This is a setup that isn’t ideal – playing online means running the risk of playing matches with bad lag, Anjomshoa said – but it’s better than the alternative of not being able to play at all. Still, given the level Mayhem plays at, even slightest amount lag could be mean a match won or lost.
“If you have higher latency the worse the gameplay feels when you’re playing and it’s way different from what you see on your screen and what the other team is seeing if they have a better ping,” Anjomshoa said.
This is a level of player virtually no one who plays Call of Duty can even fathom, but Miller experienced it firsthand when he got his chance to play with Anjomshoa.
“It’s next level,” Miller said of Mayhem’s skills. “They’re pros for a reason. I feel like I’m a pretty good player, but there’s levels to it.”
Adding about the seriousness of pro Esports competition: “If anybody was taking it lightly it’s definitely not something that another person should take lightly,”
But as impressed as Miller was at Mayhem’s ability, the same could be said of Mayhem of Miller.
“Honestly, he’s not that bad,” said Mayhem . “When he plays he’s actually pretty good. I’m not gonna lie.”
Perhaps an alternative career path for Miller to pursue should basketball remain on pause even longer than expected?
These are extraordinary times we’re living in right now and while video games certainly aren’t the most important-sounding of activities, they can provide a needed mental respite from the insanity that is our collective reality.
So, take it from Miller and find something that can help you relax while we all do our part to fight off this virus by staying home and keeping our hands nice and clean.
“Just kick back, relax a little bit, take it a step at a time and then once you get all the facts, once you get all the information and you understand, the fear will subside,” Miller said.