As someone who came to serious basketball interest via video games, I’m constantly fascinated with the way the sport gets translated into digital form. I’m old enough to have played One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird on my family’s Tandy 1000. (Just look at those ball physics!) In my time, I definitely broke a couple backboards; I loved making the janitor come out to clean up the shards.
If video game basketball has promised one thing over the years, it’s dunking. Far and away, dunking is the basketball related skill that the majority lust for and the minority can accomplish—and that’s not a “White Men Can’t Jump” joke. And since 2K Sports started including signature animations, wish fulfillment has only gotten better in that department. Now you not only get to customize a player’s shot and free throw routine, but you can gift him with a suite of specifically chosen windmills and reverses. The result? Players that feel unique, special, sometimes superhuman for their ability to throw it down with reckless abandon.
So people want to dunk and video games have excelled at giving them the tools. But why? The answer is plain enough: even as they’ve grown increasingly realistic, what video games have always done tremendously well is empowering the player to accomplish things he or she is manifestly incapable of doing in the physical world. Since Super Mario Brothers, much of video game action has been defined by superhuman jumping ability and a slam dunk in a real live NBA game is maybe the closest we get to witnessing those kind of ups. When you’re playing as the Heat and you slam it down on the break with LeBron James you get that little jolt, a little bite-size morsel of what you feel when you see him do it for real but instead it’s you doing it. That’s just good fun.
And yet. This year’s iteration of the franchise disappoints in a very specific way: it’s harder to simulate being Ricky Rubio than LeBron James. After two years of waiting for little Ricky to be rendered in polygons by 2K Sports, he’s finally here, even if he’s a little short on facial hair. Firing up the game for the first time, Rubio fans might be disappointed by his 67 overall rating, but with a couple of tweaks it’s easy enough to give him that 99 pass rating you think he deserves—at least it feels that way. So then you take him out on the court to see what he can do.
And? He can’t really do the things he does in real life, no matter how hard you try. The language of having an intuitive, three-steps-ahead passing game simply doesn’t exist in NBA2K12. For years, basketball video games have focused on making great shooters be able to hit shots against all manner of defense, on making bulldozers like James run faster and jump higher and dunk with more success than the competition. But they haven’t focused on what makes a talent like Rubio (or Steve Nash, for that matter) special. Sure, every now and then they’ll throw a behind-the-back or no-look pass, but there’s really no mechanism in place for determining when that happens that the player can control. For years, you’ve been able to determine whether a player goes for a reverse dunk or a flashy dunk or a power dunk, but there’s no separate button for bounce pass or bullet pass.
Even if there were, our ability to use them in the game wouldn’t rely on the game allowing us to overcome our physical limitations—as it does with James or Jordan—but rather on gifting us with the ability to overcome our own limited understanding of basketball mechanics. It’s a mental limitation, a vision limitation. We can’t see the possibilities in front of us, even in a video game, the way that Rubio or Nash sees them on the floor. In a way, Nash and Rubio (and Magic before them) look more like a video game playing the actual game than they look in the video game itself.
This is where the notion of simulation becomes interesting and multivalent. Is a sports video game supposed to be simulating the reality of the sport or our perceived reality of the sport? And is that perception filtered through the experience of the audience or of the players? It seems that what sports video games have increasingly done is try to simulate the felt truth of the sport as perceived by the audience. This is why it’s absurdly difficult to simulate the way the game works for a visionary passer without resorting to some sort of time-slowing, Matrix-esque superhero stuff. And if 2K did resort to that, there would undoubtedly be an uproar from simulation fans.
But what athlete hasn’t talked about the feeling that time slows down when the pressure’s on? In that sense, the truest simulation would distill the reality of basketball as perceived by the player and only then would they be taking steps to simulate not just the physical prowess it takes to be like Mike, but the mental prowess it takes to be like Ricky.