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 the divide between online and offline enthusiasts within the basketball gaming community, and how it’s affecting the development of hoops titles.
By definition, fanatics are not always logical, with measured, reasonable opinions. It’s a rare fanbase that doesn’t have some sort of schism, if not a multitude of factions that hold differing opinions. I touched on one such example in last week’s feature, noting that there’s often dissonance when it comes to younger gamers, and those who have been playing basketball games for a long time (in some cases, more than a couple of decades). There are a lot of things that most basketball gamers want and can agree on, but also some very different ideas about features, identity, and overall direction.
The most noticeable schism within the basketball gaming community would have to be between online and offline gamers. The rise of online gaming in general, and the expansion of multiplayer modes in basketball games specifically, has led to a faction of hoops gamers who play exclusively online, with little interest in the offline modes. At the same time, there are a lot of gamers who prefer the single player experience. In the middle of the Venn diagram are gamers who play both online and offline to some extent, sitting in the crossfire of two passionate factions who are not only taking shots at developers, but also each other. Unfortunately, it makes us a hard group to please.
I’ve never been a fan of the petty arguments that erupt between gamers, from console wars to preference of game mode. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Growing up in the 90s, I was into the whole Nintendo vs. SEGA rivalry (Team Nintendo, by the way!), but several console generations and years of life experience later, it does feel rather silly. I know everyone likes to wear their brand of choice as a badge of honour and represent the “home team”, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re all enjoying the same hobby. I believe that gamers game; give me just about any platform and some games for it, and I’ll find a way to have fun messing around with them for an hour.
Although we see this tribalism with many genres of video games, I would suggest that sports games invite an even more combustible demographic, due to the fact that their core audience is made up of two groups who are very passionate about what they like: gamers and sports fans. It’s why a lot of people in the basketball gaming community draw lines in the sand when it comes to playing NBA Live or NBA 2K. It becomes about associating yourself with a brand, or indeed a team, and wanting that team to win. That competitive attitude remains between gamers who enjoy the same title but prefer different experiences, namely the offline modes and online play.
These rivalries are often defined by stereotypes. In the age-old Console vs. PC Wars, PC users are characterised by the most unflattering stereotypes of antisocial nerds. In return, console users are portrayed as immature and bratty. Their hobby is the same, but both believe they’re the only ones enjoying it correctly. The same goes for online and offline basketball gamers. Offline gamers are accused of being stuck in the past and less skilled because they aren’t taking on a human opponent. Online gamers are often seen as downright toxic, caring more about competitive mechanics than the core experience of simulation basketball. Regardless of any accuracy in those claims – and there is some – both are viable and fun ways to hoop it up on the virtual hardwood.
Needless to say, both online and offline gamers believe they’re the ones that the developers should be catering to. The fact of the matter is that in 2019, developers really need to cater to both sides of the fanbase, providing robust single player modes in addition to online play that’s properly balanced and competitive. Oh, and at the same time, be a realistic depiction of the NBA! That’s all easier said than done, especially since online and offline play must share the same gameplay mechanics. Their sliders and difficulty can be tuned independently of one another, but elements such as shooting mechanics, attributes, and player physics, are all global.
This means that focusing too heavily on one or the other, either during development or when making tuning updates in a patch, runs the risk of ruining the experience for one of them. Make a tweak that enhances the realism offline, and it may make online play cumbersome. Adjust the gameplay with online users in mind, and offline play can cease to resemble NBA basketball. It’s a delicate balancing act, and I don’t envy the developers at EA Sports or Visual Concepts for having to try to please both factions. At the same time, it’s a balance that NBA Live and NBA 2K need to find a way to strike in order to be the best games they can be, both offline and online.
As a community, we can help with our feedback, but it’s difficult when we’re not on the same page and trying to shout over one another. It’s only natural that we’re all inclined to advocate for the issues that we’re personally concerned about, but we’re all too happy to dismiss each other’s concerns using the old standby of “Not my problem, therefore not a real problem”. In an effort to justify our preferences and put down the modes we’re not interested in, we don’t stand with each other. Instead, we’ll make ridiculous claims that “no one plays that mode anyway”, when really we only speak for ourselves. We only care about our mode of choice; our brand, our “team”.
To be blunt, we all need to accept that there are a variety of ways to play basketball video games, all of which are valid and fun for the people that they appeal to. As I said, it’s important that modern basketball games can cater to both online and offline gamers. That means developers need to invest time and resources into both, and we as a community need to respect each others preferences and right – indeed, the necessity – to criticise elements we’re unsatisfied with. At the end of the day, we’re all playing the same game; we’re all partaking of virtual basketball. There’s no need, nor grounds to sneer at each other for the different ways in which we do so.
Achieving the right balance is an ongoing challenge for EA and 2K. I don’t see either company developing completely separate NBA titles in order to cater to both offline simulation and competitive online play, so striking that balance is just something that they’ll have to keep striving for. This means player builds that are viable both online and in the career modes, mechanics that aren’t cheesy and overpowered in multiplayer scenarios, and tuning that satisfies both groups of gamers. Perhaps some attributes should only come into effect online, while others are strictly offline variables. Be it through separation of mechanics or harmonious tuning, the balance needs to be there.
For many years, realistically depicting the sport and various aspects of the NBA was the biggest challenge in basketball games. We’ve come to the point where sim titles can play a very fun and realistic game of hoops, with deep modes. The rise of online gaming has seen the need to cater to two different audiences within the demographic though, and right now, both factions have their gripes. As I said, I believe we must stand together as a community, and support each other’s feedback. I’m not so deluded to believe that my appeal alone will change the way that the community behaves and eradicate toxicity, but I believe it needs to be said all the same.
Perhaps we all need to be taken down a peg. Playing online does present challenges that playing against the CPU doesn’t, but it can also involve exploiting gameplay mechanics. Single player modes offer the purest simulation experience, but it’s not the only way to play, and does lack the same competitive environment as online. It all comes down to what you prefer, with both ways of playing being completely viable. It’s something for us to keep in mind, but I’d implore the developers at EA and 2K to be mindful of it as well. It can’t be easy to produce a game that satisfies both online and offline gamers, but a great hoops title mustn’t relegate either group to the bench.