Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown. This week’s Five recalls fives times that basketball video games featured moments that weren’t completely family friendly.
Generally speaking, basketball games don’t push the envelope with controversial content. It’s not something the NBA is keen to sign off on, and it’s not really the genre for content that isn’t exactly family friendly. There’s no risqué material, or violence beyond hard fouls in sim titles and shoving in arcade games like NBA Jam. It’s simply not the right genre for that. If I want a more adult-themed game with combat, I’ll play a Fallout title. If it’s bawdy humour I’m after, I might dust off a game in the Leisure Suit Larry series. If I’m after something gorier, there’s always Mortal Kombat.
We play basketball games for the sport they represent, whether it’s a realistic or more cartoonish depiction of hoops. With that being said, there are a handful of times that basketball games have surprised us with content that pushed the boundaries of their family friendly rating. It’s seldom been in poor taste, and never anything close to the violence, profanity, and lewdness of some of the aforementioned games. At the same time, it’s not something you’d expect to see or hear in a game that’s aimed at all ages. I should note that this isn’t meant to be a stuffy pearl-clutching article, but rather a light-hearted reflection on unexpected content in otherwise family friendly games.
1. Various Soundtrack Choices
The soundtracks of basketball video games are usually considered to be the least exciting reveals during the preview season. However, because we all have our own musical tastes, they’ll also draw some strong reactions. If there’s one thing that we can all agree on though, it’s that at some point, we’ve wondered how a certain song made it into the soundtrack of a family friendly basketball game. Now, when there is a song with profanity and/or “adult themes” in the soundtrack, it will be replaced with a radio edit, or in some cases a remix that references basketball. Nevertheless, when you’re aware of the original lyrics and censorship cuts, some songs seem rather unfitting.
While NBA Live 2003’s soundtrack is a classic, in hindsight, it is weird that there’s a song about being young and sexy. The NBA Live remix of Chingy’s “Right Thurr” is very nostalgic to those of us who love NBA Live 2004, but the original track is far from family friendly. NBA 2K has featured a couple of Eminem songs that had to be heavily edited, and if you know the lyrics that fill those gaps, they too are bewildering choices for games intended for all ages. In lieu of original tracks, it does make sense to license popular songs. Still, it’s funny to imagine producers hearing explicit songs and thinking “Yes! That’s just the sound for our family friendly basketball game!”
2. The Mack Daddy of Slam City
I’ll be honest: I never thought I’d be using the term “mack daddy” in an article about basketball video games. I don’t even know if that term gets used anymore. Regardless, like Hank Hill – the Mack Daddy of Heimlich County – I’m playing it straight up, yo. Anyway, Slam City with Scottie Pippen is an interesting title from the 90s. It’s an FMV game in the vein of Dragon’s Lair or Night Trap, the latter of which wasn’t too family friendly. In Slam City, you play 1-on-1 games to earn money and respect, with the ultimate goal of facing Scottie Pippen. Gameplay consists of interactive videos in which proper timing is everything, and although it’s somewhat clunky, it’s innovative.
Between possessions, there are cutscenes in which people sitting around the court will react to the game. There’s also a running subplot – such as it is – of a guy hitting on a rather unimpressed woman. In one scene, he drops the line “I would drink your bath water!”, and honestly, it’s the absolute last thing I’d expect to hear in a basketball video game! Now, Slam City wasn’t NBA-licensed, so it did have the freedom to be slightly more adult. I don’t think it was trying to be though, and indeed the game was rated G here in Australia, by the same classification board that later banned Mortal Kombat 9. It takes the subplot from cheesy to mildly bawdy in just a split second.
3. Mortal Kombat Characters in NBA Jam
Back in the 90s, Midway created two enduring franchises: Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam. MK came to define violent fighting games compared to the more family friendly Street Fighter series, and along with the aforementioned Night Trap, was instrumental in the creation of the ESRB and video game ratings. As I’ve noted in several articles, NBA Jam set the standard and established many of the staples of arcade basketball games. The series are also linked by their revolutionary use of digitised actors, some familiar names on both development teams such as Sal Divita, and Kerri Hoskins starring as both a cheerleader in NBA Jam, and the second Sonya Blade in MK3.
Apart from that, the games didn’t really cross over with one another, except for the time that a handful of Mortal Kombat characters appeared in NBA Jam Tournament Edition. It only happened in the arcade version of NBA TE, with Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile, and Raiden being removed from later revisions after the NBA objected to the inclusion of secret characters from a non-family friendly game. They also weren’t thrilled with the ability to perform fatalities on the hardwood, or a cut MK-themed court. On one hand it’s unfortunate, but it’s also understandable that the NBA wanted to maintain a family friendly image, and thus put the kibosh on such Easter eggs.
4. NBA 2K21 Zion Next-Gen Coming Trailer
Alright, so I did say that this article wasn’t about pearl-clutching, but if nothing else, we can write this off as an extremely weird choice. I’ve dedicated an entire Wayback Wednesday to this topic, but the short version is that the teaser trailer for NBA 2K21 Next Gen was highly unusual to say the least. It used symbols and imagery intended to convey the concept of prophecies and legends, thereby promoting cover player Zion Williamson and NBA 2K21 Next Gen as the future. Unfortunately, some of those symbols are associated with the occult. There was also the use of shadowy figures at the 8 and 24 second marks, seemingly representing the late Kobe Bryant.
Look, I don’t think that 2K was trying to offend anyone – though going by comments on this video, they did – but the general concept of the trailer missed the mark. I can understand thinking outside the box to be creative and captivating, but weird, dark, and mysterious isn’t a great fit for the genre. As I said in my previous article, it reminded me of the weird commercial the advertising agency made for Homer in the classic “Mr. Plow” episode of The Simpsons, which still stands as one of my favourite examples of satirising needlessly strange ads. The symbolism in the teaser definitely walked the line as far as not being family friendly, and was just plain bizarre.
5. Vic Gotta Go, If We’re Keeping This Family Friendly
In short, “Livin’ Da Dream” raised NBA 2K16’s rating to E10+, and even then, it was pushing the limits. I’ve seen some gamers describe the story as Spike Lee re-telling He Got Game in a somewhat more family friendly manner, and that’s not completely inaccurate. The acclaimed filmmaker certainly found a way to squeeze some darker themes into the story of a promising young basketball player’s journey from high school to the NBA. On the court, Frequency Vibrations is a star in the making. Off the court, he’s dealing with the distractions caused by his best friend Vic Van Lier, and an incident from his past that we find out about during a rollercoaster of a cutscene.
Where to begin? Well, it’s revealed that Vic’s parents died from complications related to AIDS. At first it’s euphemistically alluded to as “the flu”, and then Vic outright says it. At one point, Vic is arrested, and we see a video of him brashly boasting and drunkenly slurring about honeys not being loyal. If not for the E10+ rating, it might’ve been a different h-word entirely. We then find out that during an altercation, Freq accidentally killed another high school player, or at least left them seriously and permanently injured, which Vic helped cover up. And then Vic dies after a police chase, leaving behind a suicide note. It’s quite dark, if we’re keeping it 10×10.
What was your reaction to some of these moments that weren’t quite family friendly? Can you recall any other examples of basketball games pushing the envelope with their content? Let me know in the comments, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.