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 basketball video games, the real NBA, or another area of interest to our community, either as a list of five items or in the form of a Top 5 countdown.
When it comes to basketball video games, it’s fair to say that most of us tend to be after a realistic experience…at least when it comes to the five-on-five games. The level of commitment to the sim style varies from gamer to gamer, but unless you’re playing a game like NBA Jam or NBA Street, you probably want to see at least some amount of realism in your virtual hoops. When NBA Live or NBA 2K fall short of our expectations in that regard, you can be certain that there’ll be loud cries of “That’s not sim!” Our desires can be succinctly summed up with Da_Czar’s catchy creed: Don’t play video games, play basketball!
As I’ve discussed before, however, while most of us have a good understanding of the elements that make a basketball video game realistic, we don’t always appreciate what realism truly means. In the real world, there are mistakes and imperfections, annoyances and disappointments, risks that don’t yield rewards. Whether we like it or not, negative outcomes are a part of basketball – at least for one team on every play, and ultimately, the game – and when it comes to video games, it’s important that those unpleasant realities are represented. They’re frustrating of course, but it’s important to remember that the five annoyances I’m discussing today are, in fact, realistic.
1. Errant Passes
Is there anything more annoying than when an opponent picks off a seemingly good pass? Well, throwing a pass that completely misses the mark, sailing past a teammate and going out of bounds, would certainly have to rank up there as well. Of course, this is something that happens in basketball, especially when the pace picks up and the play starts to get a little wild. What makes it frustrating in video games is when it feels somewhat random, or in the case of interceptions, when they appear to happen due to CPU players possessing psychic abilities. That said, while the way they occur occasionally leaves something to be desired, errant passes should absolutely happen.
If anything, bad passes that are wide of the mark arguably don’t happen enough in basketball games. That’s not necessarily a bad break from reality, though. If they happened in video games as often as they do in real life, most gamers would probably be quite upset, declaring it cheap and unrealistic. Honestly, as long as it could be adequately controlled with the gameplay sliders, I wouldn’t mind seeing a slight increase in errant passes, or for that matter, players with bad hands fumbling and bobbling a few of the passes they receive. Combined with poor timing and judgement, it could add further realism to the frequency and nature of unforced turnovers.
2. Success Rates of High & Low Percentage Shots
I really like the way that jumpshots have come to be handled in NBA Live and NBA 2K. Having a visual indicator of the perfect release point and detailed feedback on the quality of attempts has made jumpshots (in particular the midrange game) a viable weapon in basketball video games. More than ever, we can tell a good attempt from a bad one, and also know when we got a bit lucky with a low percentage attempt. However, frustration can quickly build when high percentage shots continually miss, while supposedly low percentage ones find nothing but net. Nothing’s broken, though: good looks aren’t guarantees, and ill-advised shots can and will be made.
There are admittedly legitimate gripes here regarding balance and tuning. It’s not uncommon to miss a few too many high percentage shots with great timing on the shoot button, while the CPU calmly nails contested shot after contested shot. That’s still an issue that I feel both NBA Live and NBA 2K need to address. However, beyond the fact that artificial intelligence needs some tools to be able to compete with a human brain, some low percentage shots should definitely go in, and some high percentage shots should definitely miss. No one shoots a hundred percent, and even the best marksmen can brick easy ones. Frustrating, sure, but nevertheless realistic.
3. Defensive Errors & Plays Breaking Down
For gamers who are inclined to toss their controllers – or at the very least, swear at the screen – stupidity from CPU teammates is something that will frequently induce that level of rage. Whether it’s the offense not running like a well-oiled machine, or costly lapses on defense, few things make a basketball gamer feel cheated quite like their CPU teammates ruining the offense in the half court, or leaving an opponent wide open for a drive or jumpshot. It’s an understandable feeling, especially when there are lapses in the AI that don’t seem to match the awareness ratings of the players. When high IQ players are frequently making mistakes, it can feel like artificial difficulty.
Of course, even the most intelligent players will make errors at both ends of the court; the less heady players, even more so. Defensive mix-ups happen, and players get left open. While they sometimes feel a bit forced and cheap, I do actually like that we see these lapses in recent versions of NBA Live and NBA 2K. It makes the games feel more alive and dynamic, rather than players always knowing where to be and sticking to their man like glue. As for breakdowns at the offensive end…they happen. And hey, even if you run a play to perfection and get an open shot for a great shooter, sometimes you’re going to miss. Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.
4. Players Scoring Despite Your Best Defensive Efforts
Whether you’re facing the CPU or another user, you’ve no doubt been left seething when your best defensive efforts seem to be all for nothing, as your opponent scores on a well-guarded shot. And to be fair, it can feel incredibly cheap when it does happen, especially if the game is a little unbalanced. It’s something that should be happening though, at least with the more prolific scorers and tough to guard players in the league. Just look at what Stephen Curry is doing this season. True, the Golden State Warriors’ stellar offense gets him some good looks, but it’s not as though teams aren’t trying their best on defense, and getting a hand in his face as often as they can…as much good as it does.
The funny thing is, quite often I’ll take a look at the game stats after a player and/or team lights me up, and while it’s felt like they’ve hit every single shot they took, their shooting percentages usually won’t be too unbelievable. That’s often how it is when players put up big numbers in real life, too. But even though we know the best scorers should be hard to shut down, and the stats speak for themselves, we get annoyed. It frustrates us because we’ve done everything right, and when we do everything correctly in video games, we expect to succeed. We met the conditions, made the right input, but still we failed. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a part of basketball.
5. Points in the Paint Aren’t Guaranteed
This is another one that comes down to our mindset as gamers. Once again, we’re conditioned to want to beat video games, and we expect to do so once we’ve mastered the controls and necessary tactics. Sim-oriented basketball games have come a long way, and they weren’t always as realistic as they are now. We used to be able to rely more on “video game tactics”: simple and often cheesy strategies that could be repeated over and over. The layups in the Outside Scorer Freestyle Superstars moveset in NBA Live 06 are a good example. When all else failed and you needed a bucket, get into the paint and execute a move that’s basically a guaranteed two points, or three with the and-one.
While this approach is rooted in sound basketball strategy – get the ball inside for a higher percentage shot – in reality, it’s not always as simple as it’s been in video games. When the paint is congested, you’re not going to be able to breeze to the hoop for an easy dunk or layup. Contact isn’t always going to draw a foul, and while some players are adept at finishing despite physicality, contact and a crowd in the lane will result in altered shots. You shouldn’t be able to just waltz into the paint and easily score, time after time; you need to pick your spots and openings. Missing tough layups or not being able to always dunk in traffic is realistic. Not having to worry at all about interior defense is not.
As I said, there are still some balance issues that I believe do need to be ironed out in both NBA Live and NBA 2K. However, if we’re to be completely honest, our competitive drive as gamers can make us a little quick to declare certain annoyances and undesirable results as unrealistic. What are some other frustrating elements of basketball that we’re prone to dismissing as unrealistic when they occur in video games? Have your say in the comments below, 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.