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 the appeal of being a developer working on basketball video games, and a story about an opportunity that I had some ten years ago.
For those of us who have grown up playing video games of any genre, the prospect of one day being able to work on them ourselves is very appealing. From what we’ve heard from people in the industry – including former community members who have been hired by EA Sports and Visual Concepts – it is indeed an amazing and exciting career, in many ways a dream job. It does come at a price, however: long hours, harsh deadlines, and intense scrutiny from a target audience that can often be extremely toxic. Much is demanded of a video game developer, and it’s clear that you need to be all in on the job, as well as willing and able to weather the tough aspects of the gig.
I don’t believe that I’ve ever told this story publicly, but around ten years ago, I had an opportunity to join the team at EA Canada as a developer on the NBA Live series. As my continued presence here and lack of in-game credits would indicate, I didn’t take the job. It was a difficult decision for reasons I’ll get into shortly, but beyond any personal issues or possible concerns about the direction of NBA Live, I had to ask myself one rather pertinent question: did I really want to do it? Would it truly be a dream job for me, one worth moving to the other wide of the world for? In short, and with apologies to William Shakespeare: to be, or not to be, a developer?
During the NBA Live 09 community event in Burnaby, I was asked by the then-community manager for NBA Live whether I was interested in joining the team. We didn’t discuss too many specifics, but my role likely would have been working on the rosters, helping brainstorm ideas, and things of that nature. Nevertheless, it would’ve been a wonderful opportunity, and a foot in the door. I was interested and promised to mull it over upon returning home to Australia. I spoke to the then-executive producer of NBA Live by email and phone as I pondered the decision. When it came time to give EA Sports an answer, I ultimately decided not to pursue the opportunity further.
Why did I turn it down when my predecessor and co-founder of the NLSC, Tim, had accepted a similar offer some eight years prior? As I said, there were a number of reasons. The first was mental health. I don’t want to go into all the details, but at the time, I definitely wasn’t in a place where I could pack up and move to the other side of the world, away from my family and friends. As it was, even getting on a plane to fly overseas for the community events was tough. I also had some personal commitments that I wanted to honour, and a freelance business that I was trying to get off the ground. I don’t think that I could’ve taken the job back then, even if I wanted to.
Of course, that’s the other issue: I wasn’t sure if I truly wanted to be a developer. When the role was pitched to me on the last night of that community event, I really was excited at the prospect. It could’ve been the start of a career in an industry I’m passionate about, working on a video game that I’d grown up playing. The more I thought about it though, the more doubts I had. I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy being on the other side of the fence, so to speak. Also, was I cut out to be a video game developer? Would the job feel rewarding enough to make such a big move? Could I represent my fellow basketball gamers to our mutual satisfaction? Could I withstand the criticism?
I remembered how Tim had been treated when he joined the NBA Live team. At first, the community had been proud and supportive. One of us would be working on the game, which surely meant that all our wishes would be granted! As NBA Live hit its first real rough patch, however, Tim became a lightning rod for blame. People, quite unfairly, took their frustrations out on him. They were unhappy that he didn’t interact with us enough, or share information that, in reality, could and would have placed his job in jeopardy. When my opportunity came, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I too would be called a traitor and a sell-out, no matter how well I performed in the role.
Again, I must stress that there were multiple factors that led to me declining the job. It wasn’t just a fear of becoming a “fallen hero” in our corner of the basketball gaming community. However, Tim’s mistreatment back then stands as an example of one of the more thankless aspects of being a video game developer. It’s an issue that’s only grown worse with the rise in popularity of social media. Not only do we have greater access to the companies that develop and publish basketball video games than ever before, but also the individual developers who work on them. This is great in terms of providing feedback and asking questions, but it also facilitates hostile interactions.
Those are bad enough when they’re restricted to complaining about the games, but oftentimes, the attacks are needlessly and shamefully personal. I’ve seen developers attacked on Twitter because they’ve dared to discuss other interests, instead of the game they’re working on. There seems to be an expectation that they should violate the terms of their employment to give us a “scoop”, or only discuss matters related to their job. The latter is a reasonable expectation when it comes to the official accounts for NBA Live and NBA 2K, but not for a developer’s personal Twitter. None of us talk about our work 24/7, and there are often things that we’re not at liberty to discuss.
Let’s put this in perspective for a moment. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I regularly Tweet about Just Between Us. Now, if this were a site about comedy and not basketball video games, I’d gladly gush at length about the comedic acumen of Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn, from the sharpness of their wit and writing to the way that they’ve both revitalised and revolutionised the classic dynamic of an odd couple comedy duo. Suffice to say, I’m a fan. As a content creator, I know how good it feels when someone compliments and shares your work, so I like to pay it forward. Gaby and Allison absolutely deserve all the acclaim they get, and then some.
