Monday Tip-Off: Influencers on the Virtual Hardwood

Monday Tip-Off: Influencers 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 influencers in the basketball gaming community, and the influence they wield on the virtual hardwood.

If you take part in basketball gaming Twitter, you’ll recall that not too long ago, Flight publicly rebuffed overtures from Ronnie 2K to be brought into the fold as one of the “official” influencers for NBA 2K. I won’t go into the whole history of everything that happened between Flight and Ronnie, in part because it’s not really my brand, but also because there are others that can tell the story in more detail. The tl;dr version is that Ronnie publicly blackballed Flight from getting a logo, calling him a “bully” over some of his remarks. He’s since changed his tune, but for Flight it’s little, too late.

Look, while I can appreciate brands and digital marketers picking and choosing who they want to work with, and find it understandable if they’re hesitant to collaborate with someone when there’s been some friction, I really have to commend Flight in this situation. The exposure and other perks influencers gain from having agreements with 2K would be tough for most people to turn down; even if it does mean giving up some autonomy in your content. To rebuff Ronnie’s offer that came now that his audience makes him too appealing to blackball shows guts and integrity on Flight’s part. It’s an example that all influencers in the basketball gaming community should follow.

That’s not to say that I’m suggesting all influencers turn down opportunities to work with 2K Sports, or EA Sports for that matter. Beyond the benefits as a content creator, it also places you in a position to speak for the community and effect positive changes in the games themselves. At least, that’s how it works in theory. I’m not suggesting that all influencers are sell-outs or poorly represent the community when they work with 2K or EA, because that simply isn’t true. There are certain pressures that come with those arrangements though, and they can lead to questionable and self-serving attitudes; everything from an unwillingness to call out problems, to outright shilling.

Kevin Durant dribbles the basketball in NBA Elite 11

Now, before I get all comfortable on my high horse, let me say that I understand those pressures and how they can affect one’s content. In an effort to be fair-minded and optimistic, it’s all too easy to go overboard on positivity, to the point where you gloss over problems. When I think back to my impressions of the NBA Elite 11 demo, I know that my hopefulness diluted my criticism, and it was a mistake. The person who called me out on it may have been a problematic former member of the community that had taken it upon themselves to be especially nasty to me, and even harass me in the wake of being shown the door, but they were right that I’d gone easy on the demo.

It wasn’t my intention to shill for EA and there was honesty in my impressions, but I’d definitely allowed optimism and hopefulness to cloud my judgement. In trying to be fair and honest, but also not burn any bridges with needlessly venomous critique, I ended up walking the fence. This is always a possibility, and thus a concern of mine, when I’ve attended an NBA Live community event. You have to be careful with your impressions, because it’s an early build and you don’t know what will change – for better or for worse – between the event and the game’s release. We’re encouraged to give honest feedback and write honest impressions, and most of us do just that.

Of course, it’s easy to be influenced by the excitement of the situation. You’re getting an early glimpse of the game, which is always cool to begin with, plus it makes you inclined to forgive some roughness that’s to be expected of a beta. Not only are you getting an early look at an unreleased game (which is great for your content) and being invited to give input into its development, you’re being treated well and having a good time. At some events, you’re also limited in what you’re shown and get to play. While you want to represent the community, you also don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you these opportunities, or be unfair to the hardworking people you’re meeting.

LIVE Pro-Am in NBA Live 16

My point is that I get it. Influencers who end up working with video game companies are themselves at risk of being influenced by an entity that wants to sell a product, and sees content creators as another means of marketing. It doesn’t mean that everyone becomes a shill upon establishing a relationship with a publisher, but you can end up sugar-coating criticism because you’re trying to watch what you say and not step on any toes. It’s a tough balance to strike, and many influencers are looking out for their fellow gamers. However, the companies hold all the power, especially when you’re in the system and speaking out means giving up access to exclusives and other perks.

As such, if Flight ever changes his mind and works with 2K, I personally wouldn’t begrudge him at all. I met him at an NBA Live 16 community event, and he’s a good bloke. I’d trust him to speak his mind, logo or no logo. As I said though, I commend him for having the integrity to decline Ronnie’s offer after being called a “bully” over his past criticisms. A lot of people would jump at the chance because of the exposure and access it would bring, and while I can understand that decision, it can (and does) lead to what some would rightfully call shilling and selling out. There are influencers and other people covering the games whose honesty and reliability is questionable.

