Monday Tip-Off: Why I Love Basketball & Basketball Gaming

Monday Tip-Off: Why I Love Basketball & Basketball Gaming

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 celebration of my love of basketball and basketball gaming.

It’s important to be critical, even about the hobbies and interests that we love. We don’t need to pretend to enjoy something that isn’t to our tastes. As consumers, it doesn’t benefit us to keep quiet when there are problems, or we aren’t getting value for money. New isn’t always better, just as nostalgia can make us overlook issues of the past. There are plenty of valid reasons to speak out, or express a negative opinion. Of course, it isn’t healthy to be constantly mired in negativity, and it’s all too easy to forget that it’s OK to enjoy and celebrate our passions.

I am critical of certain aspects of basketball gaming, even though I love the hobby. I’ve got forthcoming articles where I examine problems and consider solutions, but today, I want to talk about why I love basketball, and video games based on it. The reason I’m taking time to do this is that last week, I encountered a miserable, mean-spirited article about film that was pure bait for rage clicks. It was snobby and snarky, essentially bashing a popular old film under the guise of “I’m smart enough to see that it sucks“. I never want to be that kind of sad sack in my basketball gaming coverage, so today I’m talking about why I love the sport of basketball, both real and virtual.

Before I dive into the virtual hardwood, let’s start with real basketball. In my mind, it’s a beautiful sport! I know all fans say that about their sport of choice, and fair enough. Basketball appeals to me though, because it’s such a free-flowing sport that invites creativity. At its best, it’s back-and-forth action with minimal stoppages, even when a player scores. Speaking of scoring, baskets come in such a variety of entertaining ways: dunks that are powerful and/or graceful, acrobatic layups, and jumpshots that splash through the net from all over the court. A swish is such a satisfying sight and sound, as the best scorers in the game make putting the ball in the hoop look easy.

Basketball Legends Michael Jordan & Scottie Pippen (NBA 2K20)

Even before the ball passes through the net, well-executed offenses with crisp passes, flashy dimes on the break, and unselfish teamwork, will always be a joy to see. On the other side of the ball, the freedom the defense has to get a little physical, rise up and swat shots, deftly poke the ball loose for steals, and shut down an offense with great positioning and footwork, is just as impressive to watch. As much as it’s a team game, the biggest stars and most entertaining personalities always stand out. Like other team sports, there’s the thrill of seeing your side win, and your favourite players put up big numbers. I love basketball for its rich history, memorable players, and exciting action.

This isn’t meant to downplay the excitement of other sports, but none of them appeal to me quite like basketball. It was difficult not to become a fan or at least take a casual interest in the sport if you grew up in the 90s like I did, but its highlights, history, and overall concepts captured my imagination like no other sport. Home runs are cool, but I prefer a player soaring over a defender for a dunk than a ball being knocked out of the park. Touchdowns are iconic, but a gamewinning shot at the buzzer is what brings me out of my seat. Association football (aka soccer) has incredible ball control, but I still prefer an ankle-breaking crossover. I’ll watch other sports, but I love basketball.

Look, I could go on and on about why I love basketball, and how it’s so fun to play and to watch. If I were to share even a fraction of my favourite basketball memories, this would be a very long article indeed. Suffice to say that Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the Chicago Bulls feature very heavily, but I have fond memories that involve many other teams and players, too. My love of basketball has quite obviously combined with my love of gaming. I have many favourite games that have nothing to do with basketball, but if the fact that I’ve been running the NLSC for almost twenty years now isn’t a clue, I’m unashamedly passionate about the virtual hardwood.

Russell Westbrook dunks the basketball (NBA Live 16)

Naturally, being a representation of the real sport that I love, basketball gaming is appealing for many of the same reasons. It’s satisfying to swish shots. When the game triggers a spectacular dunk animation, it fires you up. It’s a rush to pull out a close victory, especially if it’s following a furious rally. As the games have become more sophisticated, being able to drop defenders with an ankle-breaking move, discovering a dunk animation that you haven’t seen before, or turning in an historic performance that sets a new record, creates basketball gaming legends and fun memories. If there’s no game on or you can’t get out to ball for real, video games are a viable substitute.

Indeed, I see them as a logical extension of basketball fandom, not unlike collecting trading cards, jerseys, or other memorabilia. Their interactive nature only adds to the appeal, and as I’ve said in many Wayback Wednesday features, makes them almanacs where the past NBA comes to life. They’re a means of celebrating the sport. I’m sure I’m not alone in firing up a video game after watching a memorable contest on TV, and trying to re-create what I watched. Whenever the All-Star Weekend and NBA Playoffs roll around, I feel inspired to take to the virtual hardwood and experience them in a hands-on way. It’s why I was such a fan of NBA Live’s BIG Moments!

