Monday Tip-Off: You Can Constructively Criticise NBA Playgrounds

Tip-Off in NBA Playgrounds

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 how we can, and absolutely should, constructively criticise NBA Playgrounds.

It’s been around a month since NBA Playgrounds was released for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. Saber Interactive’s first attempt at an arcade basketball game has been reasonably well-received, even if it’s not quite on par with its legendary predecessors, NBA Jam and NBA Street. Saber has been very diligent in listening to feedback, resulting in some much-needed changes being implemented via the game’s early patches. New players have also been added to the game, additional tournaments are planned, and Switch users will receive a free copy of the new Shaq Fu game for their patience regarding the delay in launching the online features.

Saber’s interaction with the fanbase and their gestures of goodwill are extremely admirable, and refreshing. They’ve created an official Facebook group for NBA Playgrounds gamers to offer feedback, share their experiences, and basically keep the lines of communication open, which is awesome. Unfortunately, some of the discourse in the group is, to be blunt, very toxic. I’ve seen some perfectly reasonable suggestions shouted down, and people with valid criticisms told to zip their lips by their fellow gamers. As such, I feel that something needs to be made very clear here: we can and should constructively criticise NBA Playgrounds.

I must emphasise that Saber Interactive CEO Matthew Karch has been nothing but cordial and professional in the Facebook group, where he actively posts and interacts with the fanbase. He certainly doesn’t seem to be shutting negative feedback down or dismissing suggestions out of hand, and has handled difficult people gracefully. His honest approach has been refreshing, and no matter how satisfied or dissatisfied you currently may be with NBA Playgrounds, the development team deserves a lot of credit for listening to gamer feedback and doing their best to address issues in each update, as well as add new content. Hopefully, the game will continue to improve.

A game of NBA Playgrounds

Unfortunately, some of the game’s fans are a little too passionate in their support of the product, to the point where valid critique is met with hostility and derision. Good suggestions regarding content, gameplay mechanics, and balance have often been met with sneering, profanity-laced replies, usually resorting to tired attacks on the user’s skill level. From my own experience, there are some adjustments to be made from the user’s end because NBA Playgrounds does play a little differently to games like NBA Jam and NBA Street, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some issues. With the developers being so willing to address them, it’s important that gamers point them out.

It’s ironic because when I’ve discussed constructive criticism in the past, I’ve usually approached the subject from the opposite angle. When it comes time to critique NBA Live and NBA 2K, it’s not uncommon for gamers to become too toxic and nasty, to the point where they diminish the usefulness of their feedback. They’ll also attack anyone who doesn’t share their scathing views, accusing them of being fanboys. However, there’s a similar toxicity in a fanbase that refuses to allow any negative critique and characterises anyone with a valid complaint as a “whiner”, “hater”, or not good enough at the game to offer feedback worthy of consideration.

To a certain extent, it is understandable. NBA Playgrounds is Saber Interactive’s first attempt at an arcade hoops title, and it’s still a work in progress. Given the transparency and great attitude that Matthew Karch and the NBA Playgrounds development team have shown towards the fanbase, it’s reasonable to suggest that they should be cut some slack. Any negative feedback should obviously remain civil and constructive, and it’s not as though the game doesn’t have any good qualities. There has been some harsh criticism of NBA Playgrounds, but it hasn’t been malicious or unfair. There’s also been some well-deserved praise.

The funny thing is that a lot of gamers don’t blink when far more unpleasant remarks and far less constructive feedback are directed towards EA Sports and Visual Concepts. It’s inevitable, though. Aside from any long-standing dissatisfaction with their products, as larger companies, they appear less sympathetic, less connected to their fanbase. It’s the reason fans of webcomics and online video series rush to defend creators and dismiss criticism that they’d happily lob at mainstream media and personalities. Also, as the recent MJ vs. LeBron debates have sadly demonstrated, there doesn’t seem to be a criticism that can’t be deflected by accusations of “hating”.

Post-Game in NBA Playgrounds

Again, granting some leeway isn’t inappropriate when it comes to NBA Playgrounds, and there are obviously reasons as to why gamers aren’t as forgiving when it comes to NBA Live and NBA 2K, or the studios developing them. However, since the NBA Playgrounds development team is so eager to engage with its fanbase and improve their game, it would be doing them and the product a disservice to insist that everything is fine, and that valid criticisms should be ignored. Similarly, it’s important to remember that expectations, skill levels, and preferences differ, so a suggestion isn’t bad just because you don’t find it personally relevant or appealing.

I’ll admit that seeing suggestions that I agree with getting nastily shot down has made me reluctant to offer any feedback of my own. While I must once again emphasise that Matthew Karch himself has been quite welcoming of all constructive feedback, acknowledging issues and expressing the team’s desire to keep improving the game, it’s disheartening to see that other gamers can freely shut down suggestions in a venomous manner. It runs the risk of fostering a sycophantic atmosphere, where negative feedback – no matter how well-reasoned and polite – is unwelcome. Again, that’s just as toxic as a gaming community that refuses to be anything but negative.

That being said, I don’t believe that ideas are necessarily being shot down for malicious reasons, or even blind fanboyism. I do think that the gamers who disagree with certain suggestions are honestly enjoying the game and simply have a different take, but their passion is making them militantly defensive. As I said, that’s not uncommon when you’re talking about creators who enjoy a closer connection with their fanbase, such as a smaller video game developer, webcomic artist, online video producer, and the like. We must remember though that all works are subject to critique, and constructive criticism is ultimately beneficial to the creative process.

Whether it’s NBA Live, NBA 2K, or NBA Playgrounds, constructive criticism is vital. All three developers have demonstrated a willingness to listen to and engage with their fans through various means. To that end, constructive feedback that is well-reasoned and presented in a civil manner is never out of bounds. If NBA Playgrounds is to continue to improve and do the right thing by consumers, gamers must speak candidly about the good and the bad, and both sides must be heard. Saber Interactive have demonstrated that they are indeed listening to both sides, so it’s on us basketball gamers to be honest with them, and respectful towards each other.

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