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Opinion: Sports Storytelling Is Brimming With Potential

Every player, every game, every season has a story. Whether it’s the underdog who wins the championship or the star player falling from grace, sports are full of highs and lows.  

So often during sports games, I fill in these trials and successes myself. I’ll play as a rookie and turn heads, finally ascending the ranks to starter. Or I’ll take the helm of a team who isn’t contending, and use my skills to win the championship. Because most sports games don’t present much exposition, I’m always forming the narrative in my head, imagining what’s going on behind the scenes. The most these games usually provide me are key details, such as headlines and coach feedback, to weave my own narrative. Some games, however, have tried to step up and bring the sports drama alive, with varying success levels, like the standout Fight Night Champion and the more disappointing NBA ’06 from Sony, with its disastrous gameplay.

NBA 2K14 takes a stab at narrative in its MyCareer mode, and it’s a breath of fresh air. Around the office, we’re constantly sharing what’s going on with our rookie players as they gradually make their way to superstardom. With off-court interactions with management, coaching, and teammates, Visual Concepts added a significant element of choice, truly placing you in the shoes of an NBA player. Watching the choices unravel has been my ultimate highlight. Whether I'm choosing to go out with the team after the game or staying in to review film, there are consequences. 

I love feeling immersed in the NBA lifestyle and not knowing what’s coming next. Most recently, in my MyCareer story I’ve had an agent try to lure me away from my best-friend-turned-agent who’s been with me from the beginning. Part of me wonders what I’ll miss out on by sticking by my bud, but I’m not one to abandon the people who got me to where I am. Who would have thought a sports game would make me actually calculate my choices to this degree? In fact, when I’m talking to people about NBA 2K14’s MyCareer mode, I often see their eyes light up, as they respond, “I never knew a sports game could engage me like that!” It’s even brought non-basketball fans into the fold, which shows how powerful involving the person behind the controller in a story can be. 

NBA 2K14 isn’t perfect, which got me thinking about how developers could take sports storytelling to the next the level. Right now, MyCareer’s biggest issue is matching the story with the gameplay. I have fun playing games, but feel held back by the authored story at times. Sometimes I feel I should have experienced certain story beats sooner. Other times I’ve encountered staged aspects that don’t make sense, like when I was supposed to be injured 4-6 weeks, but then played the next game on the schedule. I’d love to see developers push to integrate player performance directly into the story. Imagine your success or failures on the court as part of reactive scenes alongside the choice-driven narrative. 

Here’s one example from MyCareer that wasn’t capitalized on: I turned over the ball with 10 seconds left, leaving the other team to score and win. I expected plenty of chirping from fans and teammates. I even expected a speech from my coach. I received one tweet commenting that I had a lot of turnovers, but nothing about me costing us the game. I imagine a real player would receive more than one measly tweet after losing a game for his team. The player would most likely also take it hard, struggle to let it go, and come out next game swinging hard. I know it will be a big challenge for developers, but if they can overcome this hurdle and have the narrative react to the emergent gameplay, it could really bring some additional life to the sports genre. 

Sports games should also tap into more of the life off the court. Show the player engaging in some charity events, interacting with fans and opposing teams’ rabid loyalists, and deciding between spending time with family and practicing more to get their game in better shape. Relationship management in a sports game? That’s exactly what I want, since it’s often key to an athlete’s life. That’s why I’m adamant more can be done with player/team chemistry as well. You should be able to choose players you can interact with off the court, making them trust you more.

Visual Concepts’ introduction of choice and consequences in MyCareer is part of what makes the story so fun.  If I don’t party with my teammates, I may miss out on team chemistry points, but it also means I avoid suspension and party boy headlines. Still, there’s always room to add more choices and drama along the way, and the littlest things can make the biggest difference. When I think back about games like Mass Effect, people loved the option to punch the overzealous reporter Khalisah al-Jilani. Could you imagine having the option to go Ron Artest on a fan? Maybe it helps with the badboy reputation I’m going for, so fans dig it… even if it costs me a season. Hey, Dennis Rodman showed how having a wild reputation can pay off...

I’ve been way more engaged in NBA 2K14 this year because I’m more than simply just the invisible hand behind the wins. In a genre favoring refinement to revolution, it’s great to see this evolution taking place. NBA 2K14 is just one of the pioneers in sports storytelling, and I suspect each year Visual Concepts will try to improve on the formula. It might even spark other developers to try something similar. If these stories can get even bolder and make me stop and think before I make story choices, then sports game can operate on a new level - one that lets me care about more than just putting up points. One that gives me a taste of a life I’d never get experience otherwise. 

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