Monday Tip-Off: Realism in Franchise Modes

MyLEAGUE & MyGM, NBA 2K17's Franchise Modes

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.

As I mentioned in last week’s Friday Five, one of my goals for NBA 2K17 is to return to my roots as a franchise gamer, and spend a lot more time in MyLEAGUE. I’m still deciding which team (or teams) I’ll control, what kind of moves I might make, and whether or not I’ll experiment with league expansion and relocation in my primary MyLEAGUE game. As I mentioned in this thread, I generally prefer to maintain a certain level of realism when I play franchise modes, as I’ve discovered that making too many trades or using the fantasy draft options quickly leads to boredom, due to the more rapid departure from reality.

Of course, the very nature of franchise modes means that there will generally be some deviation from reality. Whether it’s a player’s stats, a team’s record, or the odd trade here and there, most of our franchise games are not going to be one hundred percent realistic. For many of us, it’s those small changes – or if we so choose, big changes – that make franchise modes so fun and enjoyable. At the same time, however, many of us do believe that franchise modes should be as realistic as possible, and are frustrated when our desired level of realism isn’t achieved. The question is: what actually constitutes realism in a franchise mode?

For most franchise gamers, I would suggest that their idea of realism would be statistics that are similar to real life performance (based on recent history or the projections of an educated guess), likely results based on a team’s lineup (health permitting), and player movement that is logical and seemingly within the realms of possibility. Those would certainly be my answers too, but defining what actually constitutes realism in those three areas isn’t as simple as it may seem. Beyond the influence we have on the experience through the games we play and transactions we make, there’s always going to be an element of random chance, and the unexpected.

LeBron James dribbles the basketball in NBA 2K16

The fact of the matter is that the variables that yield unexpected results are actually an important part of making franchise modes realistic. In sports – and life in general, if you want to get philosophical about it – things don’t always go as planned. We’ve seen players unexpectedly have breakout seasons, or conversely, difficult years in which their production drops. Injuries are an unfortunate reality of sports, and over the years we’ve seen many teams have seasons derailed when key players get hurt. Other times, teams that appear to be primed for success on paper ultimately fail to get the job done out on the court, either coming up just short or greatly underachieving.

I think that most franchise gamers are aware of that, and to some extent we do accept that results may vary, especially when we’re taking a team’s fortunes into our hands by playing the games. The biggest complaints about realism in franchise modes seem to be aimed at player movement, primarily the trades and free agent signings that occur among the CPU-controlled teams. While I believe that we do have some legitimate complaints and reasonable expectations in that regard, our standards for and definition of reality in franchise modes doesn’t always reflect reality.

Once again, sports have a habit of producing unlikely outcomes and scenarios. Not only have we seen incredible comebacks and underdog victories on the court, we’ve also been caught off-guard by certain trades and free agent signings. To that end, it’s not always easy to define what constitutes realistic player movement in franchise modes such as MyLEAGUE, MyGM, and Dynasty. Our first inclination would be to suggest trades of equal value, but in reality, that doesn’t describe all NBA trades. It’s a rare trade that benefits both teams equally, and it’s not unusual for teams to either give up too much, or conversely receive too little in return, when a superstar player is traded. Players have also shocked us with their decisions in free agency.

Pau Gasol vs. Kevin Garnett in NBA Live 09

Let’s take a look at some real life examples. In 2008, the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies for Kwame Brown, Aaron McKie, Javaris Crittenton, and the draft rights to his brother Marc. The Philadelphia 76ers traded Charles Barkley to the Phoenix Suns in 1992 for Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang, and Tim Perry. In 2010, LeBron James infamously took his talents to South Beach, while this offseason, Kevin Durant controversially left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors, the team that eliminated the Thunder. Michael Jordan played two years for the Washington Wizards…no, wait, we all agreed that never happened.

Twenty years ago, Shaquille O’Neal left the Orlando Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers, even though the Magic were fresh off a 60 win season, a year removed from the NBA Finals, and Shaq was part of an All-Star duo with Anfernee Hardaway. Ten years ago, Ben Wallace joined the Chicago Bulls, a deal that was seemingly mostly about money for him, and mostly about making some kind of noteworthy move for them. Karl Malone and Gary Payton took huge pay-cuts to chase a ring with the Lakers in 2004. Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo joining the Bulls, the trades that sent Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston in 2007…the list goes on.

The point is that there are lopsided and surprising trades, superstars who change teams in their prime, and veterans who bounce from team to team after spending their entire career in one city. There are teams that make bad trades, either because a player forced their hand, or they simply lacked foresight. Not all player movement leaves us wondering what a team was thinking, or why a player made a certain decision, but we do see puzzling trades and unexpected moves in free agency. To that end, if realism is what we’re after, we should be seeing some of those transactions in franchise modes.

Stephen Curry with the layup in NBA 2K16

Having said that, I believe it’s important that trading and free agency AI accounts for unusual or misguided logic, more so than demonstrating a complete lack of it. For example, there’s no way the Golden State Warriors would’ve traded Stephen Curry in the middle of last year’s historic 73-9 season, so we shouldn’t see it happen between CPU-controlled teams in franchise modes. Likewise, it should be very hard to make such a trade happen ourselves. “Untouchable” superstars getting traded multiple times in a single season or leaving via free agency to join seemingly random teams shouldn’t happen or at least be very, very unlikely, and follow some kind of reasonable logic when it does.

Other issues would include trades that occur simply for the sake of having trades between CPU-controlled teams. I once had a Franchise Mode game in NBA Live 2001 where the Orlando Magic traded Tracy McGrady for Ray Allen; in real life, T-Mac had just signed with the Magic that offseason. Another example of problematic trade and free agency logic would be teams ending up with too many players at a certain position. Fortunately, these issues have become much less common in franchise modes over the years, with the AI becoming increasingly more sophisticated.

That’s not to say that there isn’t room for further improvement. I’m sure we can all produce examples of undesirable results where certain factors definitely weren’t taken into account. However, to be truly realistic, there should be some surprises, and even some lapses in logic. As I said, I’m all for realism in franchise modes, both in our approach to them, and their features and inner workings. It’s just that at a certain point, it becomes tough to say what’s realistic and what isn’t, especially when the real NBA has taught us to never say “never”, and wonder what certain players and GMs were thinking.

Kevin Garnett on the Chicago Bulls in NBA Live 2004

Perhaps TV Tropes has put it best: Reality is Unrealistic. If some of the trades and signings I mentioned above had happened in a franchise mode, we’d have probably written them off as an example of buggy player movement logic. They certainly did happen though, so it’s not unreasonable, or unrealistic, for similar deals to occur at least occasionally in franchise modes. Besides, I once traded Jalen Rose, Marcus Fizer, and Roger Mason Jr. for Kevin Garnett. If I’m allowed to get away with that, then CPU-controlled teams are entitled to a couple of eyebrow-raising moves as well.

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