Monday Tip-Off: Superstition & Basketball Gaming

Kyle Lowry dribbles the basketball in NBA 2K16

We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Start your week here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games.

Our server move is now complete! While we’re still ironing out a few issues and making sure that everything is working as intended, most of the basics seem to be in order. That means I can get back to spending some more time creating content, and actually talking about basketball video games. I’ve been compiling some ideas for future columns, as well as some videos that I’d like to try to make in the coming weeks. This week, however, a fun idea for a topic came to mind: superstition and basketball gaming.

I don’t think of myself as a very superstitious person in general – my uncanny ability to jinx NBA teams aside – but over the years, I’ve developed a few habits when it comes to basketball video games. It may not be entirely accurate to call all of them superstitions, but it does make for a catchy title, so I’m going to run with it anyway. Basically, they’re the little things that I do in the hopes that they’ll improve my chances for success on the virtual hardwood.

The first superstition that comes to mind is related to three-point shooting. As I mentioned in a previous article, outside shooting has probably been my biggest weakness for most of the time that I’ve been a basketball gamer. It’s improved in recent years, as jumpshots in general have thankfully become a more viable offensive weapon, but when I look back at all the seasons I’ve played, I definitely could’ve shot the long ball better than I did. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, either. Of course, that’s where the superstitions would come in.

Ben Gordon in NBA Live 06

Whenever I made a three-pointer, I’d always wonder “Alright, now what did I do there?” I released the shoot button at the optimal time with a player who can knock down threes, obviously, but what else? Was I holding down turbo/sprint? Did I release turbo/sprint before the shoot button, or did I keep holding it? Whereabouts on the floor did I shoot from? Did I pump fake a couple of times to make sure that the player’s feet were properly set? Which of those things was actually a beneficial factor, on top of the accurate release point that I now need to nail perfectly once again?

In today’s games, we get a lot more feedback when it comes to jumpshot attempts. Both NBA Live and NBA 2K have shot meters that indicate the optimal release point, as well as provide us with additional information about the quality of the attempt, and the impact of the defense. There’s less guesswork as to whether we did everything right and made a good decision, though it arguably leaves us feeling more frustrated whenever an apparently good attempt misses badly. At least we know what we did, though, and can chalk it up to ratings and other such factors.

Before we received that kind of feedback, it seemed a solid strategy to simply repeat what apparently worked before. If I was holding down turbo/sprint during an attempt, I tried that again, hoping it was the factor that would boost my chances of making the shot. If a certain spot on the floor seemed to be working for me, I’d shoot from there again; alternatively, thinking that the AI might punish me for doing that, I’d move away from that spot. If pump-faking despite being completely open seemed to work, it was worth trying again on the next shot.

Stephen Curry with the three-pointer in NBA 2K16

To some extent, there was a method to the madness. I’m not completely certain that holding turbo/sprint while attempting a jumpshot actually provided any sort of boost, but it’s possible that it did in some games. Pump-faking to square up and set your player was usually a good idea, and some games did seem to have their own universal hot spots where you had much better luck knocking down jumpers. As games expanded shooting ratings and logic with elements such as Hot Spots and Player DNA powered by data from Synergy Sports, picking the right spot to shoot from obviously did become an important factor, too.

That being said, when I look back at those habits that I formed, I would suggest that the placebo effect was probably in play a lot of the time. It’s quite likely that most of those habits didn’t actually have a direct effect on the dice roll that determined the likelihood of a shot going in. Of course, in their own way, they might have occasionally helped me with my timing on the shoot button, if only because I wasn’t over-thinking things and second-guessing my reactions. Then again, even that might be giving them too much credit.

In my recent games of 2K Pro-Am with other members of the NLSC Team and community, we’ve developed a few superstitions of a different kind. For example, it’s taboo to mention Klay Thompson’s name while we play. It was mentioned during a game in which the team’s fortunes quickly turned, so clearly, it’s bad luck. Incidentally, this also extends to using Thompson’s shooting form for our players. If a similar run of bad luck happens when another topic comes up in the party chat, it also becomes outlawed. Jokes, shoes, a certain team or player…if it seems to throw us off our game, we put the kibosh on it.

Tipping Off in the Joel Anthony Arena in 2K Pro-Am in NBA 2K16

For the most part, it’s a fun running joke, but once again, I’d suggest there’s actually something to it, psychologically speaking. If we get it into our heads that we’ll play badly if we mention any names or topics that have been declared taboo, chances are that’s exactly what will happen. Furthermore, if we’re joking around too much, or concentrating more on chatting about something completely unrelated to the game, we’re far more likely to lose our focus and make bad decisions. The superstitious aspect is largely tongue-in-cheek, but it serves a purpose as far as keeping our minds on the task at hand.

To that end, maybe these superstitions do actually help us out when we play basketball video games. In a way, it’s kind of appropriate that we adopt certain habits and rituals. After all, it’s something that we constantly witness in real basketball, with players having their own rituals before the game and at the free throw line, or perhaps wearing a certain accessory for good luck. It’s a way of hyping themselves up, or conversely calming themselves down, and above all, maintaining their focus.

Maybe that’s all we’re doing, too. Even if some of these habits and rituals don’t actually impact the action through gameplay mechanics, they may still help us on the sticks. If that’s the case, then I think the same advice applies in video games as it does in real basketball: if it works for you, don’t change it!

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