Monday Tip-Off: Commercials on the Virtual Hardwood

Monday Tip-Off: Commercials on the Virtual Hardwood

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 some thoughts on the matter of basketball games featuring commercials.

It’s fair to say that we have mixed feelings about advertising. While we do understand that it’s a necessary part of running a business and that commercials support things we like, we find them annoying. The appeal of recording TV – either through DVR now or VCR back in the day – and watching it later instead of live, is that we can skip the ads. We consider ads intrusive, yet memorable ones become part of pop culture. One only has to look at the Super Bowl commercials and their popularity. And of course, product placement also draws scorn, as does sponsored content.

Like it or not, advertising is everywhere, and it looks like it’s coming to video games, too. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. While various developers including EA have recently signed deals with an in-game advertising platform named playerWON that will allow them to place ads in their games and incentivise gamers to watch them by offering rewards, it’s not the first time we’ve seen this mobile gaming model in Triple-A titles. That’s not to say that I approve. Like most gamers I’m sure, I rolled my eyes and grumbled at the news. It did get me thinking about the history of commercials in basketball gaming though, and previous attempts to advertise on the virtual hardwood.

In a way, sports games are more vulnerable to the inclusion of commercials, because we see a lot of advertising in sport. We’re used to seeing ads on the sidelines, the names of sponsors being repeated ad nauseum during halftime shows, and athletes utilised as walking billboards. Product placement and sponsors have been integrated into the presentation of real sports, so including them in their virtual counterparts is – and I acknowledge the danger in saying this – arguably a form of realism. However, there’s no denying that if we see an ad for Gatorade, Nike, or another NBA sponsor on a dorna in NBA 2K or NBA Live, it blends in and lines up with what we see on TV.

Topps Player of the Game in NBA Live 95 (SNES)

Now that NBA jerseys have sponsorship patches, we also expect to see them on the in-game uniforms because if they’re missing, it’s not authentic. We expect to see real shoe and clothing brands, and don’t really consider it product placement because it’s an aspect of the NBA and wider basketball culture. In short, commercials and other forms of advertising are ubiquitous in sports. Thus, broadly speaking, we’re far more open to them having a place in sports video games than other genres. It’s usually not until it becomes particularly intrusive or inappropriate that we have a problem with it. In fact, with accurate dorna mods, we actually place more ads in the games ourselves!

But let’s take a look back at the history of advertising and product placement on the virtual hardwood. Ads for Baby Ruth and Nestle Crunch appeared in NBA Live 98 PC, both on dornas and other places. I wouldn’t call it intrusive, but they were right there on the Jumbotron that the camera panned up to when the game was paused. A few years before that, the Player of the Game in NBA Live 95 was sponsored by Topps. I don’t remember ever thinking much of that at the time. They were a brand that made basketball cards back in the 90s, and there was always a brand when they announced the Player of the Game on TV. It was just a realistic presentation detail.

Over the years, we’ve seen other brands that sponsor the NBA show up in NBA Live and NBA 2K. Sprite has been a fairly consistent one, “sponsoring” different parts of the games such as replays. I recall McDonald’s and Toyota logos appearing in some of the halftime screens in NBA Live. HP, Sprint, T-Mobile, KIA, Mobil, Gatorade, and Jordan Brand; they’ve all appeared in similar contexts to how we’d see them in a real NBA broadcast. Once again, in that respect they’re actually a realistic detail, which has had the unfortunate effect of normalising their presence. It’s been that way since the 90s, and like I said, we’ll even mod dornas to add commercials for more accuracy.

Gatorade Timeout in MyCAREER (NBA 2K19)

Still, if that’s where it ended, it wouldn’t be so bad. We can argue that it’s realistic, and its presence doesn’t impact gameplay. However, there are examples of commercials and product placement affecting the on-court experience. If you play the NBA side of MyCAREER – and yes, online gamers, a lot of people do – you may have noticed that in the last few NBA 2K games, we haven’t been able to skip the timeout cutscene until five seconds have elapsed (in other modes, you can skip as soon as the timer appears). On Next Gen, that’s actually been increased to fifteen seconds. Now, tell me: what else appears on the overlay next to the countdown during timeouts in NBA 2K?

