Tonight, the NBA started play on its 2013-14 season. After receiving their championship rings, the Miami Heat soundly defeated the Chicago Bulls in the marquee match-up of the night. Lebron James is always fun to watch. I think I might have had more fun playing a simulation.
My earliest sports video game memory is sometime around my friend’s 10th birthday party. We were at FunScape, this weird arcade-meets-theater-meets-bumper cars place. Today, the arcade is a gym and the cinema is your run-of-the-mill Regal. At the time, NBA Jam was still popular enough to merit an arcade cabinet version. I didn’t know much about basketball other than Michael Jordan being the best. Little did I know, he wasn’t in the game.
We played a tough, competitive game against the computer and lost by a whole two points. Sports video games didn’t really register with me more until I got in to middle school. With my increased interest in the NFL, I immediately gravitated towards Madden on the Nintendo 64 and later the Gamecube. What thrilled me the most? Not the idea of leading my forlorn Dolphins to the Super Bowl. No, the idea that I could “run” a team through franchise mode.
Signing and drafting players was fun to me, a scrolling through clunky GUIs to sign Warren Sapp for more than he would get paid in real life. Eventually, this lead to my favorite sports game mode of all: the first-person RPG. The mode has changed from generation to generation, from game to game. The NCAA Football series has its always problematic Road To Glory mode, while MLB: The Show and 2K Sports’ NBA series have what are considered the class of the genre.
NBA 2K’s MyPlayer mode might be the most important feature in sports gaming in the past half-decade. The idea is simple enough: you create a player, enter them into a “prospects game”, and get drafted by an NBA team. After that, you develop your career by earning credits for personal play. You can these use these credits to amplify attributes like three-point shooting or dunking. It’s what goes on off the virtual court that’s more interesting.
Players can request trades, sign endorsement deals, and make decisions about free agency. With this sense of control, you can do almost as much as you want within the framework of the game. In real life, you can only let the game play out. True, the core enjoyment of watching a sporting contest is watching the world’s most skilled athletes compete against each other. Yet, when you know it’s going to be a poor season for your favorite team, you can’t do anything about it.
With video games, you’re given the choice of creating (or destroying) your favorite franchise from the ground up. Game not going your way? Reset it. Simulate it. Forget it. Sports exist as an escape, giving you somewhere to spend a few hours away from the world. Sports video games give you the control of that escape.