Monday Tip-Off: I’ve Got To Use My Imagination

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 how we no longer have to use our imagination when it comes to career and franchise modes.

Yes, the title of this week’s column is indeed a reference to a song by Gladys Knight & the Pips. That’s about as far as the reference goes, however. Truth be told, I only know the song because Forrest Gump is one of my all-time favourite movies, and it’s on its soundtrack. In any case, imagination is a core component of gaming, no matter the genre. Whether we’re playing single player or multiplayer, we immerse ourselves in a virtual world. We share the goal of the player character, whether it’s saving the world, winning a championship, or causing mayhem as a goose.

Imagination has always been – and to some extent still is – a big part of basketball gaming. Whether we’re assuming the role of a general manager or coach, taking control of a star player, or stepping onto the hardwood or blacktop with our own avatar, there’s an element of fantasy at play. Of course, many years ago, we had to be far more imaginative as far as scenarios and stories. In franchise and career play, we filled in the gaps, created our own back stories, and would even role-play in our story section. These days, we don’t have to use our imagination so much, especially in the story-driven MyCAREER. Needless to say, there are benefits and drawbacks to this.

I was inspired to broach this subject after talking to Kenny about MyCAREER in older games. Kenny mentioned that he found an old MyCAREER save from a title that didn’t have a story with cutscenes. We reminisced about how we used to be able to set an age for our MyPLAYER, and in doing so, create our own back story. We could be an older rookie, finally making the jump to the NBA after playing overseas. We could be a top young prospect, as most MyCAREER stories cast us as. Once we started playing through a career, the story was in our imagination. Flavour content such as press conferences helped us to role-play, but the rest we made up ourselves.

Winning the NBA Championship in NBA 2K13's MyCAREER

There was something special about that. It encouraged us to be creative, especially if we were maintaining a story topic in the Forum. We weren’t bound to a character that didn’t represent our personality, speaking dialogue in cutscenes that we’d never be inclined to say. Just as we did with franchise gaming, we made up our own subplots as we played through the season. We developed our own rivalries, wove stories about the CPU-controlled teams by looking at the results, statistics, and trades that went down. There was no script to follow, no off-court drama unless we wanted to make that part of the tale. Our imagination allowed us to have some unique experiences.

That’s one of the main drawbacks of the story-driven approach that became a part of the MyCAREER experience last generation. At the end of the day, we all play as the same character, going through the same story. We’ve had a few options that branch the story here and there, but for the most part, it’s the same narrative. Many of the stories themselves have been quite similar, and the character has often been more egotistical and entitled than I for one would prefer my avatar to be. Some of the MyCAREER stories have been quite bad – looking at you, NBA 2K18 – and even the better ones have felt like a long slog to get to the meat of the mode every year.

At the same time, the stories have commendable production values. We’ve come a long way since the laughable acting of NBA 2K15’s mentors. Stories have also been far more “one size fits all” since Spike Lee’s “Livin’ Da Dream” resulted in hilariously miscast protagonists. Also, let’s face it: not everyone wants to use their imagination. It’s an old school idea, and while not everything from previous generations is outdated and unsuitable for modern games, we also expect innovation. Cutting out the story and asking us to imagine our own background narrative probably wouldn’t resonate with younger gamers. It would feel like a step backwards to a more barebones mode.

Haley Joel Osment as Zack Coleman (NBA 2K19 MyCAREER)

To paraphrase a point Kenny made in our conversation, it’s easier to sell a story with well-known actors and cutscenes than a scenario where we have to imagine all of it ourselves. I should note that this isn’t intended to be stereotypical old head grumbling about kids these days not having any imagination and needing to be spoon-fed stories. Video games have evolved as an entertainment medium. Excuse plots and minimalist storytelling are no longer acceptable in Triple-A video games. We used to make up stories and share them with each other because it was fun, yes, but also because we wanted a deeper experience. Back then, we needed to fantasise it; now, we don’t.

The games can’t go backwards in that regard, but all the same, I do miss the need to use our imagination. For one thing, it had the benefit of tailoring the story to fit what was happening during gameplay. As many people have pointed out over the years, it’s ridiculous that MyCAREER stories will hype us up as this can’t-miss prospect, even when we’re a pathetic 60 Overall and struggling to put up numbers. Alternatively, we could be playing well and unselfishly, but then the story kicks back in and we’re being chewed out for our play and behaviour. There can be a ridiculous dissonance between what’s being said in the cutscenes, and the action that’s playing out on the court.

It can also be quite frustrating when predetermined scenarios impact the gameplay. When it was up to our imagination, we were either letting a gameplay result dictate the story, or choosing to create a scenario for ourselves. Now that we’re following along with a story, the predetermined scenarios take that control out of our hands, and we all end up playing the same story beats. And yes, we can skip the story, but doing so usually gives up control over our destiny, as well as the opportunity to maximise our VC earnings and grind for Badges. Even if you’re not a fan of the story, skipping it can often be more painful in the long run, because of those missed opportunities.

MyCAREER Cutscenes Eliminate Imagination

Would the games ever go back to putting our imaginations in charge of the story? I don’t think they would, mainly because I don’t think they feasibly can. Again, I think it would be seen as a major downgrade to MyCAREER. We can wring our hands all we like at 2K focusing on flash over substance, on developing love interests more than adjusting Teammate Grade logic, but the simple fact of the matter is that we’d miss that flash if it were gone. We’ve been conditioned as an audience to expect those production values in a MyCAREER story. An old school MyCAREER mode that’s all menus and NBA gameplay simply doesn’t look good in a trailer; not anymore.

If there were an option to play a stripped down version of MyCAREER that was still connected and utilised the same progression systems, I do think that it would find an audience. However, I could also see that mode being an afterthought, which means missing features and little to no post-release support. Something I would suggest is to offer greater rewards to gamers who play through the story, rather than penalise those who skip it. For example, boost the starting salary you get upon playing through the story, rather than harshly reduce it when the story is skipped. The incentive to play through the story should come from perks, not harsh punishments if you don’t.

As far as using our imagination is concerned, that’s probably been relegated to being a traditional franchise mode activity. That’s better than not being able to indulge in any fantasy beyond gameplay. Look, as games evolve, some concepts will be left in the past. I’ve still enjoyed MyCAREER in recent years, and the story-driven approach does have its merits. I’m grateful to have grown up with games where I had to use my imagination, though. It helped to create some basketball gaming memories that are uniquely mine, and inspired creative projects. Besides, the stories still have their plot holes and other weird moments. To explain them, I’ve got to use my imagination.

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