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Monday Tip-Off: Video Game Teams

Monday Tip-Off: Video Game Teams

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 a look at the concept of Video Game Teams.

Dee and I have mentioned “Video Game Teams” and “Virtual Hardwood Legends” on several episodes of the NLSC Podcast. That’s because they’re part of some of our favourite basketball gaming memories, and I know that we’re definitely not alone in that regard. There have been many articles and posts from basketball and other sports gamers who fondly recall players and teams that were dominant in video games – even unstoppable – irrespective of their real life performance. Indeed, video games are undoubtedly responsible for gamers becoming fans of certain teams and players!

At the same time, enthusiasm for the real sport frequently determines our choices in video games. For example, we’re more likely to use our favourite players and teams – if we have them – because there’s already some degree of emotional investment. We’ll also seek out a change of pace though, and if we’re passionate about the sport and its history, we’ll recreate interesting scenarios and historical showdowns. Over the years, we’ve seen many busts that become superstars on the virtual hardwood, and teams that fared much better in games. They’re often a blast to play with, but as the term “Video Game Teams” might be somewhat ambiguous, I figured I’d take a shot at defining it.

So, what are Video Game Teams?

Video Game Teams: 2006 Philadelphia 76ers

Basically, they’re the team equivalent of players who are Virtual Hardwood Legends. Just as Virtual Hardwood Legends are players that may not be superstars in real life but are memorable for their ability to dominate in video games, Video Game Teams are squads that are fun to play with despite not being one of the best teams in a game (or indeed, NBA history). Maybe they fell short of their potential, or peaked during another team’s dominance. Maybe they’re in a rebuilding phase, but they already have some exciting young players. They may not be contenders, and they certainly aren’t champions, but there’s still something about their roster that makes them fun to use.

Sometimes, they have a stacked lineup that underachieved due to chemistry issues or other setbacks, which needn’t be an issue in video games. Other times, they might not be flush with talent, but have a couple of players that can produce flashy highlight reels, and thus remain appealing. They’re intriguing choices for franchise modes, due to their depth and/or potential. The better Video Game Teams might be good enough to contend for virtual championships, possibly because the game’s mechanics allow them to be much better than the sum of their parts. Even if they’re not your favourite team, they’re still an enticing option for franchise modes and Play Now games alike.

Oddities such as a familiar face in an unfamiliar place can also make a squad a Video Game Team, as there’s an undeniable draw to unusual scenarios. To clarify though, it can’t have been a successful stint. For example, the 2002 Los Angeles Lakers aren’t a Video Game Team simply because they had Mitch Richmond. Sure, they’re fun to play with, but they were the champions, so their success and dominance wasn’t just limited to the virtual hardwood. The lack of real life success is the defining trait of a Video Game Team. Bottom line, even if they ultimately weren’t built to win in reality, it felt as though they were built for video games, because of how fun they were to use.

How successful can Video Game Teams be?

Steve Francis on the Knicks in NBA Live 07

By that, I mean is there a cut-off for how successful a team can be before it can no longer be considered a Video Game Team? As outlined above, there are levels to Video Game Teams, but I’d suggest the one hard rule is that they can’t have won a championship. This differs from a classic team, which absolutely can be an all-time legendary squad, and is also obviously a ton of fun to play with in video games. I love using champion Chicago Bulls squads in NBA 2K and they’re undoubtedly classic teams, but they’re not Video Game Teams. Conversely, some of the underdog Baby Bulls teams from the early to mid 2000s would qualify as examples of such squads.

I do tend to think of Video Game Teams as ones that didn’t make the Playoffs, or never came particularly close to winning it all, despite having some good players at their disposal; a roster that is nevertheless fun to play with. However, the fluidity of the term means that you could certainly argue that squads such as the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns are, in their own way, Video Game Teams. They’re absolutely a joy to play with, and never made it over the hump to a championship, or even an NBA Finals appearance. They did reach multiple Conference Finals though, which made them a powerhouse and perennial contender; definitely a measure of success.

With that in mind, I’d personally call those Suns a classic team, rather than a Video Game Team. It might seem like I’m splitting hairs, but going back to the comparison to Virtual Hardwood Legends, Video Game Teams are significantly better in games than in real life. While Steve Nash’s Suns fell short of their ultimate goal, they at least lived up to the expectations of 50-win seasons and being competitive. Again, you can definitely make an argument for moderately successful teams such as those Phoenix Suns, but I believe that underdog status – and even a touch of obscurity – is essential for being considered a true Video Game Team, at least by my definition of the term.

