DIME’s biggest month is in July, which is odd to outsiders because that’s the month after the NBA Finals. When we tell people this, they act shocked, but then we explain why we think it might happen. July is right after the NBA Draft, and it’s also the beginning of NBA free agency period, when the fortunes of teams can crumble or correct depending on which city a star decides to call home. LaMarcus Aldridge didn’t just change the fortunes of the Spurs and Blazers this summer, but all the other teams — Phoenix, New York, L.A. — clamoring for his services. Why are we telling you this? Because the idea of contending for a title, or reaching the top of the mountain has surpassed the actual mountain, and that’s what NBA 2K has so expertly taken advantage of since becoming the sport’s video game behemoth.
With NBA 2K16, that ubiquitous presence expands with the storytelling of director, Spike Lee, a Knicks fanatic and basketball fan, who is also responsible for introducing perhaps the most famous fictional basketball player who is actually a basketball player. The He Got Game director established the “Livin’ A Dream” mode in 2K16, and it’s this narrative that expands the parameters of 2K and shows us a little something about the journey, rather than the destination — an oft-repeated phrase on the podium as players are clamoring to get photographed with the Larry O’Brien trophy.
But it’s true: The journey is part of the fun, and in 2K16, the level of detail in that voyage is astonishing, and better educates gamers on what it might really be like in the NBA.
In NBA 2K15, your player doesn’t get drafted. You’re not even Isaiah Thomas or Chandler Parsons, a second-rounder with a brighter future than their draft night positioning predicted. No, you compete for a contract as part of a 10-day deal, which is the norm in the NBA. Like most players on short-term contracts, you’re flying by the seat of your pants, trying to make a name for yourself in the limited amount of playing time you’re allotted. This is the opposite of NBA 2K16, where your family, your friends, the very environment where you’re plopped down in high school by Spike, all adds up to the archetypal pressures a real NBA player would experience on his odyssey to the Association. You’re livin’ the NBA dream, as accurately as Spike and the 2K designers can tell it.
You start in high school, and your orbit consists of twin sister, Cece, and a best friend, Vic, who isn’t related to you. You’re from Harlem and your nickname is Freq, pronounced like Freak, but spelled like Frequency. The nickname stems from your time punching and kicking in your mom’s womb. Being that we have a twin sister in real life and we used to live on 121st Street and Lexington in East Harlem, this component of the MyCareer mode freq’d us the f*ck out, as it were.
High School and NCAA
After selecting your high school and playing one home game, one road game and one big, state title game — all of these are shorter, by the way, with two-minute quarters — a cavalcade of college coaches come out of the woodwork exactly like they do for Ray Allen in He Got Game.
This isn’t a surprise, obviously, because Spike helped create the storyline, and the journey from high school to a big Division I program is a trope now. The only difference is you’re the trope, so it’s not so universal anymore, but pegged to that Kinect avatar.
After choosing a college — you can select UCLA, Kansas, Georgetown, Louisville, Arizona, Connecticut, Texas, Villanova, Wisconsin and Michigan — and playing a lone college season of six games, you are updated on your draft stock by announcers during the games and headlines on load screens when you’re done. It all depends on how you play. Like a lot of college players, there’s no way to avoid a one-and-done situation. As Anthony Davis remarked during the NBA 2K Uncensored event in New York, he wanted to get his mom out of a the neighborhood he grew up in, and that meant NBA money, something Kentucky coach Calipari could understand and help with. So you’re like Anthony Davis, a college kid looking to get into the NBA and help your family and friends.
We’re not very good at 2K, so we fell in the draft. It was pretty cool to see certain players — Kelly Oubre at Kansas, etc. — on the court, but this isn’t NCAA 2K. So you’re quickly inundated with Draft talk, specifically slimy agent, Dom Pagnotti. That name might sound familiar because he’s actually the exact same agent in He Got Game, and the same actor, Al Palagonia, lends his thick New York accent, with vestiges of a con man, to the 2K character.
It’s not William Dean Howells or George Bellows in its verisimilitude, but the story arc isn’t something you’re wedged into; it follows the popular culture version of the high school to college to professional trajectory, and video games act as a more important 21st century aesthetic than books or paintings, anyway.
At this point in the story, Dom gets on the phone with your twin sister and your parents. While your father tells you how important school is, and your mom explains that you should follow your heart, this fell in line with our own parents, which — combined with the twin sister and Harlem locale — was starting to freak us out a little bit.
Dom obviously wins the conversation by discussing the pros of coming out early — a possible injury knocking you out if you return to college for your sophomore season, and all the money and endorsement dollars you’re liable to see if you announce. So now you’re headed to the pros.
So, that’s what you do, and you’re thrust into a rookie season that’s just as fraught with roadblocks as it is for this year’s rookie crop, who just started training camp.
