The makers of “NBA 2K16,” the popular basketball simulation game, felt they needed to deepen their tale of a player’s ascent to superstardom. That could not have been an easy task. In video games, real life sports franchises and their accompanying superstars are sacred to the point of being banal because game publishers walk a fine line between trying to please the leagues for whose license they’ve paid millions and the demanding game fans who always want more features. While the “NBA 2K” series, now 16 years old, generally garners good reviews, it hasn’t received great reviews since 2013. So, a big name was sought to improve the story. But who could they trust to tell this expansive tale, spanning the years from high school through a player’s first NBA season?
In June, 2K Sports marketers trumpeted the announcement that director Spike Lee, he of the groundbreaking “Do The Right Thing” and the searing “When The Levees Broke,” would be brought in to spice up the narrative. Sure, 2K Games had drafted stars before like Jay Z, who brilliantly curated the soundtrack for “NBA 2K13.” But while there’s always been eclectic music in this game, there’s never been well-rounded story. While Lee has eschewed most requests to discuss his involvement in the game, he appeared in a well-edited, company-produced trailer, which these days is more important to a game’s marketing plan than any print ad or TV commercial. There stood Lee, wise in his horn-rimmed glasses, proclaiming that story is everything. “What will your story be?” he asked. It wasn’t clear, but I hoped he was daring the player to help him create a potent narrative when the game debuted.
What Lee added after a 12-day shoot was 90 minutes of cinematics — a variety of dialog-driven scenes, in essence, a movie — to the MyCareer mode. The game developers transformed that hour and a half into a few hours of in-game story.
Since its introduction a few years ago, MyCareer has been used create a character who could be altered to look like you; his jersey even bears your last name. During the course of winning, you would level up from fledgling, naive whelp to a lauded legend making mega-millions. 2K tried to goose the MyCareer narrative in “NBA 2K15.” After a loss, you’d get some trite words of encouragement from a teammate or fast-talk from a stereotypical agent who leapt around the room like SNL’s Ed Grimley. In a sleepy courtside appearance, the talented Pharrell agreed that you should work harder, then left. So while the narrative wasn’t bland to the point of sleep-inducing boredom, it felt uninspired.
In “NBA 2K16,” Spike Lee’s fiction feels somewhat like the trope that fuels “Ballers,” the HBO comedy about NFL football starring Dwayne Johnson. Here, however, the story is more profound. You begin as a young star in a Harlem high school, wide-eyed and carefree. But once you’re a Brooklyn Net, you’re plagued by cheats and hangers-on who have their hands out for your hard-earned millions. Pitting sports entertainment against the evils of commerce certainly isn’t new to anyone who regularly scans today’s headlines, but any kind of far-reaching drama is new for the sports genre. Ideally, a well-balanced, interactive story is the kind of thing which, if done well, would touch a gamer, even make a gamer cry.
Lee does, but not without a few missteps. I admit to becoming choked up at the end of “Livin’ Da Dream,” the portion of MyCareer that he penned. That surprised me because while the script and acting is often gripping, MyCareer is barely interactive. There just aren’t enough things for the player to do. Still, “Livin’ Da Dream” does affect you. You witness a rookie star’s loss of innocence at almost every turn. You see the hangers on who’ll do anything for a piece of the action. The team owner harangues you to dump your loyal but damaged high school friend. Later, not amused but disgusted, your character calls his twin sister and his crew “vultures and bloodsucking leeches.” Then, in a flash of perspicacity, your superstar reasons that even through the arguing, he knows that he’s still loved by his family and friends.
At its lowest point, the story can feel like it’s fighting with the game’s interactivity. For instance, during the small portions of pro basketball games you play during MyCareer, you might score nothing and get a grade of D-. Despite that, you’re still dubbed a superstar in Lee’s narrative. So MyCareer often seems eerily separate from the main game itself. The rest of this NBA simulation with lifelike graphics has coaching choices galore (perhaps too many), varied online play and artificial intelligence that foils you when you choose to do the same thing again and again. Few such options are prevalent in the story.
Yet Spike Lee’s nuanced plotting and oftentimes poetic phrasing yield a promising beginning for sports game narrative, a beginning so affecting that Lee’s last scenes left me staggered. It’s a cautionary tale that should be refined to become far more interactive in next year’s game. That’s what sports game franchises are about: constantly fine tuning next year what you didn’t have time for this year due to deadlines. The talented director should stick around for that evolution.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Wired and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture)” Random House. His latest book is “The League of Legends Experience.” Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.
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