Monday Tip-Off: Is It Me, Or The Games?

Monday Tip-Off: Is It Me, Or The Games?

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 whether some of my complaints about basketball video games are on me, or the games themselves.

I’ve been playing basketball video games since the 90s, becoming a part of the online community – then largely centred on NBA Live – towards the end of the decade. As you may or may not know, I started out with my own NBA Live fansite – the NBA Live Domain – not long after I discovered the NLSC and modding, and decided to get involved with the scene. I took over the NLSC in August of 2001, a couple of months before turning 17. At times it’s somewhat overwhelming to reflect on the passage of time, but it has indeed been more than two decades since I started this journey!

What does this mean? Well, I’m sure that some people would have unflattering things to say about me still being a content creator for basketball video games in my thirties, but we needn’t concern ourselves with mean-spirited remarks from small minds with an axe to grind. With that being said, it is true that after all these years and all the different games I’ve played, I am now in the upper end of the demographic. As an Elder Millennial, I’m in a weird place where I’m simultaneously a terrible young person and a bitter old head, depending on your generation relative to mine. I may be a little of both, and so sometimes I wonder where the problem lies when I have gripes.

Obviously, my views have changed over time. I’d like to think that in the years since I began creating content for basketball games, I’ve matured and gained more insightful perspectives. I’ve played many titles, good and bad, which I believe has allowed me to expand my knowledge of the genre, as well as develop the necessary criteria to be constructively critical. That’s not to say that young people can’t be critics. I was able to formulate valid opinions all those years ago, and I’m hardly unique in that regard! The more that you consume and experience however, the more insight you gain. You have more points of reference, constantly learning and observing trends over time.

Got Badges? Advertising in The Neighborhood (NBA 2K18)

At least, that’s the idea. It’s all too easy to get stuck in your ways, and become averse to change. Youthful excitement can also give way to cynicism far too readily, though what seems cynical may indeed be healthy scepticism. It’s also easy to forget your age, and no, it’s not because you’re senile! Here’s the thing about getting older: you’re aware of it physically, but not always mentally. You register that your knees and back have some wear and tear because you can feel that, but your thoughts and personality endure. In your mind, you’re still young, still the same person as before. As such, it doesn’t automatically occur to you that you’re no longer in the younger demographic.

You come to realise this when you hear about an actor, band, or recording artist, and have no idea about their work, despite once being very informed about pop culture. It’s the realisation that your favourite band isn’t being played by stations catering to young people. Scratch that; young people aren’t streaming that music! Forget it being over a decade since your all-time favourite TV show premiered; that’s how long it’s been since it ended (unless it’s The Simpsons). It blew my mind when it dawned on me that more time has passed between now and when I really got into basketball, than how many years separate Bill Russell’s last championship from Michael Jordan’s first!

What I’m getting at here is that I understand not everything in a new NBA 2K game is going to be for me. I have to be careful about making blanket statements such as “no basketball gamer wants that”; after all, there’s a good chance it’s aimed at someone much younger that will find it appealing. Times, trends, and preferences do change, and they certainly have in regards to basketball gaming. It doesn’t mean that my views, preferences, and criticisms are invalid, but I’m perhaps far more likely to be in the minority. Furthermore, changes aren’t bad simply because I don’t like them, and it doesn’t mean that basketball video games haven’t improved (or are undeniably worse).

Venice Beach LIVE Event in NBA Live 19

So, when I dislike something about a new game, what’s going on? Have I grown too cynical, or failed to move with the times? Have undesirable changes been made, or are they just undesirable to me because I refuse to change? Is it me, or the games? It’s both. Yes, covering basketball games for many years and enduring the ups and downs of titles succeeding and failing to live up to expectations, has had an impact. I may be quick to criticise, but I’m not naively trusting, either. My habits and preferences may not match current trends, but I’ve also seen changes to video games in general that are anti-consumer and detrimental to the overall gameplay experience. It goes both ways.