Now, if I were a developer and still doing that, no doubt I’d be chided and told to get back to work; as though it were impossible for me to take a few minutes out of my day to watch two of my favourite comedians and then share the video on social media. It happens all too often, and it can get quite nasty. Erika, a developer on NBA Live, has received some disgraceful Tweets in response to posting baby photos, as well as misogynistic insults from idiots taking exception to a woman working on a sports game. Of course, Erika has some savage comebacks that have forced more than a couple of bratty trolls to delete their Tweets, but it shouldn’t happen in the first place.
You may be inclined to say “Well, it’s the Internet. People are jerks, get over it.” To that, I would say “Well, I think we can do better.” I’ve written about constructive feedback on several occasions, and generally speaking, I’m an advocate for treating others as you’d like to be treated, as well as taking a mature and civil approach. I’d imagine that as a developer, you would have to become accustomed to filtering out the garbage to focus on the comments that have something relevant and useful to say. With that being said, for our part, we should avoid that behaviour, and support the community members who achieve their dream of entering the industry.
The prospect of dealing with the toxic element of the fanbase, combined with the long hours during the crunch and moving to the other side of the world, were drawbacks that I had to consider when I was deciding whether or not to pursue the job. I also wondered whether I’d lose my passion for the games, fearing that working on them would lead to me losing my desire to play them, which in turn would no doubt affect the quality of my work. Sure, tinkering with the games and playing them is fun as a hobby, but would that enjoyment cease if basketball games were my occupation? I’m heartened to hear developers say that it hasn’t been the case for them, though.
Looking back all these years later, do I regret declining the offer? Yes and no. It would’ve been a tremendous opportunity and experience, and it’s unfortunate that it came along at a time that wasn’t right for me. However, with that in mind, I also believe that I made the right decision. Since then, I’ve been able to seek treatment for and improve my mental health, made some great new friends, and created content for the NLSC that I’m very proud of. I’ve experienced personal and professional growth and satisfaction that I might not have had if I’d uprooted in 2008. The subsequent debacle with NBA Elite 11 also suggests that it turned out to be the right call.
Still, being a job that I would at least give strong consideration to, I have wondered if I let my only chance slip away. Having said that, I believe that if it was meant to be and something that I really wanted to do, I would’ve jumped at the chance and never looked back. I couldn’t rule out the possibility if another offer comes along, but I do like being part of the community, making my contributions by creating content and building a rapport with the developers to pass along our feedback. As the adage goes, if it’s not an enthusiastic yes, then it’s really a no. For me to be the best I could be as a developer, I’d need to be able to say yes to the job without a second thought.
For a lot of people in our community, the answer would indeed be a strong yes. If that’s the case, then I would absolutely encourage you to follow your passion, and take advantage of any opportunities to join the development team at EA Tiburon or Visual Concepts. We’ve seen that both companies are ready and willing to hire talented and passionate fans that have a desire to work on the games. With that in mind, if you’re keen, I say go for it! For all the challenges, it does seem like an amazing and rewarding job if you’re serious about making video games. I’m not sure that it’s my calling, but if it’s yours, there are plenty of reasons to be a developer.
Consider the impact that former community members have had upon joining the teams at EA and 2K. When Tim joined the NBA Live development team, he had an immediate impact in terms of some long-desired roster management functions being added to the game. When Leftos joined the 2K team, he was given the opportunity to implement his vision of a franchise mode, which came to fruition in the form of the outstanding MyLEAGUE and MyGM modes. With people like them on the dev teams, we have some truly dedicated and knowledgeable individuals working on the games. It’s also never been easier to pass along suggestions and bug reports.
Naturally, some patience will be required. As with most jobs, you’ll likely have to start out at the bottom. You certainly won’t be in charge of a game’s overall direction, making all the big decisions. The ideas you have, and the community Wishlist that you came in armed with? Some of that stuff may have to wait. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a positive impact, and push for features and changes that you know your fellow basketball gamers want. When it’s all said and done, you’ll hopefully get to play an even better game than the ones you had growing up; one that you had a hand in creating, no less, with the satisfaction of seeing your name there in the credits.
If the timing and the circumstances are right for you, then I would suggest that none of the more unpleasant aspects of being a video game developer should dissuade you from pursuing your dream. Hopefully, those of us who remain on this side of the community can be supportive, and happy for your success. In the meantime, create content, share your ideas on how basketball games can improve, and build a rapport with developers who frequent the community. As several community members have demonstrated, it’s an effective way to get your foot in the door. If it’s a career you can see yourself in, there should be no question of whether to be, or not to be, a developer.