The emotional impact of the most recent release of the NBA 2K video game series will effect the global game of basketball. Here, I emphasize my experiential history of playing basketball video games in the 90s in order to look beyond the year 2020.
Failed Paper Dolls
The Barbie doll was launched in March 1959, and its inception marked the slow death of the paper doll.
Through this evolution we saw something as overt as fashion fail as the paper doll market crashed.
The 2D experience gave way to the exceptional realism experience of 3D. Barbie won out, and now the first two words that come to the subconscious when you think about the iconic toy are pink and fashion.
Thinking about this idea in a broader context, I see the basketball “video game” as the paper doll, the theme “sport” as a concept correlated to the theme fashion, and the NBA represented by the physical “ball and basket” correlated to the Barbie doll.
Here’s a visual representation of what I mean by this:
However, unlike the paper doll market living by the fashion theme and dying by the Barbie market, the basketball video game market is flourishing, specifically with the NBA and the sport of basketball more broadly.
Many cases could be made to suggest that these two separate items facilitate the engagement of the other, and this phenomenon has reached a summit for the female basketball player as for the first time professional players starring in the WNBA will be featured in NBA 2K20: a supremely incredible moment in time for the entire basketball universe.
This piece will examine the emotional impact of the most recent release of this electronic video game series, and the effect it will have on the global game of basketball, emphasizing my experiential history of playing basketball video games in the 90s and looking beyond the year 2020.
I think it is important to understand this concept in order to grasp the connection, and disconnection, that we all experience while playing a video game. This will allow one to understand the limitations to any basketball video game, until virtual simulation one day becomes a reality.
WNBA in NBA 2K20
First, let’s clear this up: My first thoughts on missing out on all the action?
It was irritating that it took so long for this to fully develop. But more than being bummed that I personally missed out, seeing this happen for so many others on this scale for the first time was the most thrilling and dynamic thing I have witnessed coming from women’s sports.
Overall, I feel appreciative for the opportunity that NBA 2K is now providing to female professional athletes.
Let’s get another thing straight: For the first time ever women will be featured in the NBA 2K series, but it is not the first time women have been featured in video games, with the most recent being the NBA Live ‘18 game.
I remember playing NBA Live ’95 religiously for an entire season, so to see EA make that sudden jump on September 15, 2017 definitely brought real joy to my spirit.
Although NBA Live will be associated with being the first, no basketball video game platform can compare to the historical cultural impact that NBA 2K has had. This game within a game has built nothing but momentum since its release in 1999.
What sets NBA 2K apart from the competition? The gameplay is second to none, and that is the best aspect of this newest edition featuring women. It’s realistic. Representational. Because of this pristine accuracy in representation, popularity in the physical women’s and girls game will naturally grow as a result of this power move.
But before it gets any bigger and pops, I want to explore the past for a second in order to predict the future—and end where I believe this newest feature will lead to in the women/girls basketball universe in 2020 and beyond.
My brother Alan (wiggworm in NBA2K) was a strong source for me to write this, as I admit I do not play NBA 2K at all. He does, and does so on a semi-daily/nightly basis. He has a very clear articulate way of explaining the experience, so I have quoted him throughout this piece for necessary commentary/context.
Alan suggests the best aspect of 2K is that the gameplay is realistic to basketball, and the experience is “just like you’re playing real basketball when you’re playing the video game.” In a realm where you can be anywhere and play nearly any form of basketball—NBA, 3 on 3 in the park, 5 on 5 Pro Am games, 1 on 1, 2 on 2, 4 on 4, etc. —it’s easy to get lost in the idea of where you would like to be. So I wondered, what is “home” in a world like this?
Alan said his favorite sphere in the entire realm is the park with his created player because “…you can control one player and just play basketball.”
I think my brother’s impression that the NBA 2K gameplay is “realistic” is a little short-sighted, in the fact that there’s still a missing element to the connection that would make this game authentically as real as Alan imagines it to be. If this is the winning element of the game for an avid player, it’s worth looking in a little deeper as to why this matters.