They’re the ones that downplay the issue of microtransactions, usually with the “it’s optional” excuse that Jim Sterling in particular has debunked several times. They’re the ones that gloss over issues in modes that don’t concern them, leading to reviews that barely scratch the surface of the game, and are little more than glorified press releases with some token opinions tossed in here and there. They’re the ones who sneer at valid criticism and outrage over shady practices, often with words like “cry-babies”. They’re the ones turning a blind eye to, or even propping up, the loot box mechanics in MyTEAM. They’re working for the suits, not their fellow gamers.

MyTEAM Promo in MyCAREER (NBA 2K20)

And that’s a shame, because their fellow gamers are their audience; the following that allowed them to have enough clout to become influencers and get all of those perks in the first place. Yes, it was also their hard work and consistency in creating content, while doing everything that it takes to build an audience and maintain that following. However, I believe that all influencers and content creators do have an obligation to their audience to be honest and trustworthy, and to maintain that level of integrity when their success leads to new opportunities. This is especially true when those opportunities involve representing your audience and advocating on their behalf.

Since we all love analogies, consider the myriad of examples we have of NBA players that put up big numbers in a contract year, signed a massive deal, and then phoned it in afterwards. That’s what influencers are doing when they change gears and abstain from criticism, or ignore and even defend questionable practices, after they get an “in” with a company. Once again, I know the lure is strong, and it’s hard to give up any perks once you’ve grown accustomed to them. However, if the conditions of getting a logo and other goodies require you to lie, deceive, sugar-coat, and even support bad practices, then it’s not worth your integrity. It’s not worth mistreating your audience.

Needless to say, video game companies are hardly innocent here. Their marketing department is well aware of how enticing these arrangements are for influencers, how far it goes in legitimising them and expanding an audience that the company can then tap into. They know that they hold all the cards, and that it’s something that’ll appeal to younger content creators in particular. It’s a reason why many in the older crowd have been quietly shouldered out of feedback groups and community events where they were once sought out and welcomed. Experience, and yes, cynicism, makes them tougher to dazzle and manipulate. They’re easier to brand as not being “hip”, too.

Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks in NBA Live 19

Of course, this approach has obviously had its drawbacks for developers as well. In their efforts to seek out a “younger, new demographic”, EA Sports’ community liaisons have pushed out the old guard in favour of influencers that tend to prefer NBA 2K and have no affection for NBA Live, having not grown up with the game when it was king. This has been incredibly damaging to the direction and quality of NBA Live in my view, and the proof is in the pudding as far as the game’s failure to move the needle. As for NBA 2K, they’re obviously in a much better position, but have lost face with many basketball gamers while suffering their own slips in quality.

Influencers obviously shouldn’t be toxic individuals who can’t express constructive criticism, but they shouldn’t be “yes men”, either. It’s a tough balance, but it should be possible – and the intention of all influencers – to speak for the community while also providing developers with useful feedback and inevitably, some cheap marketing. For their part, companies shouldn’t be pulling power plays and using goodwill and trust that content creators have built to pull the wool over gamers’ eyes. I’m tired of reviews that read like press releases. I’m tired of MyTEAM trailers featuring familiar faces whooping as they pull top cards from juiced packs, purchased with house money.

Obviously, it takes two to tango, but I am more sympathetic to influencers because it’s hard to turn down those opportunities, and I know how even the best intentions can go awry when you’re afraid of rocking the boat. At the same time, as content creators we all have a choice when it comes to honesty and integrity, and if an agreement with a developer is asking you to make compromises in those areas, it’s your choice to do so. To that end, it puzzles me when people do stand by influencers and content creators who don’t respect them, and whose integrity is questionable. I know, “never argue with a Blue Tick”, but never shill for someone who isn’t looking out for you, either.

Ben Simmons dunks in NBA 2K20

I’ll admit that it’s disheartening to see the way things have changed in this regard. It was probably inevitable once NBA 2K became a pop culture juggernaut, and of course, platforms like YouTube and Twitch have changed the game as far as video game coverage. An old head like me grumbling in an article about the problems with influencers probably comes across as wildly out of touch. However, no matter the medium or the age of the content creator, integrity counts for a lot, and we need to look out for each other as consumers and gamers. Wielding influence on the virtual hardwood is not a responsibility to take lightly, when the opportunity arises.

To established and aspiring influencers alike, I say that you should respect yourself, and your audience. Know your value as a marketing outlet for companies, and the way you can have a positive change on basketball games by standing for what’s right. Listen to what the community is saying, and broach those issues respectfully and constructively with the development team. Think long and hard about whether any perks are worth it, if they require you to be dishonest or deceptive to maintain your status. Is a logo worth swallowing your pride and abandoning your values? Only you can answer that, but I believe that Flight’s examples should speak volumes to us all.

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