Hoops Springs Eternal

How a video game brought about an NBA rev­o­lu­tion

Newsweek - - CONTENTS - BY TIM MARCIN @Tim­marcin

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.

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