I suggest we all understand the concept of affordances to really grasp what is happening when we interactively engage with video games.
In 1988, Donald Norman appropriated the term affordances in the context of human-machine interaction to just those action possibilities that are readily perceivable by an actor. [Wikipedia]
Affordance is a complex term that can simply be described as “how an object can and should be used.”
The affordances of NBA 2K are inhibited by the lack of realism in terms of how the actions function and translate through interface.
An example of good affordance for NBA 2K would be if you could literally shoot a jump shot with your hands and have your character avatar mimicking the same action. Instead, the reality is that when you play the video game you are pressing buttons to perform the same function as passing and shooting.
This progress will continue to take shape as advancing technology promotes the physical simulation of actual basketball moves that virtually translate to the screen.
A healthy break from chaos
Aside from the abstract element, I do believe affordances are important to understand intuitively, as one urgent topic in society is the impact of video games on our culture. Right now we are living in a world of high sensitivity towards our unique environments, and here is a good thing that this video game culture provides through sports.
A sports-themed video game brings a different edge to the element of performance. Competing this way adds value to the participants in the same way that learning any game does for character building through problem solving challenges. This element is exacerbated by the concept of team, and working with others to achieve success.
My History playing a female character in basketball video games in the 90s
1994 Jammit (Sega)
1994’s Jammit developed by Sega was one of the first games I ever played in our home (I would sometimes play NBA Jam at arcades before then) Lucky for our family the game came in PC form, or else we wouldn’t have had the pleasure of playing with no Sega system. This game will go down as my favorite, as I spent hours and hours on my computer playing all the characters, and each time was unique from the previous turn.
What drew me in was obvious, a “mega babe” boss-baller in the make-believe character of Roxy.
Roxy’s character gave off a Venice Beach baller bad girl vibe and I instantly clicked with the street mood of her approach to the game. She would shove you out of the way to get the ball. She was a tough chick, and didn’t seem to ever be phased to go up against her menacing male competitors. Once you started playing her character, you knew why. Roxy had the best three point shot in the game and would absolutely torch you if you gave her even a slice of a second of time to shoot it. You had to either block her shot, or pay the consequences.
The game also featured Chill (pictured on the left) and Slade (pictured on the right) who had significant aspects of their games that you could manipulate and adjust if you got really good. My brother got really good, so I was able to watch him successfully beat the game with all three players, and delighted in watching the various conclusions to the game when it ended. By the time the game was over, Roxy became both my brother and I’s favorite basketball avatar for her strength and character.
Roxy made me want to be a female basketball player more than anything else in the world, because her character was easy to identify.
For me, this identity took shape in the fantasy of a female defeating a male character. Think Street Fighter but on the street courts.
There was a mystique about the nature of these characters and as you learned their best moves you could fairly play a game that challenged, excited, and entertained you all at once.
Female Representation Post Jammit
After Jammit there was a significant gap of time from where you ever see women represented in video games. In fact, it wasn’t until September of 2017, one year after my retirement from the WNBA, that women would ever be featured in an NBA themed game.
2017 NBA Live ’18 (EA Sports)
In 2017, EA Sports decided to create the platform and the idea of featuring WNBA athletes in NBA video game titles finally took off after decades of advancement in the women’s game.
NBA Live Features WNBA for the first time
I must admit I was sad to see that this moment had passed me, but I was happier to see it happen nonetheless. I always knew how important this missing piece was to the women’s game and it becoming a part of popular culture.
2019 NBA 2K20 (Sega Sports, 2K Sports)
In 2019 this big, brewing idea soon transitioned to the powerhouse franchise NBA 2K, who has taken women’s realistic representation and realism to a new height—perhaps even the Everest point.
Where the game goes from here is what we will delight in witnessing, as opportunity to participate is what every basketball playing video gamer really wants.
