Missing the Mark: Realism and the Modern Sports Video Game

The following is my final paper for my 398 Video Game Studies class, which explores the extent that mainstream sports-themed video games such as NBA 2K employ realism.

“If it’s in the game, it’s in the game!”

For years this phrase was the slogan of EA Sports’ video game franchises, an assurance that everything that happens on the field of play will be replicated virtually to create a video game experience as cool as the real pro league product. EA has moved away from the slogan in the years since, but game developers of major titles like Madden and FIFA (EA Sports) and NBA 2K (2K Games) have only continued to imbue their games with realistic elements. Facial appearances and animations have become almost photorealistic, controls have evolved to ensure maximum player agency and have updated with the latest invented moves, and the constructs of the games themselves have become more convoluted with increased game modes aimed at introducing users to different perspectives of their favorite professional sports. That is not to say, however, that these games are entirely realist, that they are perfect reflections of reality.

For the purposes of this paper, I will borrow from Alexander R. Galloway’s distinction between realisticness and reality. In an essay on social realism, Galloway suggests that being realistic is an attempt to be as accurate as possible to real life and is “a yardstick held up to representation,” while being realist is seeking to artfully create an experience that rings true to real life (Galloway 2006: 74). Galloway also makes clear that realism entails presenting “real life in all its dirty details, hopeful desires, and abysmal defeats” (Galloway 2006: 74). I also will hone in on sports simulation games, such as Madden and 2K, as the standard bearers for the sports video game industry, though other, less realistic sports-based games certainly exist, such as Mario Kart.

In this paper, I will make the case for realism as an important and undervalued principle for video game designers in producing mainstream sports titles. First, I will discuss the prominence of the sports genre in video games to demonstrate why the incorporation of realism has potential to be widely impactful. I will explain how game developers draw from the real professional sports leagues in translating the experience to a virtual stage (and how, on occasion, these games influence the athletes themselves). Then, I will look at realism through the lens of a case study, MyCareer mode in NBA 2K19, and identify where realism succeeds and fails. In conclusion, I will recommend ways for designers to better employ realism in their games to give users a more fulfilling experience and establish the importance for realism in these games.

Prominence of the Sports Video Game

Sports video games have a strong presence in the video game industry and have become a critical part of the modern sports fan experience. According to a 2018 study by the NPD group, sports games compromised 11.1% of sales for the video game industry in the United States. Two of the three best-selling video game titles of 2019 were sports simulations, 2K19 and Madden 20, respectively, while another, FIFA 2020, was just behind in 14th, per Forbes (Kain 2020). And since sports games come out annually for each league, they provide an impetus for sports games to stay in the spotlight, with each new edition promising consumers new, more realistic features, updated player and team rankings and an improved user experience.

 

The impact expands beyond that. Video game vernacular has become a part of the sports lexicon: “video game numbers” to describe gaudy statistical totals, while a “cheat code” refers to a player who is so dominant that he or she gives their team an unfair advantage. Former Colts defensive end Bjoern Werner said that he learned the game of football by playing EA Sports’ Madden video game as a teenager growing up in Germany (Breech 2013). 

The prominence of the sports game has also grown via its community. With the advent of online gaming, video game developers have added elements that allow users to play against each other and add a social dynamic to games. The sports titles for each leagues host tournaments pitting the best players against each other, and recently, entire leagues such as the NBA-affiliated 2K league have materialized as a stage for the greats of sports video game mastery (Wolf, 2017). Creating these real-world implications have legitimized the major sports video games and elevated them to something greater and more engaging than the baseline player-versus-computer relationship.

The reason why these games are so popular leads back to the concept of realism. In their journal article A Feel for the Game, authors Gerry Crawford, Daniel Muriel, and Steven Conway reason that “just as being a part of the club they follow, the sports-themed video game allows [fans] to enact the experience of active participation in the team’s success (or failure) to a hyperreal degree,” (Crawford 2018). While the authors note that all of the intricacies of a sport cannot be translated into another medium perfectly, they say that for sports games to create this sense of meaning and illusion of reality and connect with audience, the games must establish “a familiar sense of meaning, such as the meaning of the world of sport, in a novel way,” (Crawford 2018). 

