There was a time when NBA Live was king among basketball video games. NBA 2K was an inferior competitor that had plenty of catching up to do. By the end of the 2000s, the games were about even, with 2K on the upswing and NBA Live down from its mid-2000s peak. Then NBA 2K10 dropped and changed the game with a new mode called My Player.
Early on, My Player only allowed players to create their own NBA player, going through games and press conferences while climbing up the minutes and popularity ladder. Players would accrue Skill Points based on their play that could be spent on specific attributes, both tangible and intangible. The mode was improved upon in smaller ways in following years, with additions such as team chemistry, endorsements, and even Hall of Fame induction added to the My Player mode between 2K11 and 2K13. At this point, My Player was renamed MyCAREER and kept getting smaller additions, but never got the same treatment as other modes, even as its popularity continued to grow. That changed with the newest generation of consoles, as it transitioned to a story mode, complete with fully voiced cutscenes that include dialogue from numerous NBA players and coaches. The newest iteration, in NBA 2K15, saw a created player go undrafted and have to work his way from 10-day contract afterthought to NBA Superstardom. Both critics and fans praised the mode and its depth.
With E3, the annual electronics expo, right around the corner, some early details about NBA 2K16 have been released. The game’s tagline is “Be the Story,” with the phrase “A Spike Lee Joint” also appearing on the cover. Lee’s involvement includes writing and directing the MyCareer mode, which will star your created player with the nickname “Frequency Vibrations.” I don’t understand the name, either. “It’s about the trials and tribulations of life on a big stage with the money, fame, temptations, family members, the press, fans, all that stuff,” Lee told the Associated Press, which makes me believe NBA 2K16’s MyCAREER will really embrace the story and put it equal, if not ahead of, the actual basketball.
My favorite video game is a PS3-exclusive from 2010 called Heavy Rain. There is no action, shooting, or even much choice within the game, but there is a story that tugged at my heartstrings and kept me enthralled throughout. Sports video games have never been able to come close to capturing the drama players feel while playing games like Heavy Rain and The Last of Us. Even with all of the improvements to MyCAREER, the storyline has constantly felt secondary to the games themselves. It has been a popular mode in a sports video game, but has never been able to transcend the sport into something more.
Lee’s involvement could mean a darker storyline, but considering NBA 2K is rated E for Everyone, he’ll have to keep it light enough for the kids. That doesn’t mean he can’t make the mode great, but the plot and dialogue will likely lean more Inside Out than Inside Man. As someone with experience at the helm of basketball movies (He Got Game, Kobe Doin’ Work), Lee makes for a great choice. Not to mention his obsession with the NBA and New York Knicks. With his name on the box of every copy sold, Lee has plenty of reasons to make the mode great.
Could this setup work in other sports games? There are career modes in pretty much every sports game, but most are years behind 2K and lack the depth of MyCAREER. Madden could partner with NFL Films to improve production quality, but that wouldn’t necessarily cover plotlines. Not to mention stories about domestic violence, PED use, or New England Patriots scandals would have to be omitted. MLB: The Show’s Road to the Show mode lacks any sort of cutscenes and I don’t think SCE San Diego could handle the added workload. The only other game series that could theoretically rival 2K, in my opinion, is FIFA. There is a lot of manpower behind the world’s most popular sports video game, but any storyline would need to be especially safe, as different regions have differing senses of humor, not to mention different languages needed for localization. That said, these modes, along with “Ultimate Team” variants, have become the most popular for gamers and will get the most attention from developers in the future. Though this could mean weaker Franchise and miscellaneous modes, it could also give sports games drama that is in line with other video games, regardless of genre.
With numerous entities looking to create new sports movies and documentaries, Spike Lee’s involvement in NBA 2K16 seems like a natural progression. It is a big task for Lee to create a plot worth following while also making sure the story is kid-appropriate. If it goes well, Lee’s involvement will turn MyCAREER into one of the most popular modes in any upcoming release, genre notwithstanding. It will also set a precedent for a deep, story-driven career mode in place of the current options. If not, gamers will be left disappointed with a mode that has not improved in three years. NBA 2K16 launches on September 29th on PS3, Xbox 360, PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
Alex Kaufman is a Spanish and communication double major at Denison University. He loves to consume and cover sports and sports media, hosts a sports talk show on 91.1 WDUB, and can be found at his own website, neuroticsportsfan.com.