To me, the coolest part of NBA 2K is the personalized basketball universe (referred to as “MyPark” or “Neighborhood”) that is created for the video game player. In this universe the society is completely surrounded by the one theme of basketball. It is a virtual paradise for those who get their fix pressing the right buttons to hit the complex combo move with a perfect finish on their jump shot.
This is the landscape of my brother’s favorite space in NBA 2K, which is on the playground playing 3 on 3 pick up basketball.
I explored these components more in depth when I thought about what I really liked a lot about the MyPark culture, which is the personalized fashion component. I asked Alan if he cared for the fashion aspect—the fact that he could personalize his wardrobe and wear whatever he liked, free from the constraints of uniform.
“No. I like the game play. I don’t care about the clothes. I grew up playing basketball. If I wanted clothes I would…I don’t know…play a fashion game.”
In his created basketball universe, it is the realism that rules. While Alan has questions about the future of this video game in terms of what it might mean for young girls, he believes the high usage primarily has to do with the fact that it feels like you’re playing and watching the game.
Basketball players will always be drawn to basketball video games. What will be most interesting to monitor is if more young girls will be motivated to play basketball because of playing 2K first.
This brings me to a new turning point with the NBA 2K series featuring WNBA players for the first time. No one is exactly sure how it will be incorporated, but the first question that comes to my mind with everyone involved is: Will there be female characters for everyone? Will I be able to create my own female character and participate in the park like all the other created MyPlayers? Will she have the physical and mental toughness of Roxy and the realistic, sharp shooting form of Candice Wiggins?
Obviously as we’ve learned through the understanding of affordances, no video game in its current form will ever be able to capture “reality” like we’d like, but this is the discussion that we all should be having in the year 2020.
What effect will all of this have on the actual game of basketball, specifically relating to young girls who might be more inclined to play with dolls?
This is perhaps the most important question of them all.
The hope that lies in my heart believes that this video game will have the greatest impact on the development of the game on so many levels, and for that one reason it is worth it to watch what comes from this moment.
Where do we go from here?
I came across this video featuring Candace Parker and Breanna Stewart talking about the thrilling emotional impact of belonging to this moment. You can get a look from an inside perspective.
To sum it all up, Candace simply stated, “We have arrived.”
Hearing this immediately inspired me, and had me thinking of a mass communication message I learned once upon a time in Communication 101.
Marshall McLuhan: The medium is the message.
This famous phrase was first introduced in Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. It means that the nature of the medium (the channel through which a message is transmitted) is more important than the content or meaning of the message. [Wikipedia]
When I hear Candace say, “we have arrived”, I believe she also means “the medium is the message.”
As female basketball athletes we have already arrived, a very long time ago in fact. The only difference being now we have a platform that accurately represents our skillset to the world.
Through this medium, our success on the court may be showcased in a powerful, popular art form.
I am completely biased, but there is no greater message in the world than that.
2020 & Beyond
Considering my history with playing Roxy on Jammit and now considering NBA Live and NBA 2K, I feel the ultimate solution for NBA 2K would be to allow a created MyCareer female player in the park, so that all may join in on the growing game, and come exactly as they are.
As a fan of basketball, and a former female professional athlete, to have NBA 2K create a space of my own and a character that not only represents my likeness, but also defines my personal attributes would be one of the highest accomplishments of mankind in the last half-century. After watching hours of games at the park with all male characters, I think there could be countless others who look and think like me.
The modern tomboy is no longer forced to reject paper dolls and Barbie dolls. Now her choices have evolved into the options of picking up a basketball and shooting hoops or picking up a PlayStation console and perfecting her overall rating. There are so many more dimensions to explore as this groundbreaking platform has been presented in a way that we haven’t seen before. I would like to see the next step:
Utopia doesn’t exist. But if it did, to me, it would combine both sports and fashion on a virtually realistic basketball landscape.
Ball’s up top. Check.
Four time All-American, WNBA Champion, Edutainer and Coach