In fabricating a future, NBA 2K14 gets suprisingly real

October 4, 2013

HANDOUT IMAGE: The video game cover for NBA 2K14 - Xbox 360 by 2K Sports. (Image courtesy of 2K Sports)

2K Games, the gamemaker that just released the new NBA 2K14, tries to do more than give players time on the virtual hardwood in its games. The company has worked to capture the personal rivalries and career arcs that keep fans hooked on the game of basketball for decades.

Its games have let players match up legendary teams with players such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, or Magic Johnson. This year, however, developers realized that putting James on the cover posed a tiny plot problem: Because James is still fairly young, it was difficult to build a full storyline around his career so far.

"While he’s been an excellent player, he hasn’t had enough story lines in his past," said Zach Timmerman, the senior gameplay producer at 2K Sports, of James.

Instead, the team stared ahead at the blank pages of James's future and, well, chose their own adventure.

NBA 2K14 features a "Path to Greatness" mode, a plotting path that imagines what could be coming up for cover athlete James, and the rest of the NBA . The mode gives two options: one that keeps James with his current team, the Miami Heat, and one that sees him leave the team, with echoes of his big 2010 "Decision."

With the reins of history off, the 2K team found themselves dreaming up the kinds of scenarios that would be equally at home in some sort of basketball-based soap opera. Superstars retire and return from to the league. Trades blow up the league's current big three's and re-form them in other places.

And rivalries drive the story mode as James faces current superstars such as Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, as well as new, fictional players that stand in for the as-yet unknown young hotshots that are sure to cross James's path as he ages. These include a young player that shows up on James's old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and threatens James's place in the history books.

Dealing with big personalities isn't the only challenge players face. Throughout the game, James's stats drop, to replicate what could happen to him as he ages. And that not only offers video gamers an interesting challenge for gameplay, but also puts them into an interesting emotional mindset -- that of the aging superstar.

Realism may have always been a guiding star for sports games in the past, but somehow by fabricating a future, NBA 2K14 offers a whole different flavor of it. And while it would be good to see future versions of the game give gamers the opportunity to go a little bit more off the carefully scripted rails, it's fun to see 2K14 play around with this path at all.

And how did all this speculation play with James and the NBA?

Timmerman was clear to say that neither had any part in offering up potential scenarios for the game. So those looking to this title for insider information should just cool their jets. But, according to Timmerman, there wasn't any resistance to letting his team spin their own fables with James at the center.

"LeBron’s people loved the fact that they were creating a story mode around him," he said.  "They really dug the whole idea."

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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