In your rookie season, you’ll get to play teams in your conference, a game in Brooklyn that’s billed as a homecoming (you’re from Harlem, but the geographical disconnect isn’t explained) and a game against LeBron, because — even though he’s not on the cover — it’s still LeBron.
You only get eight games in your rookie season, and there are off-court storylines after all of them. Those eight games are all you play your rookie year, but you can adjust the length of the games, something you’re not able to do on your journey to the Association. (Not that you would; again, this NBA 2K, not NCAA or High School 2K.)
Here are a few of the plots Spike injects in your rookie year, like it was ripped straight form the pages of a Rookie Transition manual:
- Your girlfriend, sister and agent all beef over your brand.
- Everyone wants you to drop your life-long friend, Vic. Because of course he’s a bad influence. Heave forbid that enterprising friend from your neighborhood who actually keeps you on the straight and narrow. That’s not as entertaining, or as frequent, we’re guessing.
- Your owner makes fun of your speech patterns and there’s some convoluted story about a gambling problem and Vic. Vic is basically banned from attending games and traveling with the team, which actually makes sense (we weren’t big fans of Vic, but we blame HBO’s Ballers for influencing us before we played).
- Your agent, Dom, wants you to be Shaq, basically — so he’s pressuring you to start churning out endorsement appearances.
- Vic raps, of course, and wants you to make his album happen. He also wants you to remember you’re a hard dude from the streets of Harlem.
- You killed a guy in high school and Victor uses that to blackmail you. Yeah.
- Your owner really hates Vic and illegally threatens to release you (they gloss over the fact first-round picks get a guaranteed deal, but whatever).
Upon the completion of your season, you become a free agent, so you’re basically K.J. McDaniels. You select three teams to negotiate with, or for Dom to negotiate with, and — depending on how you played and navigated that smorgasbord of rookie roadblocks — each team has a different level of enthusiasm for your free agency services. You decide on the amount of virtual currency (VC, which can upgrade player attributes) you’ll earn per game and for how many years.
Then, you celebrate. Oh yeah, at this point, you find out Vic died in a car accident and left you a note. Spike was heavy-handed with his symbolism, we thought, but the parallels to real life unfortunately exist.
You’re finally in the MyPlayer mode you’ve come to expect with various benchmarks to earn more VC, like playing smart basketball, et cetera, as well as personal gym upgrades, buying fresh clothes (chortle) and more. What you’ve come to expect. The only difference is how you manage your time off the court when you’re not playing.
You can go to the gym, practice drills and earn VC. Or, you can participate in endorsement opportunities Dom has set up. Lastly, you can interact with your 10 connections. On that last part, hanging with these connections will increase your popularity, which allows you to connect with more popular figures around the world (we didn’t spend too much time on this because we’ve never been popular, and it gave us an uncomfortable flashback to freshman year of high school).
It’s pretty freaking cool, and so detailed it can take your breath away the level of minutiae they’d drummed up. We spent hours all weekend not even playing basketball, and this was a basketball game. Now it’s a lifestyle. The 2K lifestyle, so basically Ronnie 2K come to life.
But what does this say about the NBA? The National Basketball Association is no longer about teams and championships, even though that’s what every player, coach and official will tell you. No, now it’s about your #brand. While our tone might make it seem like we’re pissed off about this development, it’s not necessarily a negative.
A brand leads to more money, more opportunity and more exposure, all of which — at least tangentially — leads back to the game of basketball. The game we love and have loved since we were barely sentient.
Would the NBA have signed a record TV deal if NBA 2K weren’t so popular? Would so many people tune into games if players didn’t go out of their way to sign endorsement deals and get their likeness some time on TV or at the cinema? Would the increasing globalization of the game had occurred if players hadn’t gone overseas as part of the brand tours to interact with fans on the other side of the globe?
It’s easy for self-described intellectuals to deride the commercialization of sports. There are plenty of arguments about the purity of the game and the nefarious nature of capitalism once it gets its evil tentacles wrapped around that game.
But there’s a whole lot of American Dream to the Livin’ the Dream mode on NBA 2K16. While it might be fraught with some unfair characterizations and stereotypes, and some might find it just an updated bit of Horatio Alger claptrap substituting Ragged Dick for “Frequency,” for the new millennium, it’s an odyssey many Americans want to experience. But it also reminds us that the outsized idea of NBA superstardom is a whole lot more enticing than actually being an NBA superstar. And NBA 2K16 does a good job showing all the rusty rakes lying in the tall grass of a way of living most of us envy.
With NBA 2K16, we all get to try and at least empathize with NBA stars, and some of us might even forgive public transgressions from said stars because of that experience. If anything, that’s the best thing we took away from the game. It’ll give you a chance to be an NBA star, and then you can turn the game off and go back to being anonymous — something a lot of NBA stars probably wish they could do, as well.