Hoops Springs Eter­nal

How a video game brought about an NBA revolution

Newsweek International - - NEWSWEEK - BY TIM MARCIN @Tim­marcin

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.

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