Image courtesy of 2K Sports.
Image courtesy of 2K Sports.
For many years there were two NBA video games that battled for supremacy each fall: the NBA 2K series from 2K Sports, and the NBA Live series from EA Sports. Each franchise had fans, but there was no clear winner — no Madden, as it were. This proved healthy: both publishers were driven to innovate in an attempt to capture whatever unclaimed market share existed. The battle came to a head last summer when EA announced a franchise reboot, changing the name of the Live series to NBA Elite and promising entirely new gameplay. To generate buzz, EA released a playable demo of the game that turned out to have a devastating glitch — that is, if you consider a virtual Andrew Bynum turning into Jesus a glitch. Days before NBA Elite 11 was set to hit stores, with millions of copies presumably already printed, boxed, and ready to ship, EA decided the game wasn’t up to snuff and delayed the release, eventually making the rare decision to cancel the game altogether.
EA later announced that Elite wouldn’t be ready for a 2012 release, either. So, with the lockout in full swing,NBA 2K12 found itself released into a different kind of void, one without any other form of NBA basketball.
I suppose it speaks to the nobility of 2K that they didn’t stop tinkering with and trying to improve the game despite facing no competition. Having the newest rosters and lineups is generally one of the driving forces behind sales for new games each season. Of course, because of the NBA Lockout, gamers are resigned to playing with rosters unchanged since the end of the 2011 season. To add value, 2K12 is loaded with legendary former players in a “Greatest” mode, from Dr. J to Bill Russell to Jerry West to Michael Jordan,complete with appropriately lo-fi graphics to match the eras. There’s also a downloadable update coming before the end of the year that includes a cavalcade of stars from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
For NBA fans without their favorite league, NBA 2K12 acts almost as methadone, giving us a fantastical antidote to what we’re jonesing for. And what makes 2K12 exceptional is that actual basketball acumen proves useful. If the offensive player you’re supposed to guard ends up late getting down the floor, the AI usually assigns you to guard whoever is uncovered nearby. This creates mismatches, just like in NBA games, and the computer is smart enough to realize these, isolate against you, and go right at you with a stronger or quicker player. Switching to a zone when you’re having trouble rebounding is actually a useful tactic, as is pushing the tempo against older, slower teams. You don’t need to be Pete Carril or Dr. Jack Ramsay to be good at 2K12, but this is a video game where institutional knowledge of the sport itself is exceedingly helpful.
Most of my own basketball education came from sitting on my couch late at night, tuning into broadcasts, and studying the players weaving up and down the court, watching them alternate between running set plays and taking advantage of whatever else was available. Much like watching sports on TV, playing video games can be an intensely impersonal pursuit. I have spent nearly as much time watching sports over the last decade as I have sitting motionless on that same couch, wirelessly interacting with a shiny black box whirring away on my bookshelf. My wife can’t seem to square adulthood with a love of video games. After all, there is no real reward for becoming good at a video game, other than being able to beat a computer at its own business.
Yet there are still reasons to play. Many people are drawn to video games is for the chance to be judged against a static baseline. Unlike in life, video games have clearly defined rules that do not shift from day to day or person to person. As in movies or novels, games project worlds in which risks are relatively safe. The disappointments are only virtual.
Almost all of my time playing 2K12 has been spent immersed in the “My Player” mode, where I control the career of a single NBA athlete. I created Deion Sanders, a 6-4 pass-first point guard named after my favorite athlete ever. But as a Hawks fan in real life, I found myself delighted when the virtual Bobcats swung a surprising trade to add bench depth and brought in Marvin Williams and Zaza Pachulia. I also felt some degree of culpability when Bobcats coach Paul Silas was fired after a prolonged losing streak. When it comes down to it, I put in a lot of work to be able to know that in the 2014-15 season, Spencer Hawes will finally develop into an All-Star-caliber NBA center as a member of the Charlotte Bobcats. I am essentially playing in an alternate universe.
While we may not have the NBA to tune into right now, NBA 2K12 provides a perfectly acceptable substitute. These painted digital figures generate real emotion, feelings that humans need to experience such as anger and joy. Even though I may be physically immobile, by controlling people who don’t exist, I can feel, however briefly, emotionally alive.