Monday Tip-Off: Are Basketball Gamers Still Sim?

NBA 2K has been drifting from the sim style

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. This week, I’m tipping things off with a few thoughts on whether or not basketball gamers are still in favour of sim gameplay and game modes.

For many years, we basketball gamers would talk about how we wanted to see the five-on-five games become more realistic. As technology improved, we saw a steady and pleasing increase in the level of simulation basketball, with NBA 2K in particular achieving some fantastic results in developing sim gameplay. Sim gameplay is what we always emphasised in our Wishlists, and the cause was likewise championed by Da_Czar, the President of Sim Nation who now puts his knowledge and enthusiasm for realistic virtual basketball to use as a developer on the NBA 2K team.

However, despite the influence of Da_Czar, as well as other sim-oriented developers such as Scott O’Gallagher and Gameplay Director Mike Wang, NBA 2K has been drifting towards a more casual style. The change is definitely not due to a lack of knowledge, dedication, talent, or resources, as we’ve seen what NBA 2K is capable of in terms of being an outstanding basketball sim. NBA Live, despite having its roots in a sim style, has also been focusing more on the streetball side of things in The One. These changes in style are obviously being done to appease the core demographic. As such, it’s not just about whether or not the games are sim, but if we gamers are, too.

Obviously, there’s still a vocal contingent of basketball gamers who are invested in the idea of the games being sim. That’s apparent from some of the criticism that has been directed towards recent NBA 2K games, and the frustration that’s been expressed over NBA Live’s focus on The Streets. However, the voices countering the calls for more realism are louder than they once were. Having an NBA game that’s as realistic as possible is arguably no longer at the top of most people’s wishlists. There’s an increased interest in the career modes and their connected experiences, with plenty of gamers exclusively playing The Playground, Pro-Am, The Streets, and LIVE Events.

Loitering in The Playground (NBA 2K19)

Even when it comes to the NBA side of the career modes, there seems to be far less interest in a sim game than there once was. The most popular mode in the game isn’t about taking control of real NBA players, but putting our own avatars in the game and becoming superstars, often posting ridiculous stats. I’m not bashing the mode as I’ve also spent a lot of time in MyCAREER in recent years, so I certainly understand the appeal. It’s an interesting shift, though, and after so many years of basketball gamers campaigning for more realism, it’s strange to see people advocating for both NBA Live and NBA 2K to become less sim, sometimes decrying it as an outdated concept.

It’s very difficult not sound elitist here, but I do think NBA 2K’s increased popularity is a major factor. Although sports gaming is still a niche demographic to some extent – no NBA 2K title has ranked among the all-time best-selling video games, after all – it has unquestionably become hugely successful and mainstream. There’s nothing wrong with being mainstream, and indeed, it’s allowed NBA 2K to become a juggernaut with some amazing content due to its profitability. However, the downside is that it’s no longer just catering to hardcore hoop heads who want a realistic basketball sim. It also has to account for more casual basketball gamers who aren’t as picky about realism.

Again, it’s hard not to sound elitist when we use words like “hardcore” and “casual” in the context of video games, but the wider audience NBA 2K now enjoys does mean that the geekiest of us sim heads are significantly outnumbered by gamers who just don’t care as much about the things that are important to us. In fact, it’s safe to say that a lot of people who play NBA 2K aren’t necessarily big NBA fans. That much is clear if you participate in the daily trivia in MyCAREER’s Neighborhood. Simple questions that pretty much every NBA fan should know the answer to instead end up stumping a large number of participants, while many have no trouble with the pop culture trivia.

NBA Live still needs stronger sim elements

I can’t help but feel it’s a sign that I’m moving further away from being a part of the core demographic, especially when I hear about NBA Live targeting a new, younger audience. I’m still a bit puzzled by that, seeing as how that audience is fond of NBA 2K and doesn’t remember a time when NBA Live was king, but it is what it is. I’m even more aware of the shift in demographic when it comes to online play, which is obviously a key area of focus these days. Whatever complaints we have about the sim elements of offline play, they pale in comparison to the online modes, which eschew realism in favour of meta-gaming, cheesy tactics, and mastering animations.

Indeed, there’s no better way to lose online than to try to play realistic basketball. It’s clearly not to everyone’s liking, as the NBA 2K League was routinely roasted last year when footage was posted to the NBA’s official social media pages, but plenty of other basketball gamers are just fine with the lack of sim in online play. There’s criticism of The Neighborhood, but gamers clearly enjoy dressing up their players and equipping wacky animations and over-the-top celebrations. Microtransactions are derided, but also defended. A lot of people don’t see the problem with NBA Live lacking a robust franchise mode, or a general lack of focus on sim and NBA content in either game.

It’s to be expected, given that there is a generation gap among basketball gamers. For those of us who grew up with the games of the 90s and early 2000s – before online play really took off – we remember the desire to see games become more and more realistic, as well as the fun of replicating the real NBA through franchise modes. To see a sim game achieve once-impossible levels of realism was a dream come true. For younger gamers who got into the hobby after all those advances were made, it’s about optimising the game with mechanics suited for competitive online play. Realism just gets in the way of a good time, and humiliating opponents you’ll never meet.

Dominant Win in Jordan Rec Center (NBA 2K19)

I’m generalising to some extent, of course, as there are older gamers who are fine with a more casual approach, and younger gamers who are all about the sim experience. The divide within the demographic does seem to run along those lines however, and it’s not just basketball gaming. When Jade was revealed as one of the characters that would be playable in Mortal Kombat 11, I saw comments complaining that she was no good for online play. People just couldn’t get their heads around the idea that some people simply liked the character because of her history in Mortal Kombat’s lore, and enjoyed playing with her offline. To a lot of gamers, nothing matters but online.

And, to be fair, those of us who identify as sim gamers are probably just as stubborn. In our defense, however, these are NBA games at the end of the day. They should be replicating the NBA as realistically as possible, at least in the modes that are centred on the NBA (and, in my view, modes such as Pro-Am as well). There’s room for a more casual style in The Playground and The Streets, and I feel that showboating moves that push the boundaries of realism are appropriate in those modes. I also feel it’s better to start out with a sim game and dial back realism as necessary, rather than try to get a sim experience out of a game that just isn’t built for it.

So, to answer the question of whether or not basketball gamers are still sim, I would say yes, but we don’t make up as much of the demographic as we used to. It’s just the way it goes when a game has to cater to a wider audience, and times do change. Still, I believe NBA Live and NBA 2K should remain faithful to their sim roots and would like to see more support for that style, especially with some of the great minds they have working on the games. However, it’s not just about what we sim heads want. Balance between sim and casual is something that both EA and 2K will have to work out, and hopefully, both will arrive at the best possible compromise moving forward.

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