Realisticness in Sports Video Games

To create the illusion of being in the major leagues, video game developers must first base their games in the “yardstick held up to representation” that Galloway suggests — realisticness. The graphics of sports video games, perhaps the component of these games that has evolved the most over time, is crucial to this illusion. Beyond the realistic aesthetics of the players and stadiums, developers have taken to inviting athletes to their studios to use motion capture so that the motions themselves provide a convincing gameplay experience (Musa 2016). 

Developers also focus on making the gameplay authentic. At its most basic, this means adhering to the rulebook — the constraints of physics and the basic rules of the sports. However, developers have plenty of other means of making gameplay line up with the product fans see, whether that is using actual football plays in Madden NFL, replicating television broadcasts through use of animations, scoreboards, and announcers, and implementing complicated processes such as challenges (which logically would not be needed in a computer system). Controls of the players themselves have evolved, with recent additions giving users greater agency through button combinations that allow for complex moves and features such as hit stick that connect physical actions (thrusting the stick down) with virtual consequences (laying out a major hit). 

Player ratings are a key component of the major sports video game titles and are one of the main ways game studios develop on-field realism. Specialized rating adjustors rate each player on a series of abilities from 0 to 99, culminating in a final overall rating, that customizes each player’s strengths and weaknesses. In many recent games, these ratings update every week based on the most recent player performances. The ratings matter to the players, too — Chargers receiver Keenan Allen said that he would not play an edition of Madden NFL after receiving an 89 player rating that he perceived as too low, while Patriots quarterback Tom Brady publicly poked fun at his low speed rating (Rogers 2017). In fact, the NFL now publishes videos of players reacting to their ratings, a transaction between the product and its subjects that attempts to blur the lines between the real and the virtual and add meaning to the game’s world.

In his essay on Madden NFL and its exploitation of race and masculinity titled Madden Men, author Thomas P. Oates says that “EA Sports’ relentless pursuit of realism is a key aspect of the product’s marketing,” (2015: 54). Oates is right, but these marketing campaigns are misleading when it comes to realism. The major sports titles are licensed by the professional leagues, meaning that often it is simply the marketable, positive player experience that leagues will allow games to present. This relationship creates a discrepancy between the advertised realism by groups like EA Sports and the games themselves, a discrepancy that is detrimental and impactful given the games’ prominence. 

Case Study: “The Way Back” versus NBA 2K MyCareer Mode

The NBA 2K series presents an especially compelling case for the intersection of sports video games and realism. The series is one of the best-selling video games on the market, but above that, it has an undeniable cultural cache among sports fans. The NBA, which sends just five players per team on the court at a time in comparison to baseball’s nine and football’s eleven, is a more superstar-centric league with a sport that is extremely accessible to the modern fan. The video game format accentuates these strengths, recreating its most prominent into awe-inspiring superstars and giving the fans a simple premise — you can play among the greats. The strengths also play into a need for realism, from controls to animations to storylines. 

To examine realism in the 2K series, I will explore the MyCareer Mode of one of the game’s most recent additions, 2K19. 2K provides users with an array of game modes to play NBA basketball, from the most basic Play Now and Play Online modes to MyTeam and MyGM modes (which allow users to cultivate their own teams from a management perspective). The game also offers the MyCareer mode, the most intimate look and recreation of life as an NBA player. The mode also requires a progression in skills that avoids one of the major pitfalls of sports video games — the tendency to “transform the celebrity into a hyperludic game piece primed for heroic acts,” (Conway 2015: 133). Realism is most essential for this mode, though the experience MyCareer mode presents does not always line up with reality. 

