We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Join me as I begin the week here at the NLSC with my opinions and commentary on basketball gaming topics, as well as tales of the fun I’ve been having on the virtual hardwood. This week, I’m tipping things off with some reflections on the role that humour plays in basketball gaming.
So, a quick note before we get into this week’s topic: yes, I do mean “humor”. I’m spelling it “humour” because Australian English, like British English, tosses the letter “u” into a bunch of words that American English doesn’t. I know it’s not an issue for most people, but I have received the occasional comment about supposed “mistakes” and “typos” in my articles because I’m not using American spelling. It’s a subject that’s bound to come up from time to time on a site discussing basketball, thanks to “centre” and “center”! In any case, humour, humor…I’m talking about the same thing.
With that out of way, humour is something that we do find in basketball video games, both sim and arcade. It obviously has its place in the genre, though the tone of a game tends to influence how heavily it leans into being humorous. Needless to say, personal preference is also a factor here. In a sim game, too much humour may have a negative effect on the atmosphere, making it feel too silly. Then again, how much is too much depends on how seriously you’re taking your virtual hoops! Conversely, arcade titles invite more humour in their presentation and gameplay, and can seem dry without it. When a game is able to strike the right balance, it adds fun to the virtual hardwood.
Now, you may think that I have a very specific example in mind, from a game that was released in the early 2000s. I will be bringing that up, but it’s actually one of its contemporaries that inspired me to write this article. As we’ve discussed on the NLSC Podcast, Dee has been hosting some Parsec sessions where we’ve played a couple of the NBA Inside Drive games that were released exclusively on the original Xbox. I didn’t have the opportunity to play them when they were new, so I’ve really enjoyed seeing what they’re all about. On top of the impressive aspects of virtual basketball, the character of the games is something that’s really stood out, especially the humour.
First of all, there’s the commentary. Kevin Calabro’s commentary has always included colourful synonyms and metaphors. That’s something he brought to the Inside Drive series as the voice of the game, but there’s also his banter with Marques Johnson. Johnson has some funny lines, such as when he’ll complain about being expected to have a witty thought ready to go after Calabro throws to him during the introduction. He also chips in with some light-hearted remarks during gameplay and following highlights. It’s not especially silly, but I’d still argue that Inside Drive’s commentary wasn’t quite as serious compared to the contemporary NBA Live and NBA 2K games.
There was also more humour sprinkled in with the PA Announcer and other arena audio. The PA Announcer would randomly deliver messages to fans in the arena advising them to move their cars, with the description of the cars (and sometimes the fans themselves) being rather comedic. There’s also something about hearing vendors audibly selling hot dogs and other wares, or a single person in the crowd booing at the top of their lungs, that’s way funnier than you might expect! Again, the atmosphere and commentary isn’t completely wacky, but it’s not taking itself too seriously either. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed upon finally getting to play those Inside Drive titles.
What’s interesting is that there would’ve been a time when I might not have been so receptive to that design choice. Even today, I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily my preference for a sim game, and I do appreciate the more serious tone of NBA Live and NBA 2K in that regard. However, since they already had that approach covered, why not try to be different with your presentation? That’s something that I can better appreciate nowadays, especially since we don’t have alternatives in the basketball gaming space. I still think the premiere brand shouldn’t go too overboard with more humorous and light-hearted content, but there’s definitely a place for it in the genre.
That brings us to the aforementioned example that I’m sure won’t be a surprise: the Courtside Comedy cutscenes in NBA Live 2003. At the time, I was amused by them, but also felt they were overdone and the wrong tone for a game I wanted to see strive for realism. Over the years, I have developed a nostalgic fondness for them, but I also stand by my criticism and belief that it wasn’t quite the right direction for the series. Also, timing is everything in comedy, and there were moments when those scenes felt rather poorly-timed and inappropriate. It’s one thing to mess with the coach during the regular season or All-Star Game, another to do so in a crucial Game 7 in the Playoffs.
I realise it’s impossible to point that out without sounding like a humourless killjoy; these are video games, after all! However, beyond the importance of a game having the right vibe, when everything tries too hard to be funny, it usually ends up diluting the humour. NBA Live 2003 leaning in an arcade direction didn’t help, either. The NBA Inside Drive games, though perhaps too fast-paced for the era they were set in, had more realistic action than NBA Live 2003. As such, it was the right blend of seriousness and levity. It was also carving out a place as an alternative with its own identity, whereas NBA Live had never been about clowning around and wacky antics.