Do they need to be Retro/Classic Teams?

Darius Miles in NBA Live 2002

I don’t think so, though it is much easier to recognise Video Game Teams in hindsight than in the moment. If nothing else, the results are final, and their performance can be evaluated accordingly. However, you can certainly recognise a team that isn’t as deep, or setting the league on fire during the current season, and note that they’re fun to play with. Those are the squads that’ll most likely go down as great Video Game Teams in the future, because they’re ticking all the boxes now. Once again though, they’re more difficult to label in the moment, because their story is still being written. If they have some great players and are underachieving though, it’s probably a fair assessment!

I’ll admit that my retro gaming leanings are a major factor here, but when I think of great Video Game Teams, my mind does go to squads from a number of years back. Sure, that comes down to familiarity and nostalgia, but there’s also the perspective of hindsight, and the question of What Ifs. As I said, oddities also contribute to a squad becoming a Video Game Team, and they stuck out far more in an era where the big names didn’t move around quite as much. With that being said, the brief teaming up of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden in Brooklyn could viably stand as a modern example. To that point though, that trio has broken up, and is now in the past.

While I’ve drawn a distinction between classic teams and Video Game Teams, they do have a similar appeal. There’s interesting history there, and memorable players. The difference is that classic teams are enjoyable to play with because of their success and rosters that often boast all-time greats, whereas Video Game Teams are fun to play with because of their lack of success/unfulfilled potential, and rosters that were much better on paper. Classic teams are about reliving great moments in NBA history, while Video Game Teams can either be historical footnotes, or contemporary squads. In my opinion though, Video Game Teams are a fun choice when retro basketball gaming.

What are some examples of Video Game Teams?

Video Game Teams: 2002 Raptors & Blazers

Again, when I think of Video Game Teams, my mind goes to the memorable squads that I watched, played with, and kept updated in roster mods many years ago. In my defense, they’re much easier examples to cite! Nostalgia notwithstanding, here are some that come immediately to mind for me. The 2002 Clippers with Elton Brand, Lamar Odom, Darius Miles, and Quentin Richardson fell short of the Playoffs, but that’s a fun, young, athletic team to put on the virtual hardwood. The 2006 76ers underachieved, but with a roster that includes Allen Iverson, Chris Webber, Andre Igudoala, Kyle Korver, and even an inactive Jamal Mashburn, they’re great in games.

Portland’s “Jail Blazers” era may be notorious and filled with Playoff disappointment, but it also saw some of their most stacked teams. The 2002 Raptors and Magic feature Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing in unfamiliar uniforms, playing alongside some talented young stars like Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady. Let it be known that Isiah Thomas put together some terrible New York Knicks teams in the 2000s, but Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis were a fun duo in video games. Admittedly the nostalgia for my NBA Live 2004 Dynasty helps, but the weird mix of past and present with Scottie Pippen alongside Kirk Hinrich and the other Baby Bulls definitely counts.

In short, ask yourself: “If I was making a roster mod filled with teams that didn’t go anywhere or come close to a title, but still had interesting and talented lineups that are fun to play with, which squads would I include?” There are many teams that both time and the blowhard, know-nothing talking heads have forgotten, but hardcore fans do remember, especially gamers because they became Video Game Teams. As such, a retro roster full of memorable underdogs and unsuccessful teams will always be a fun idea, as the flipside of all-time squads and legendary team mods. And of course, just like Virtual Hardwood Legends, there’s plenty of room for personal preference here.

To sum it up, while many of the best teams throughout NBA history have been fun to use in video games – both as classic teams and in their contemporary releases – Video Game Teams are a special case. Often unsuccessful and unmemorable in real life, yet frequently better than the sum of their parts on the virtual hardwood, they’re appealing choices for gamers to take control of; sometimes deceptively so. Just as we all have our own Virtual Hardwood Legends that we’re compelled to acquire in a franchise game or play with when retro gaming, so too do we have Video Game Teams that weren’t a blueprint for success in reality, but are seemingly built for fun on the sticks.

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