MyCareer mode opens with a creation stage, where players customize their basic information, appearance, build, and position. From there, the narrative, titled “The Way Back”, begins. “AI”, as the player is referred through during “The Way Back”, is a promising college prospect who left college earlier than expected, culminating in the crushing opening cut scenes of him falling out of the NBA Draft and not getting selected. Instead, AI takes his ball to a new side of the world to play internationally for the Shanghai Bears. 

The transition is rough. AI has to speak to his teammates and coaches through a translator, rarely leaves his apartment, and dreams of the day he can return to the NBA. Users play through several of AI’s games with the Bears, including one match against the visiting NBA All Star Squad where AI puts the league on notice by dunking over his former teammate and current Laker, Corey Harris. AI has his sights set on the NBA, though Harris tells him to slow down and enjoy the ride.

Shortly thereafter, AI is transferred back to the states and he arrives in Los Angeles believing he is a member of the Lakers and that his NBA dream has been realized. Instead, the coach, played by comedian Michael Rapoport, informs him that he is playing for the South Bay Lakers G League team, and, after AI tours the facilities, Rapoport’s character breaks the news that he has been traded for the equivalent of a year’s worth of sandwiches. “It’s a business, kid,” Rapoport’s character says.

We next find AI in his basketball wilderness, Fort Wayne, Indiana, where most of his pre-NBA development will take place. He interacts with various members of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants: Howie, a reserve who introduces AI to the humbling life of a G League player and serves as the narrative’s comic relief; Paul Tatum, a former NBA star who serves as a mentor for AI; and Marcus Young, a hotshot guard who wants to be an NBA star and attempts to become one by any means necessary. The G League experience is different than the glamorous NBA life the media glorifies — when AI is asked for a picture at a fair, two young ladies gesture for him to be the photographer, not the subject. Users also meet two characters outside of the team— Nicky, AI’s romantic interest who is also a sportswriter, and Zack Coleman, played by actor Haley Joel Osment, who asks to manage AI’s social media brand.

Despite all of AI’s work, he struggles on and off the court. Most of the NBA is blue-blood players like Corey Harris, one player reminds AI, and “we’ve got to fight for the spots they didn’t take.” His journey takes a turn for the worse when he decides to set off a firework at a team hotel and starts a fire (users are presented with two options, but both lead to his eventual misdeed). A video of AI’s role goes viral online, resulting in his swift dismissal from the Mad Ants and the dissolution of his relationship with Nicky. Another incriminating video comes out of AI complaining about Fort Wayne, orchestrated by Marcus Young and traitor Zack Coleman to boost Young and prevent AI from having another chance. At AI’s lowest moment, Howie and Paul encourage AI and spur him to keep up his journey. Then, the breaks he needed fall into place: Rapoport’s character becomes an assistant for the Timberwolves and gives AI one game to prove himself and the league. “Make sure they stay a part of you,” AI is told about his many stops as he begins his NBA journey. 

The experience of the prelude succeeds in exposing both sides of the coin of professional basketball. AI misses out on his dreams, struggles to adjust to a foreign setting, makes poor choices that result in major setbacks, abuses his relationships with others with the selfish purpose of making it big, sees the harsh, cold business realities of the NBA, and comtemplates the existential question every basketball player faces — why am I playing? These are sides of professional basketball that fans rarely see, and ones that make for a genuinely moving and enriching story. Much of this reality is reflected through social media as well, and this seemingly mundane element grounds “The Way Back” narrative in modern times. After getting lost in the shuffle of the humbling life of a minor league player, AI gains appreciation for the sport and for his opportunity to play in the NBA. It’s a happy ending, but one that is well earned.

But after “The Way Back”, the narrative abruptly stops, and it never again picks up. AI’s player rating starts at a 60 and he begins in a reserve role for his team and through practice, challenges, and games, he can improve his skills and rise to the top of the NBA. But that’s the extent of the arc — there is nothing showing any other side of the NBA experience than the glamorous one “The Way Back” critiques in the first place. AI never suffers injuries, is never confronted with tough decisions, and can’t wade into the pitfalls of the fast NBA life like gambling, relationships, and substance abuse. Most crucially, AI never feels the crushing emotions that make “The Way Back” a compelling look into a life most users will never experience.

