The Tuesday Triple: How We Handle Realism in Basketball Video Games

This is The Tuesday Triple! Originally, it was JaoSming’s answer to The Friday Five, but now that he’s at Visual Concepts working on 2KTV, it’s up for grabs whenever I have a topic that I’d like to cover in three points instead of five, or I can’t think of five items for a list or countdown. On this occasion, I’m using it to talk about how we handle realism in basketball video games.

Da_Czar’s creed sums it up in six words: Don’t play video games, play basketball. It’s a catchy slogan, the perfect mantra for anyone who wants to see basketball video games become as realistic as possible. For anyone who considers themselves a “sim gamer”, they’re words for us – and the developers, for that matter – to live by. Six words to eloquently and succinctly sum up what we want: realism in basketball video games, from top to bottom.

Do we really, though? Do we appreciate the realism that’s already present in basketball video games? Do we truly realise what realism means for the basketball gaming experience? Do we really know what we want?

Running the Play – Our Issues with the New Games

LeBron James in NBA 2K15

Lately, I’m seeing a lot of complaints in the community about certain aspects of recent basketball games, in particular NBA 2K15. The same way that “cartoonish” has become an overused and ill-defined buzzword to criticise NBA Live’s animations and visuals, “scripted” has become the go-to adjective to describe any element of NBA 2K’s gameplay that is seen as unfair or unsatisfactory. Needless to say, there are some very divisive opinions on the matter, which have led to some insults and accusations being lobbed in both directions.

Now, I don’t want to be arrogantly dismissive of anyone’s point of view, nor do I want to deny any valid criticisms of the games. However, the debate raises several interesting questions. How realistic can basketball video games become? How realistic they should be? What makes them realistic? What must they do to be more realistic? What are the aspects of the real NBA that are being represented properly in basketball video games? Which are being represented poorly? These are questions that need to be asked, and I’m sure the developers themselves are pondering them as they’re making the games.

However…no matter how realistic basketball video games may become, no matter how realistic we want them to be, no matter how much we may believe in and try to follow Da_Czar’s creed…they are still video games. And because they are video games, we have certain expectations of them. We’re conditioned to expect a particular outcome for a given action, because that’s how video games work. Doing X results in Y, achieving a set goal, and ultimately, winning the game.

Take your average platform game. How does it play out? Make your way through the level, dodge or defeat enemies, avoid traps, reach the goal. Encounter a boss, discover its tactics, develop a strategy for avoiding its attacks, and hit its weak spot. If there are variables such as items or power-ups that are more effective against certain bosses or enemies, then those are further tactics to learn and master. Once you have that knowledge though, once you know where all the enemies are and how to get through the levels, beating the game becomes a whole lot easier and straightforward.

I believe that subconsciously, we expect basketball games to follow a similar pattern, and for a long time, they did. Go back and play an older basketball game, and you’ll probably start to recall all the old strategies and exploits that allowed you to beat up on the CPU, and blow them out game after game.

Setting the Pick – Valid Criticisms

Derrick Rose in NBA Live 15

As basketball video games have become more sophisticated however, they’ve made considerable strides towards being more realistic. We’ve always said that’s what we want, but we don’t always think about what that entails. Reality is unpredictable; unlikely and unusual things happen, fortune runs good and bad. Sometimes plans are executed to perfection and go off without a hitch, while other times the best laid plans go awry. Teams are unlucky, players hit lucky shots. You can more or less do everything right, yet still lose. Sometimes, that’s just the way the ball bounces.

If we want realism, then we also need to accept the risk and the consequences. For starters, performing a certain action isn’t going to get a guaranteed result. Dumping the ball inside on every play isn’t always going to work. Great defense isn’t always going to prevent a basket, especially when you’re trying to contain an outstanding scorer. A particular strategy or action isn’t always going to yield the desired result…just as in real life. That’s realism.

Of course, there’s also the issue of game balance. The challenge and unpredictability that comes with realism in sports games ideally shouldn’t feel artificial, either. The AI is always going to have an edge in its speed and reaction times, and in all fairness, it needs it. It’s going up against a human brain that can think laterally and outside the box, formulating new and creative strategies. However, it also has to feel like it’s playing fair, that the user’s input does matter, and that its success against the user comes about because they’ve genuinely been outplayed.

Easier said than done of course, but there has been noticeable improvement in this area. The results aren’t perfect and there’s definitely room for further improvement, but because we’re conditioned to expect a certain result whenever we perform a particular action in a video game, we’re quick to write off undesirable results as the AI cheating. Now, does the AI cheat? Sure, sometimes, in small ways. It’s a computer program and has its limitations, and again, it needs to keep up with a human brain. Of course, sometimes the balance is off, the AI’s advantage too strong.

So yes, basketball video games absolutely do have their flaws. No question about that. There are balance issues, the challenge can sometimes seem artificial, and there can be some very frustrating moments. I certainly wouldn’t say that the current games are absolutely perfect, or that there are no legitimate complaints. Again, there is room for improvement, especially this early in a new generation.

Making the Shot – Changing Our Approach

Anthony Davis in NBA 2K15

However, realism comes at a price, and that price is a certain amount of unpredictability and undesirable results. It means that there aren’t (or  at least, shouldn’t be) any foolproof or guaranteed strategies. Good ideas won’t always pan out, your best efforts may still come up short. They are still video games of course, so they can be mastered and beaten. Some of the old methods aren’t going to work however, and even the best basketball strategies are not going to work on every possession, offensively or defensively. It shouldn’t be a case of “Do this. Do that. Repeat as necessary. Win.”

If realism is what we want, then we must be prepared to change the way we play accordingly, because classic video game strategies cannot be counted on in that scenario. That doesn’t mean we need to call plays every trip down the floor, or be restricted to one style of gameplay – both NBA Live and NBA 2K feature options and AI that make freelance basketball a viable option – but the more that video games represent real basketball and real basketball strategy, the more we need to take a realistic approach to them.

I don’t mean to get on my high horse here; I speak from having learned the hard way, through tough losses. I’ve played poorly, had frustrating experiences, and grumbled because I’ve felt cheated by the game. However, as I’ve tried different strategies and avoided using the same old tricks that always used to yield the results I wanted, I’ve had more success. If I go back and play older games using those old strategies, they still work, and the predictable nature of those games allows me to dominate. However, the games have changed. There’s more unpredictability. The AI is smarter, player movement more lifelike. Some things, you just can’t get away with anymore.

Above all, we need to avoid getting too frustrated when we’re playing basketball games. The more frustrated we get, the sloppier we play, frantically trying to close deficits with those old exploits and video game techniques. The more we do that, the poorer we perform, the more frustrated we become, and we find ourselves in a vicious cycle. There will be genuinely frustrating moments of course, because the games do have their issues. But if it’s something that does happen on a real NBA court, then it should also happen in the game. When there’s a glitch or a moment where the game seems unbalanced on the other hand, we’re certainly right to grumble.

But when reality ensues, even if that reality is unfortunate or undesirable, we really can’t get too mad. After all, losses, challenge, and unpredictability are a part of reality, and realism is what we want…isn’t it?

What’s your take on realism in video games? Have you had to change your playing style to have continued success in more recent releases? Do you truly believe that the games have an abundance of pre-determined moments? Sound off in the comments below!

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December 18, 2014 2:01 pm

Loved this article. I think it was way overdue. I hate how players use the word “cheese”. Some of the glitches/ or AI mistakes that happen in game that we think are so unrealistic actually happen in real life. Any episode of Shaqtin a Fool that features Javale McGee will show you that.