Basketball gaming is a way of indulging our fantasies, and I love that about them. It can be frustrating to see our favourite teams make questionable moves, but when we enter franchise mode, we can run the team the way we want! We can all go down to a park or gym and shoot around or play pick-up, but most of us are not going to get the opportunity to run a team or play in the NBA. We can guide our teams to success that eludes them in reality, and team up our favourite players. In that sense, it can be rather comforting – even therapeutic – to fire up basketball video games and “avenge” losses, or see your favourite team pick up virtual victories even as they struggle in real life.

Derrick Rose dunks the basketball (NBA 2K14)

While I also love many other well-known and popular games, old and new, basketball gaming offers an advantage that is somewhat unique to sports titles: I can’t get stuck in them. I’ve shelved a few Grand Theft Auto games without ever finishing them, due to getting stuck on particularly frustrating missions. If not for walkthroughs and hint guides, there’d be some adventure games that I’d have never completed. There’s no impasse in basketball games. You can get bored of a mode you’re playing, but win or lose, you can make progress. If nothing else, you can just jump into a quick game and mess around without having to worry about completion, or preserving a save file.

Needless to say, basketball video games have their moments of frustration and design flaws, which is why I do broach topics where I criticise them rather than talk about how much I love them. It doesn’t mean that my negative experiences with basketball gaming outnumber my positive ones; quite the opposite, all things considered! Many of my fondest memories growing up involve my cousin as we watched basketball, shot around in the backyard, and jumped on a console or PC to take part in some virtual hoops. Those are special memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything, as are my various franchise mode games over the years. It all fed my passion for basketball.

More recently, and despite my criticism, I’ve made fun memories in other modes, too. I have my gripes with NBA 2K21 Next Gen, yet I’ve had a good time with MyTEAM (and without spending a cent). Dominating the NBA in MyCAREER, finally making it to the Hall of Fame in NBA 2K19, felt very fulfilling. Levelling up a MyPLAYER to take part in the connected online modes with friends produced many fun evenings where we cracked jokes, talked basketball, and revelled in triumph when we won. I wouldn’t have played a full NBA season and 500 2K Pro-Am games in NBA 2K17 – spending over 2700 hours with it in total – if I didn’t truly love basketball gaming.

Shaq & LeBron in NBA Live 10

To that end, when I’m critical of basketball gaming, it’s not because I don’t love it or enjoy partaking in it anymore. I want to see it get better, and I have my concerns based on recent trends and developments. The same things that drew me into the hobby all those years ago are still there, though. They still represent a beautiful sport that’s capable of delivering breathtaking highlights, and has a rich history. A mode like MyTEAM appeals to me as someone who used to collect trading cards, only now I’m not spending any real money on it. The franchise modes are there to indulge my GM fantasies. For all its problems, online team play does still have a certain allure.

It’s OK to criticise basketball gaming, and it’s OK to love and celebrate it, too. The discourse should welcome both points of view. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about the negative aspects, especially as a content creator or pundit. It invites snark, and too often a sense of superiority. Much like the miserable article that inspired this one, it can drive traffic by upsetting people into hate-reading and engagement, while also pandering to anyone who shares your opinion. Taking aim at something popular and beloved is often presented as intellectually superior. It’s a snobby attitude, and one that I can’t stand. Ultimately, I want to show love when I cover basketball gaming.

I do stand by my criticisms, and the need to explore issues in basketball gaming that I believe not enough people with influence pay attention to. I also have my gripes with the current NBA, and won’t fall in line just to quell the cries of “old head”. However, I never want to lose sight of the fact that I do love basketball and basketball gaming. Even when I feel sceptical, even cynical, I want the latest NBA 2K game to be fun and as good as it can be. I still enjoy playing basketball games regularly, both the latest release and old favourites. I still feel compelled to defend basketball when someone calls it a boring sport, even though I know we must agree to disagree.

Carmelo Anthony in NBA 2K14

Seeing that mean-spirited and self-righteous opinion piece attempting to dunk on a popular old film reminded me of how easy it is to get caught up in negativity, even if you have better intentions than its snobby, judgemental author. Don’t worry; I’m not going soft, and I’m not about to shill or fanboy week after week. My critiques and occasional grumpy old millennial takes aren’t going anywhere. I just wanted to take some time out to revel in the joys of basketball gaming, and the love of the sport that it depicts. Recalling the thrill of a somersault dunk in NBA Jam is just as important as denouncing microtransactions. Remember: fans, not fanboys; critics, not haters.

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