Prime time presentation
Like many fathers with an artistically-inclined son, mine made great efforts to transform me into an athlete. He signed me up for a flag football league, in which I barely played. I wasn’t quite fast enough and my hands and brain were not on speaking terms. Besides, the team was terrible enough without me. We didn’t win a single game. I did play a little basketball and even less football in middle school but to be honest, my heart just wasn’t in it by then, not ignoring the fact that I wasn’t terribly good at either.
Failure after failure, sigh after sigh, my father gave up on the idea that I would ever play competitive sports while I built up a deep resentment of them. I spent the better part of my teenage years denying any interest in sports, mocking their frivolity, scoffing at their culture, all the while secretly admiring the athleticism I did not posses. And although I would have rather died than tell my father, I was still watching sports. I finally admitted as much to him no less than a year ago. It was a lovely moment for both of us.
Having grown up with sports as I have, largely from the outside looking in, I have come to appreciate a certain level of showmanship in my sports video games. Stat tracking, audibles, position changes, hot routes and the like are nice, but ultimately mean nothing to me without the proper presentation. In short, I’ll take ESPN broadcast over X’s and O’s.
I realize that this is sacrilege to many hardcore sports gamers. And while I agree that sports games need to strive for authenticity, one must never forget that these things are supposed to be fun. They are, after all, an escape for those of us too awkward, clumsy or misshapen to ever set foot on the collegiate or professional stage. Seriously, if I set my feet and REALLY concentrate I can hit a three-pointer. But just last night I threw in a game winning three over one Mr. Kobe Bryant whilst on the run in NBA 2K11. I was half asleep at the time, enjoying a fine bowl of Limited Edition Thin Mint ice cream from Edy’s.
The key to this lies in the marrying of the spectator and participator experience. Dropping a three over Kobe Bryant is cool in and of itself, but the part that really drives it home is watching your digital self do it. NBA 2K11′s greatest achievements are not in the game play (which is admittedly top-notch), but within its broadcast presentation or, more specifically, the moments when you transform from participant to spectator, then back again. These moments are seamlessly integrated with classic instant replays and great real time cutaways. It may seem silly, but that close up of my player pumping his fist in celebration afterwards really sealed the deal.
2K Sports has really mastered this spectator mentality and all of their games cater to that vicarious experience. Even the fairly weak NHL 2K series manages to get its broadcast qualities right, despite its horrendously clumsy game play. In 2005 2K was already well ahead of EA’s football franchises in the visuals category. In fact, they still are, but EA’s exclusive NFL contract has ended any possibility of real competition and seems to have halted any graphics and presentation progress. They have become fat and lazy, meanwhile NFL 2K5 still manages to be my all-time favorite football game.
In the world of the NBA there isn’t even an argument. NBA 2K11 has all but run EA’s mediocre NBA franchises out of the arena. Its cutaways, replays and fluid, organic player movement are flawless. I mean, these players have weight. There’s no stopping on a dime anymore. Even more impressive are the individual animations, unique to each player. Kobe’s fall-away jump shot is there, Shaq clanks free throws with his near goofy finger tip shooting style and LeBron’s a douche, generally speaking. They really captured his douchery!
Ironically, EA seems to have managed a certain amount of pageantry in a pair of games whose sports are of little to no interest to me: Fight Night (Boxing) and FIFA (ugh, Soccer). FIFA’s smooth animations and roaring stadium settings are pretty killer, unlike the sport, which is nothing short of tedious (bring it, hooligans!). I am incapable of sitting through an entire boxing match (I am not schooled, nor am I interested in being schooled in the sweet science), but Fight Night has some pretty phenomenal graphics and an excellent career mode.
Sony’s MLB The Show franchise has also been a fine addition to the sports arena, approaching baseball, a sport whose broadcasts tend to be less visually showy than most, with more focus on atmospheric presentation. Aside from the pitch perfect (ha!) game play and graphics there is excellent audio commentary, crowd animations and sound.
Sound. Now that brings me back to one of my early childhood sports video game rituals, still practiced today. As far back as I can recall having the option the first thing I would do before firing up a new franchise was crank up the crowd volume and turn down the commentators. Sure, the commentary is part of that broadcast presentation I’ve been touting all this time (I said turn it down, not off) but damned if that crowd noise can’t pump up the competitive spirit like nothing else.
In the end I’m talking about the same thing that makes any video game stand out: Escapism. For a game to truly be immersive it must create a believable, fleshed out universe for you to interact with. Your actions must have consequence. Is it 100% necessary for your exploits to be documented on a faux nba.com site in between games in NBA 2K11? Um, yes. Yes it is. It’s simply another layer of immersion and its fun as hell for the same reason as that fist pump I used to celebrate my schooling of one Mr. Kobe Bryant, mouth full of ice cream.