Of course, even in the more serious NBA Live games, there’s been commentary that’s tried to be humorous. Usually, it was in the form of breaking the fourth wall. If you launched a shot from the backcourt when it absolutely didn’t make any sense to do so, the commentators would joke about hitting the wrong button or needing to read the manual. Messing up in the dunk contest would draw similar remarks about needing to go into the tutorial and practice mode. I’ve always had mixed feelings about them. On one hand, they’re a fun Easter egg in a video game. On the other hand, they are most certainly immersion-breaking, and can be triggered too often by routine mistakes.
For example, a snarky remark that breaks the fourth wall to talk about controls is fine if you accidentally or intentionally launch a shot from the backcourt with plenty of time left. If it’s just an errant pass leading to a turnover, or something else that goes realistically awry, it feels egregious. In that situation, the commentary should be directed at the virtual players, not the gamer. Incidentally, the NBA Playgrounds games made this mistake as well. Most of the “humour” in their commentary came from mocking the user for missing shots, being blocked, having the ball stolen, or otherwise coming up short, rather than remarking on the action in a funny way.
This led to the commentary being overly snarky and meta, and frankly, being snarky and breaking the fourth wall just for the sake of it isn’t inherently funny. Compare this to the outstanding commentary of Tim Kitzrow in so many NBA Jam titles. Yes, there are lines that break the fourth wall – particularly in the EA Sports releases – but they’re good-natured and witty. They poke fun at the staples of the series, or involve Tim losing track of the game and declaring they’re going to play a “fifth quarter”. For the most part though, the action is being described in fun, exciting, and humorous ways. It’s not just “You pressed the wrong button” or “You need to get better at the game.”
Tim Kitzrow’s commentary is also similar to Kevin Calabro’s in that he’ll employ creative similes and metaphors. Sometimes he’ll say “Nothing but net!”, but other times he’ll say “Like my wife’s top drawer, nothing but nylon!” When a player gets shoved to the ground, he’ll describe it as being knocked on his wallet, noting that “luckily it’s heavily-padded”. That’s only a miniscule taste of the lines that add humour and character to NBA Jam, just by describing the action in a fun way. There are lines that take playful jabs at us on the sticks, but they’re far more palatable than NBA Playgrounds’ snark. It’s the difference between genuine wit and edgy sarcasm.
With that being said, although Tim’s commentary is legendary, it wouldn’t be the right fit for NBA Live or NBA 2K, just as a fantastic NBA announcer like Kevin Harlan wouldn’t be suited to call NBA Jam’s action. Ultimately, it’s a matter of having the right tone and style for the type of game. This also applies to aspects such as the characters and scenes in MyCAREER stories, or jokes that are thrown in as Easter eggs and flavour content. Coach Brubaker chuckling “I love rookies” when he finds you with a hangover following a night out in New York added humour to the story. Everything about B-Fresh was, to use the popular expression these days, cringe.
A key point to remember here is that comedy – or more accurately, good comedy – isn’t as easy as the pros make it look. I’d like to think that most of us are capable of being funny every now and again, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we’re funnier than we really are. A good sense of humour doesn’t always translate into being able to craft a great joke, or make witty quips. Someone could be very creative and a fine storyteller, but their comedic chops are average; mid, if you will. If that person is trying to inject humour into a video game when that isn’t really their forte, the results are going to speak for themselves, just as in any other genre or medium.
And yes, humour is also subjective. Not only that, but even if something is to our taste, it might still feel out of place and poorly-timed. I’m not against the style of humour in NBA Live 2003, but as I’ve said before, it wasn’t what I wanted out of NBA Live. At the same time, the execution of a more light-hearted approach to commentary and presentation makes for a fun atmosphere in the NBA Inside Drive games. That isn’t even getting into enjoying things ironically, which definitely can be a factor as well. Bottom line, when it’s done well, humour does have a place on the virtual hardwood. Done poorly, it’s a painful reminder that not everyone’s a comedian.