Hoops Springs Eternal
How a video game brought about an NBA revolution
Top young players in basketball, stood out in the cramped, humid room in midtown Manhattan. It wasn’t just his 6-feet-8 inch height; Tatum, along with several other NBA stars—including C.J. Mccollum of the Portland Trail Blazers and Brooklyn Nets guard D’angelo Russell—was moving through a crowd of fanatic basketball fans, relatively unbothered, as if they were soccer players.
It was disconcerting but easily explained. The event wasn’t about the actual game of basketball, it was about its virtual counterpart, NBA 2K. Booze flowed from a bar in the back, and TVS lined the room’s length, momentary distractions for a crowd waiting for the chance to man the joysticks. And the gamers, here to test the latest iteration, 2K18, were too focused on describing its new features, beat by beat, to millions of the video game’s followers, who were watching via live streaming.
Forget that stereotype of gamers as pimply basement-dwellers. These were assured, relentlessly cheery young men, social media stars with followers numbering in the hundreds of thousands. One of them, 23-year-old Artreyo Boyd (aka Dimez)— one of the best 2K players in the world—recently helped his team win $250,000 in a tournament. (Gamers are organized into teams of five people who each control a virtual player.) When Dimez describes the tournament, he’ sounds like a pro athlete doing a postgame TV interview: “I took a lot of losses,” he says earnestly. “But ultimately, that made me better. In order to get to where I’m at now, you have to play the better people.”
Dimez, who loves the NBA (especially the Cleveland Cavaliers), is now set to play in the NBA’S esports league, in which actual NBA franchises choose gamers to represent them in a virtual season running concurrently with the real one. Dimez knows he will never play in the league, but he’s come close to that with where he’s a superstar, a virtual Lebron James. Basketball Association. Franchises are worth record amounts, arenas are sold out, and, thanks to its highly desirable audience of young men (the youngest demographic among America’s top four sports), broadcasting rights cost tens of billions of dollars.
It’s also the best time to be a basketball fan. Thanks to 2K, you can essentially play the game like a pro and an owner, even if you’re 5 feet 5 inches and broke. A user can live through a custom-created player’s entire career, for instance, or control every aspect of a team, from free agent signings to trades, city relocation, coaching hires—all the way to the price of virtual tickets. What’s most remarkable, though, is how much users have changed the actual game, creating an astonishing symbiosis between league and fan. At this point, 2K is the most immersive of sports video games, in some cases even training the NBA’S emerging stars.
“I was obsessed with 2K,” says Mccollum. “I basically hooped all day, played the video game all night, then did it all over again.”
The father of De’aaron Fox, drafted fifth overall this year by the Sacramento Kings, has credited 2K with schooling his son in the intricacies of highlevel basketball. “I tell kids if they want to learn something about basketball, go put it on pro mode on 2K and let them play,” Fox told Bleacher Report.
The NBA introduced 2K in 1999 and has sold 70 million units to date. For the generation that grew up with it, the controls (X button to shoot, A to pass, Y to block) are retained in muscle memory. Eighteen years later and gameplay is spectacularly true to live. We’re talking minutiae like a virtual James chewing on his fingernails exactly as the realworld James does. To achieve this, 2K shuttles in the NBA’S top talent and uses motion capture to record everything they do on the court. They then tear into that data, while also studying film of NBA games, to create something that fans obsess over.
Mike Wang, 2K’s director of gameplay, says that the NBA set a precedent for capturing a player’s “signature style” a decade ago and that those are the details gamers pay attention to. “The way an athlete celebrates after a shot, their pregame routines, the way they shoot, the way they dribble—all of those things. If it’s a little bit off, our fans let us know about it.”
“It took until the last five years for the league to get crazy about threes and dunks and nothing else,” which is what gamers had been doing since 2004.
Ronnie Singh, who heads up 2K’s consumer engagement, social media and digital marketing, says, “The NBA itself is doing a really good job at being a 365 league. But the game is right alongside that.”
Such dedication has turned Singh (better known as Ronnie 2K) into a celebrity among the game’s followers. Tall and confident and happy to shake hands, he has gamers pulling him aside on the streets of New York City, and NBA players giving him shit on Twitter if they think their likeness isn’t as good at virtual hoops as they had hoped. And when those players aren’t complaining, they’re gaming. “Video games is what most of the guys do,” says the Celtics’ Tatum, 19, speaking about team downtime.
It’s hard to overstate how dramatically the basic tactics of basketball have shifted since James entered the league in the early 2000s. The NBA of Fox and Tatum has shifted away from inefficient play—think Kobe Bryant taking on three defenders or chucking long two-pointers. Coaches now build their offenses around three-pointers, dunks and layups, and they are shunning behemoth centers for smaller, more versatile players. All that means the pace of play is increasingly up-tempo, and as teams focus on placing shooters along the threepoint line (to pull defenders away from the basket), there’s also more space on the hardwood. Teams like the early-2000s Celtics or mid-2000s Phoenix Suns dabbled in this style, “but the way it’s escalated in the last five is really remarkable,” says Kevin O’connor, The Ringer’s NBA writer.
Gamers were way ahead of that curve. The 2K4 edition, for example, introduced icons that signified strengths; a little “3” just below a player, for example, indicated he could shoot from long distance. It didn’t take long for gamers to realize that having a team with a lot of 3 icons helped you win.
Mitch Goldich, a writer and social media producer at Sports Illustrated, has been playing video games since he was a kid; he had the original 2K on Sega Dreamcast. “It’s amazing to me that it took until the last five to 10 years for the league to get crazy about threes and dunks and nothing else,” which he and other gamers had been favoring for a while. Reality meets video; reality bends.
Another recent NBA tactic is losing with purpose. Beginning in 2013,
LIVIN’ THE GREEN Virtual Jayson Tatum in 2K18, the latest iteration of the NBA game.
JOYSTICK FIGURES Clockwise from top: 76er Markelle Fultz guards Laker Lonzo Ball in 2K18; Singh, far right, with Mccollum, far left, at the 2K18 event; Kyrie Irving on the cover of the game.