There was a time when the limitations of sports games encouraged us to create our own fictionalized storylines. I still remember using pen and paper to create a round-robin grid for the laughably modest selection of four teams in Double Dribble. It wasn’t that different a couple years later when EA used real professional teams in their NBA Playoff series. I loved the premade structure of the Playoff series but I still had to grab a notebook in order to lay out my own regular season.
But as a distinctly modern sports game, NBA 2K offers such a wide variety of play formats that it even includes its own fiction, well beyond the 82-game regular season structure.. The year-to-year evolution of the often narrative-driven MyPlayer and MyCareer modes has proved to be a draw for fans. The best aspect of this fantasy canvas is that it’s perfectly complemented by the always-improving realism of the series’ gameplay, and it’s never looked more true-to-life than in NBA 2K16.
It’s not surprising that this platform for sports fiction would eventually culminate into an original story. In doing so, Visual Concepts enlisted a famous film director who also happens to be one of the most passionate basketball fans around: Spike Lee. Sports inherently spawns drama, so it's not unreasonable to argue the potential redundancy of an original Spike Lee Joint in NBA 2K16. Yet I’m cautiously optimistic from what I’ve seen so far. From your custom character’s humble origins in high school, to the adjustments of coping with fame at the professional level, Spike Lee’s game film, ‘Livin’ Da Dream’ looks to add jolts of drama to MyCareer. Some of the more stirring scenes from the latest trailer echoed the popular “rise to power” premises of many open-world crime games, though I suspect there won’t be any gun violence in ‘Livin’ Da Dream’.
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Along with its contemporary tales of athletic fame, NBA 2K16 has kept up with trends on the court. In the same way Madden NFL 25 kept up with the rise of read option plays in the NFL’s 2012-2013 season, NBA 2K16 will add more emphasis on the perimeter game that marked a significant tactical shift for many NBA teams last season. Emulating trends from a professional sports’ prior season should be child’s play for any game studio today. One of the ways Visual Concepts is pushing itself will be how the game evolves post-release, specifically when the 2015-2016 season is in full swing. My apologies for the early jinx, but how would another Derrick Rose injury affect the kinds of plays run by the rest of the Chicago Bulls? Visual Concepts is keeping an eye on the season-long changes that teams undergo, from major trades in February to unexpected firings of coaches. When coaches are obviously instrumental in determining a team’s play style, it would be in a game studio’s best interest to update their video game accordingly. What’s most impressive about Visual Concepts’ planned updates to plays and team schemes is that these changes will be performed without a patch.
To fully appreciate the little touches that bring NBA 2K16 to near-television quality realism, one would have to credit the foundation Visual Concepts laid over two years ago as it was facing the pressure of getting NBA 2K14 ready for the respective launches of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Those specific versions served as a clean slate for the studio, which were built from the ground up and served as a prime opportunity to essentially reboot the series. Visual Concepts has been layering on that infrastructure ever since, so much so that it’s been hard to keep track of when specific minute details were added. Frankly, I’m surprised the studio managed to include falls and ankle breaks to NBA 2K years ago.
In the initial minutes of hands-on time with NBA 2K16, it’s easy to be distracted by the authenticity of a scuffed up hardwood, the crampedness of the media photographer section, and even the alertness of the guy mopping up sweat in between whistle blows. You have to admire the realism of a crowd that collectively stands up during a potential game-changing shot during the final minute of a fourth quarter. Seeing a digital LeBron James show the real life player’s signature ‘push-down’ move with his knees isn’t impressive anymore. What is striking is witnessing him perform multiple variations of that move (depending on his energy and enthusiasm) across multiple games. When asking Visual Concepts staff what some of their favorite improvements were, they cited better animations coming off the screen, more realistic foot planting and pivots, and a wider variety of shot follow-throughs. NBA 2K16 would be a personal Game of the Year candidate if I could reenact Stephen Curry’s game overtime-setting three-pointer from Game 3 against the Pelicans.
What’s more valued than recognizable moves after the whistle are the distinct animations of key players while the clock is running. It only takes a couple games to see how these nuanced movements encourage fans to emulate true-to-life NBA tactics. The more you try to copy your favorite team’s plays, the more you get to see lifelike animation. This subtly discourages ‘cheesing’ the opposition with prolonged zone defensive or constant steal attempts, or any other behaviours you wouldn’t see in an actual NBA game. If you want to power through the paint with James Harden, you’ll be aptly treated to his familiar space-dominating elbow gestures. And it’s not just individual player movements that you’ll find familiar. If you attempt to mimic the Spurs’ exquisite ball-movement skills, don’t be surprised if the passing fluidity is practically lifelike. By emulating your hardcourt heroes, Visual Concepts is rewarding you with realistic animations, movements that you won’t often see if you try to play NBA 2K16 like NBA Jam.
Adjusting to an opposing team’s behavior as a season progresses is a tall order for A.I.-controlled opposition. Yet it makes a lot of sense for a studio to at least strive for that level of adaptive behavior and reaction. It’s not unlike enemy soldiers in Metal Gear Solid V, who go out of their way to stock up on helmets in later missions if you killed their comrades with headshots earlier in the game. If the evolving A.I. in NBA 2K16 does fact lead to more challenging games during the post-season, does that mean you’ll be conversely rewarded if you take chances that keeps you one step ahead of the other team? In other words, will you be able to throw off the Cavaliers in the middle of the NBA Finals with a lineup change in the same way the Warriors did this year with Andre Iguodala?
Sports games in general have reached that level of maturity and growth that a property like NBA 2K will have different modes to attract different fans. It’s not unlike the Call of Duty enthusiasts who come to the series solely for its multiplayer. The same can be said for the basketball fans who come to NBA 2K for the online play and those who are returning year after year for the campaign. If ‘Livin’ Da Dream’ is well received, you can bet that Visual Concepts will only take fiction further in the next few years. It could mean a darker tale by John Singleton or another Spike Lee Joint but with Heavy Rain-inspired branching storylines. My dream NBA 2K story would told through a series of documentary-style flashbacks, directed by one of ESPN’s 30 For 30 filmmakers, preferably Dan Klores, who made ‘Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks’.