Absent a sinister side, MyCareer mode attempts realism in other ways. Gonzalo Frasca, a video game scholar, said that simulation games like 2K “model a source system through a different system which maintains to somebody the behaviors of the original system.” (Frasca 2003: 223). For 2K, this means bringing the NBA to life, and using the user-created character as a lens into it. 

As a simulation of the NBA, MyCareer mode provides an engaging and multi-faceted experience. Early on, AI signs with an agent, negotiates with teams, and appears in advertisements to increase his value and fan following. As AI’s player rating increases, he gains more minutes, can impact his team’s play as gauged through a chemistry meter, and unlocks abilities such as gameplay styles and say over roster decisions. The 2K20 edition also incorporates elements of political activism, as brought to prominence by athletes like LeBron James.

Gameplay incorporates these elements of reality as well. When users play as AI in NBA games, they can customize AI’s appearance through actual shoe models and team gear. The broadcasts have pre- and post-game shows with the virtual avatars of the cast of the Inside the NBA show, and announcers during the game discuss blur the line between fiction and actual NBA results during their broadcasts. Flashy plays increase AI’s fan following, while selfless interview answers can boost his team chemistry. AI’s performances have implications in the MyCareer universe — NBA stars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis text him congratulations after big wins, and NBA reporters debate the merits of his play on Twitter feeds. The season structure lines up with the structure of the real-life NBA season, allowing users to feel as if they are making an impact on the game they watch on TV.

MyCareer mode also adds its own elements to engage users and fill in the gaps from the real-life NBA experience. AI lives in The Neighborhood, an urban block replete with AI’s apartment, stores, practice facilities, nutrition sites, and basketball courts where he can scrimmage other users online. The construct consolidates all of these aspects into one block, which is unrealistic to the NBA experience, but serves as a way to centralize the mode into a visually appealing, intuitive menu. 

The most meaningful addition is VC, a fictional currency and reward system. The base of VC income is the fixed amount AI receives after every game as dictated by his contract. AI’s teammate grade, a letter grade that increases when AI makes plays such as rebounds and blocks to help his team and decreases when AI turns the ball over or leaves his assignment open on defense, can also add to the game total and incentivizes the user to play team-friendly basketball. AI also earns money through endorsements for companies like Gatorade and Nike and by completing daily challenges. In turn, AI can spend VC to boost his ratings or to buy items such as clothes or energy boosts from the stores in The Neighborhood.

Users can forgive 2K for incorporating these elements — they enhance MyCareer mode by making gameplay more addicting and serving as the basis of the player’s progression — but they cause the experience to skew further from reality. Though players can earn VC in practice, they are never required to do so and can pile up VC through games, which doesn’t mirror the real NBA grind. The accumulation of VC also allows AI to jump from a 60 overall rating to All-Star level over the course of the season based solely off games. Users may enjoy having their customized player become an omnipotent superstar after a couple dozen hours of gameplay, but they will never have to endure the roadblocks and perceptions that makes the journey to the top so difficult in real-life. Furthermore, the VC system perpetuates a feeling of inevitability in success that is well suited for the video game genre but isn’t mirrored by the experiences of NBA players or even MyCareer mode’s opening prologue. 

The result is a MyCareer mode that feels gratifying, but an incomplete version of the NBA player experience. There are roadblocks that prevent 2K from becoming fully realist — the NBA’s inhibitions to market anything other than the league’s sparkly image and the need for incentives such as VC to translate the clockwork of the NBA onto a virtual stage are two of them. MyCareer mode serves well to satiate the NBA fan’s fantasy of playing with the giants they see on TV, but after “The Way Back”, the mode can’t say that it puts the user in an NBA player’s (figurative) shoes. 

