Though I have never been a fan of sports, I have always enjoyed playing video games about them. Sports come with a large amount of down-time and ask that you already understand them before you enjoy them. When it comes to watching and playing, you need to have a lot of previously acquired information to properly appreciate them. As someone who is not particularly invested in learning the history or technique of the actual game, it really isn’t worth the labor. Videogames however, are not about absorbing dense information. Games are more practical and focused the experience of playing. Playing a game is fun. Comparing stats is not as fun (unless you’re one of those people.)
Sports games have always been a part of gaming, going as far back as Pong being a representation of Ping-Pong (because it’s a sport.) Growing up in the 90s and 00s, my first experience with this kind of game was, though I played it on the SNES, the arcade classic NBA JAM. It boiled down the feel of a 2-on-2 game of basketball with style. The twinkling of cameras flashing on dunks was there. The ball catching on fire when you did well was there. These unrealistic but fun things were all coming together to make a game that fully realized in its game identity.
NBA Jam wasn’t a simulation; it took the most exciting things about watching basketball and boiled them down into an easily digested and understood interpretation. With ideas outside of what already existed, it represented the imagination and sense of humor that all of the very best games share. It wasn’t about the rules of basketball; NBA JAM was different in many ways from how an actual game of basketball is played. A simple representation of the sport was not enough, NBA JAM also drew from the humanity and life behind the experience of watching a game.
Fast-forwarding to the present, not much experimentation has happed in the realm of sports. Perhaps this is why so many “hardcore” gamers feel that these games are only played by casual players. The games never change in an environment where merit is earned by novelty. The most popular sports franchises repeat the same formula year after year. Even after the success of the more quirky NBA Street series, the genre has not seen the light. Breaking away from the mold and concentrating on more than the fundamental mechanics of the sport will always result in a more compelling experience.
Enter NBA 2k17, an odd compromise between reality and the fantasy of a game. What can be expected from a contemporary sports game is the sport itself, the players in-game being representative of how they play in reality, and references to things that are happening currently in the sport. These are focuses because these are things sports fans are focused on. 2k17 reaches out the fans of not just the sport but to fans of games as well. It does this with its MYCAREER mode. This and the previous year’s game in the series used a narrative to get their point across. You play as a character you have created and your goal is to be a superstar. It gives you something to invest in and a goal that anyone can appreciate. Growing from novice to master is widely relatable.
This is not a good game by any means. The game is incredibly buggy, clearly rushed, loaded with irritating micro-transactions, and terribly unpolished to the point of almost being broken. However, I find myself playing it because this story that I have invested myself in and the RPG elements provide a feeling of growth. The game rewards successes and is responsive to them with its feedback, shallow and repetitive may it be. It is this responsiveness and willingness to analyze new perspectives regarding the sports genre that is causing an expansion of what basketball is in the context of gaming. Narratives in sports games are growing in popularity and this represents a change for the better. It represents a step away from the simulation and toward the whimsical exaggerations of a game like NBA JAM. Sports fans deserve to play the simulations they enjoy but even they should be able to enjoy the fun of playing a fun game.