Monday Tip-Off: Metacritic Scores & Basketball Games

Giannis Antetolounmpo dunks the basketball in NBA Live 18.

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 Metacritic scores, and how they relate to basketball games.

We’re less than three weeks away from the release of NBA Live 18 and NBA 2K18. It won’t be long before publications are getting their hands on the finished games, and vying to be the first to post their reviews. The most glowing reviews will be shared by the games’ official social media accounts, while we basketball gamers discuss the merits of each reviewer’s critique. At the end of the day, however, their approval or disapproval of each game will contribute to their respective Metacritic scores. Like all developers, both EA Sports and Visual Concepts will be hoping for the best result possible, as Metacritic scores are the yardstick for successful releases.

Generally speaking, that’s an understandable approach. While there can certainly be a disconnect between the opinions of professional reviewers and the general public, along with sales, Metacritic scores are a reasonable barometer for a game’s success. At the same time, when it comes to basketball games, and sports games in general for that matter, I’d argue that they’re not always accurate or fair. I’m not a huge fan of awarding numerical scores to games of any genre, and as far as basketball games are concerned, the extent to which the importance of Metacritic scores can be overblown is comparable to the overemphasis on overall ratings in the games themselves.

The main reason I generally dislike numerical scores in video game reviews is that ratings scales between publications aren’t consistent. Even if a publication makes the criteria for its scale transparent, it’s still often problematic or not necessarily suitable across different genres. The false dichotomy of a game either being great or awful is all too common, and professional critics are not above that. I prefer a well-reasoned appraisal that describes the game in-depth along with the reviewer’s personal reflections and ultimate recommendation, to a copy and paste rundown of its features along with an arbitrary numerical score (and occasional snarky commentary).

LeBron James in NBA 2K18

Sadly, the latter is all too common when it comes to basketball games. So many reviews don’t touch on core aspects of the games, neglecting to mention positive attributes and troubling issues alike that are immediately apparent to seasoned basketball gamers. Said reviews will appear ignorant of key problems that caused gamers the most grief in the previous release, and fail to evaluate a game according to the standards and expectations of the hardcore userbase. And yet, these flimsy, superficial reviews are what contribute to Metacritic scores; the metric that, along with sales, ultimately determines success in video game development.

Combine that with arbitrary or evolving ratings scales, and you’ll find reviews of basketball games that seem clueless and inconsistent. In recent years, we’ve seen NBA 2K awarded lower numerical scores than the year before by the same publication, despite the review itself suggesting that the latest game is an improvement over its predecessor. New ratings scales, changes to criteria, or indeed completely different reviewers are all factors here. Top that off with shallow critique that glosses over important points, and I would suggest that a lot of basketball game reviews aren’t fair to the developers, or to the gamer seeking advice and insight.

In all fairness, basketball games and other sports titles can be difficult to rate, so the system also works against reviewers to some extent. Annual releases are going to make inconsistent scores more apparent, and there’s always the question of whether a game should be judged solely on its own merits, or rated more harshly if it isn’t a significant enough improvement over a favourably rated predecessor. There are also real life comparisons to make here. Producing a critique that satisfies the scrutiny of a hardcore fan is tough enough in any genre, but your understanding of both the video games and the real thing is really under the microscope with sports games.

Unfortunately, the system is highly unlikely to change. Numerical scores neatly wrap up reviews, and succinctly summarise the reviewer’s overall opinion of the product. It’s a common practice across all types of media, and given how ingrained it is in the video game industry, it’s not going anywhere. However, I believe that professional critics could do a better job expanding upon their impressions, and presenting the reasons behind their scores. I would also suggest that a separate ratings scale and criteria be established for annual sports games, accounting for the idiosyncrasies of the genre. A score of 9 for NBA 2K17 is very different to a score of 9 for Fallout 4.

James Harden in NBA Live 18

As I’ve said before, cutting out snark would also be welcome. When a reviewer spends more time finding creative ways to bash a game than describe its mechanics and features, and explain why they find them unappealing, it’s hard to take their score seriously. The same goes for a review that reads like a gushing press release, essentially listing the game’s features and regurgitating information from the preview season without any in-depth critique or commentary. A review of an annually released basketball game should keep gamers informed about what to expect, as well as provide developers with a fair evaluation of how much progress they’ve made.

Of course, as a basketball gaming community, I believe that we can and should fill in the gaps that appear in professional reviews of the games. This means pointing out the good and the bad, and avoiding numerical scores in favour of stating how strongly we’d recommend a game, whether we’d recommend a game under certain circumstances, or whether we simply couldn’t recommend a game, all backed up by fair and detailed analysis. In this way, we not only keep our fellow basketball gamers informed according to the fanbase’s standards and expectations, but we can also provide quality constructive feedback and an overall evaluation to the developers.

The industry may run on Metacritic scores, and when they’re favourable, they’re great for developers to tout on social media. For all the problems with professional reviews, numerical ratings and the overall Metacritic score can indeed provide a rough idea of a game’s quality, according to some basic standards. To a hardcore fanbase, however, they’re not always accurate, or at the very least, are nowhere near informative enough. I’d like to see reviews become more comprehensive and really justify the scores they assign, but we can definitely pick up the slack. Those numbers may not be going anywhere, but they don’t have to be the final word about basketball games.

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August 29, 2017 8:44 pm

I am generally against numerical scores and that goes double for aggregators like Metacritic.

Their system is flawed, they use 10 point scale and simply adjust scores from sites that do not use the same scale. Speaking of which, scales on different websites are not the same (as mentioned).
Furthermore, they put emphasis on some sites giving them bigger weight when it comes to computing the average.
And finally they do not recompute the ratings if a site changes their rating. Game was broken on release and got 4/10 from major site? That’s gonna bring the average down a lot.
Devs release a week one patch that fixes the major issues, the website changes their rating to 9/10 because they can actually play more than 10 minutes… But Metacritic doesn’t adjust.

I agree that the best way to do reviews is to ditch any scoring and bring out arguments. Show people what you liked, what you didn’t like, say why (because people might realize “actually, that doesn’t bother me one bit”
) and talk in details.
If that review (or first impressions) takes 30 minutes of talking in a video with gameplay? No harm done.

TL;DR: I’m rating this article a solid bacon/potato salad.