A fuller MyCareer experience is still worthwhile, although slightly less neat. As Meredith M. Bagley and Ian Summers argue of EA Sports’ college football game NCAA Football 14,  “a powerful opportunity was lost to teach the complexities of building and maintaining actual sport dynasties in our contemporary social setting” by its omissions of the messy realities of the sport. (Bagley 2015: 202). MyCareer mode similarly misses out on these complexities, and in doing so fails to make good on its premise as a genuine recreation. 

2K could certainly take steps in this direction in future editions, and even slight enhancements would go a long way. Bagley and Summers say that “tracking what reality is allowed to be simulated, and to what effect, is valuable and important” (Bagley 212), and 2K can establish the elements previously swept under the rug as having the value they have in real life AI could be forced to make decisions that are neither black nor white, with meaningful implications of those choices affecting his future path. More guided narratives, through cutscenes during the player’s early years, could shed light on the realities these players face, while still empowering users with 40-inch verticals and textbook jump shots on the court. As is reflected by news consumption, NBA fans crave this inside look into the minutiae of NBA life and grow in their understanding of the sport, and the intimate, immersive forum of a MyCareer mode is a perfect opportunity. These changes would instill a lesson — that life as an NBA player is more nuanced and two-sided than leagues want their fans to believe, but maybe that the opportunities and joys of playing basketball on the biggest of stages make those obstacles worth it. 

Sports video games give those at the controls the opportunity to be the best and inhibit the leagues they dedicate their lives to following. Realisticness and realism in animation, gameplay, and narratives enhance this opportunity by making the “magic circle” users inhibit overlap with the one they see on TV. The advent of MyCareer modes hints at this optimization of the intersection of sports and video games especially. But while games such as NBA 2K succeed in recreating the frameworks of the leagues, they drop the ball when it comes to creating a realist, fulfilling experience for the user (a failure made all the more stark by the upfront approach of “The Way Back”). The end result — gameplay that stagnates enrichment and perpetuates the idealist view of sports that leagues market, not the one that players live and that fans want so desperately to emulate when they pick up the controller.

WORKS CITED

Bagley, Meredith M., and Ian Summers. “Ideology, It’s in the Game: Selective Simulation in EA Sports’ NCAA Football.” Playing to Win: Sports, Video Games, and the Culture of Play, pp. 191–216.

Breech, John. “Colts’ Bjoern Werner Learned about the NFL by Playing ‘Madden’.” CBSSports.com, 2 June 2015, http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/colts-bjoern-werner-learned-about-the-nfl-by-playing-madden/.

Conway, Steven. “Avastars: The Encoding of Fame within Sport Digital Games.” Playing to Win: Sports, Video Games, and the Culture of Play, pp. 133–151.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology.” Routledge, 2003.

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Kain, Erik. “The 20 Best-Selling Video Games Of 2019.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 17 Jan. 2020, http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2020/01/17/the-20-best-selling-video-games-of-2019/#706934e573da.

Musa, Talal. “How NBA 2K17 Used Mo-Cap to Get the Real Kyrie Irving in the Game.” Evening Standard, 16 Sept. 2016, http://www.standard.co.uk/stayingin/tech-gaming/how-nba-2k17-used-motion-capture-to-get-the-real-kyrie-irving-shaq-and-lebron-in-the-game-a3343131.html.

Oates, Thomas P. “Madden Men: Masculinity, Race, and the Marketing of a Video Game Franchise.” Playing to Win: Sports, Video Games, and the Culture of Play, pp. 45–62.

Rogers, Martin. “Meet the Man behind the Madden Ratings (and Yes, He Knows You’re Not a Fan).” FOX Sports, 23 July 2019, http://www.foxsports.com/nfl/story/madden-ratings-nfl-overrated-underrated-how-why-who-rates-players-072319

Wolf, Jacob. “NBA Announces 17 Teams Will Participate in NBA 2K League.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 4 May 2017, http://www.espn.com/esports/story/_/id/19305330/nba-announces-17-teams-participate-nba-2k-esports-league.

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