Hoops Springs Eternal
How a video game brought about an NBA revolution
Boston celtic jayson tatum, one of the 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 2K, where he’s a superstar, a virtual Lebron James.
it’s a good time to be the national
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.”
LIVIN’ THE GREEN Virtual Jayson Tatum in 2K18, the latest iteration of the NBA game.