I’ve also noticed that younger basketball gamers share similar criticisms, whether it’s a lack of matchmaking in the online scene, fun being sacrificed to increase recurrent revenue from microtransactions, or the toxicity of appealing to elitists rather than making games enjoyable and accessible. NBA Live 19 failing to move the needle proves that giving the cold shoulder to veteran voices didn’t help in appealing to a “younger, new demographic”. It turns out that we share a lot of opinions as to what makes a great basketball game, because some things don’t change. Just putting it out there again for the benefit of the worst community manager NBA Live has ever had.

Yes, I’ve changed, but that’s also gone hand in hand with the way basketball games have evolved (or declined). As microtransactions have become pushier, I’ve grown more fed up with and critical of them. As developer blogs have become less reliable and truthful, I’m less inclined to believe them and get hyped for the new release. As I watched NBA Live struggle and morph into an underwhelming hybrid with NBA Street that focuses on live service content and clothing, I became less optimistic and willing to give the series a pass for not being at the level it needed to be. I’m not the only one with these criticisms, and again, they’re coming from younger gamers too.

MyCAREER Remains Fun in Older Games (NBA 2K14)

I’m still passionate about basketball video games. I care enough to continue to create content, and suggest ways that they can improve. I still play them, including games from the past generation. I want to like the new game that comes out every year; in fact, I’d prefer to love it! If I can still have a blast with old favourites, and discover some new ones as I did upon revisiting the PlayStation 4 version of NBA 2K14, then I haven’t lost my appreciation for the genre. These are still experiences that I can enjoy, and newer games are theoretically capable of catering to. Design choices – some of which are influenced by recurrent revenue – unfortunately stand in the way of that.

As I alluded to though, these problems are not exclusive to basketball games. Once publishers discovered that they could make more money with special editions and pre-order bonuses featuring content that should be in the game by default, and continue to make even more money via microtransactions post-release, gaming was never going to be the same. Loot boxes now replace unlockables, modes are designed around the push for recurrent revenue, and games go up for pre-order before we’ve even seen any gameplay. Demos, by and large, have ceased to be a thing. Live service content has made games disposable, and practices like season passes have become normalised.

That’s the really unfortunate part. There are ways that gaming is worse off, or at least we’re not getting the same value for money. Because it’s expected though, criticism is shrugged off and sneered at as a “boomer take”. It’s why the “it’s optional” or “it’s a business” excuse that’s so often made for microtransactions is baffling, because it ignores the inferior design and intentional restriction of fun that is a direct result of those mechanics. It’s puzzling that anyone would consider getting less content, and needing to pay even more after a full-priced purchase for an optimal experience, a defendable practice. “Value for money is so 2005, old head!” is not exactly a gotcha.

Interesting Fashions in The City (NBA 2K23)

When I spoke to Rod Reddekopp about the early days of NBA Live, we discussed how gaming has changed. Rod said that back then, it was all about making the best basketball game they could, and the consistent improvements in the series show their dedication to that philosophy. I do believe that developers still care about that and want to give us a great experience, but with Triple-A titles these days, they’re also answering to the suits calling the shots. In the eternal “are video games art” debate, newer games make a great case with their depth and aesthetics, but a weak one when profits have clearly been prioritised over fun. There’s no denying that that happens.

Is it me or the games? It’s at least partly on me, certainly. In some ways I’ve changed, aging out of the key demographic and growing more critical. In other ways, I’ve not changed, so one could argue that my preferences aren’t with the times. The games have likewise changed though, following trends for better and for worse. If I didn’t enjoy gaming at all anymore – basketball or otherwise – I’d concede that it’s all on me, that I’d simply aged out of it as I have other hobbies and interests. That I can identify differences in design, both philosophical and technical, combined with the fact that I’m not alone in seeing them as issues, suggests it’s not just me, but also the games.

Where does that leave me, and anyone else who shares my views, irrespective of age? The bad news is that short of legislation or the bubble bursting, recurrent revenue and loot box mechanics aren’t going anywhere. NBA 2K’s chasing of trends and trying to compete with non-basketball video games will render some modes less appealing than they used to be. Fortunately, for those who enjoy old favourites, we can still play and mod many of them. As long as we don’t pin all our hopes on an uphill battle, we can continue to advocate. Continued NBA 2K fatigue will lead to more pushback. Maybe we are a bit grumpy, but it’ll become clear that there’s wisdom in these old heads.

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