Yes, that’s right: Gatorade branding! Again, its appearance is authentic, but in this case it’s actively intrusive because we’re unable to skip the cutscene until the Gatorade logo has been on screen for an ample length of time. It doesn’t force us to sit through the entire length of a timeout, but those five seconds add up over time, and the new fifteen second duration adds up even quicker. Call it petty griping if you will, but just as the approach to microtransactions has slowly but steadily grown pushier, so too has one of the game’s main product placements gone from an innocuous background detail to impacting the gameplay experience. What’s next: full commercial breaks?

Alright, that’s highly unlikely and somewhat alarmist, but that does bring us to the matter of full blown commercials in basketball video games. This is something that will apparently become far more common in games this generation, but as I said, we have already seen this in basketball titles. While NBA Live has been much lighter on recurrent revenue mechanics – though who’s to say what they’d be like if the games were better received – NBA Live 15 did include optional commercials that you could watch for a small amount of Ultimate Team coins. This is a similar arrangement to what will apparently be the norm with the ads that are provided by playerWON.

Unskippable Snowfall Ad in NBA 2K19

NBA 2K has been more direct in running commercials, including unskippable ads in NBA 2K19 and NBA 2K20 during loading screens. Just to add to the controversy of including a gimmick from a freemium game in a Triple-A release, some of the ads have promoted content that isn’t family friendly, such as the show Snowfall. It didn’t help that these ads began appearing around the same time that the games were on sale, attracting a new influx of gamers at a lower price point. Lest it look like I’m picking on 2K here, certain EA games have done similar things. It’s a rare publisher that won’t press its luck like this, though as Owen Good noted, the backlash tends to blow over.

This again speaks to the dangers of normalising advertising in sports games, as well as shady practices in gaming in general. Already there are gamers who will defend these practices, prepped with an array of thought-terminating cliches ranging from “it’s realistic” (admittedly true) to “it’s necessary for profits” (demonstrably shilling for predatory practices). As always, the problem with ignoring these concerns and dismissing objections as “whining” is that eventually it gets so bad that by the time only the most shameless shills are defending bad practices, the experience has been spoiled by sacrificing enjoyment for squeezing gamers for as much profit as possible.

With that being said, I’m not concerned that the looming prospect of playerWON helping companies to inject commercials and product placement into their games will ruin basketball titles, because we’ve already seen it on the virtual hardwood. We’re accustomed to advertising showing up where it appears in real life. We’ve seen in-game commercials incentivised with in-game currency, and probably taken advantage of it; I know I did. Unskippable ads in NBA 2K had the community in an uproar, but like most controversies with 2K, it blew over and didn’t hurt them in the long run. We endure the delay in skipping timeout cutscenes, mostly because we have no choice.

Commercials in NBA Live 98

I’m not saying that these aren’t issues and that we shouldn’t speak out against them; quite the opposite. I’m just saying that when it comes to the virtual hardwood, we’ve already seen it. I don’t wonder what might happen, because it’s already happened in basketball games. There’s no need to worry about the possibilities, because frankly they’re already a reality. Like microtransactions, commercials in basketball games are here to stay. It would take a successful boycott or legislation to get rid of them, and both seem like a long shot, outside of countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands (to 2K’s chagrin). Again, by all means speak up, but keep in mind it’s an uphill battle.

To that end, there’s a fair way that basketball games can incorporate commercials and product placement. Unskippable ads should not be in a Triple-A game, especially one that pushes microtransactions as hard as NBA 2K does. If there are going to be ads, then making them optional and incentivising us with VC is preferable, and something we can benefit from if the payout is fair (which admittedly, it may not be). I would also suggest that the mere presence of brands is fairly benign. Unintrusive advertising that resembles what we’d see on an NBA broadcast is acceptable and nothing new. It is admittedly authentic, and has been an aspect of games since at least the mid 90s.

The reality is that we’re going to see commercials and product placement in basketball games. I don’t think 2K has signed on with playerWON yet, but it won’t surprise me if they do. Those practices are certainly in line with their business model. On that note, we’ve seen NBA 2K and NBA Live dabble with in-game advertising, both benign and intrusive. The benign we can get on board with, but when it gets out of hand, all we can do is push back. I hope that we do that, but it’s also important to recognise how this has been normalised, and thus a long time coming. Commercials are a famliar sight on the virtual hardwood, and that’s highly unlikely to change any time soon.

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