NBA 2K16 and the case for sports stories
I’m going to start out by saying that I can’t stand basketball. It’s my least favorite of all the major sports, and I like it less than a lot of minor sports too. With that said, I absolutely cannot wait for NBA 2K16, because NBA 2K has an element of sports games that others seem to be missing.
The Video Game Experience
Video games in general are about letting you live vicariously. In the same way we read books or watch movies to take us into a different world, video games allow us to do that to an even greater extent. So, while sports will always be about winning, the development of sports entertainment in real life has turned sports into more than just the game.
The Athlete Experience
This is what NBA 2K understands with its MyCareer mode: the athlete experience is about more than just playing and winning. For fans of beleaguered franchises, sports games have always been the one place where the Browns could win the Super Bowl, or the Pirates the World Series. Yet who among us hasn’t dreamed of not only taking our favorite team to the promised land, but being “the guy” who comes in and saves the franchise? This is an element most sports games lack. Sure, you can create a player, controlling only him, but for the most part, within the world of the game, you don’t exist in any further context. You can pretend that you’re “the guy,” but the game’s not going to acknowledge it.
Sports journalism has exploded in the last decade, to the point where everything from scouting combines, to drafts, to dumb tweets are news. There will be reports on which athlete signed with which sponsor. It's not hard to find out who's dating who or what club they went to last night. Fame has always been part of being an athlete, but now it's inseparable. You'll be remembered for what you did off the field as much as what you did on it.
What NBA 2K has done is acknowledge that filling the virtual shoes of an athlete includes these elements as well. No real athlete’s life exists in a vacuum anymore, as your relationships with your teammates, off-field decisions, personal beliefs, and general rumors about you all a part of the sports media news cycle. Players become as known for their personalities as they do for their athletic accomplishments. When you play MyCareer, you get a taste of this. Teammates give you guidance, coaches yell at you, your agent is eccentric, the media asks dumb questions, and you get shoe deals, much like athletes in real life.
The Whole Package
I won’t pretend that studios should drop everything and put their effort into this. Online gameplay has become the bread-and-butter of sports games, because, after all, it’s still first and foremost about winning. Beating the CPU is only so fun for so long. Bragging rights will always be a part of winning, and owning those rights over your friends is way sweet.
That doesn’t mean the single-player experience can’t also be great. Creating an environment in which an individual thrives, and is acknowledged for thriving, goes a long way toward fleshing out the game. Being in the green room on draft day, interacting with teammates, getting that contract - they all make playing more fun.
By hiring Spike Lee to direct MyCareer, 2K has shown its dedication to providing the player with as in-depth a career mode as possible. The biggest challenge is creating a world you exist in without dictating your moves. It's still about giving you control, but it's also about acknowledging that you're only a part of the world you play in. NBA 2K has given no indications that this is too tall of a task, if previous iterations are any indication.
Follow 2K's Example
Being a superstar athlete is about more than just playing the sport, and since a statistically insignificant number of us will ever be able to live out that fantasy, a video game that lets us experience something similar is the next best thing. 2K gives you this opportunity. It's time for other sports games to step up.
NBA 2K16 comes out September 29th.