Even in NBA 2K12, fans hosed by lockout

John Stockton of the Utah Jazz

This lockout is beginning to have some real consequences. The first two weeks of the NBA season are officially gone – not postponed, but cancelled indefinitely – and the war of words seems to be still in its initial stages. The public relations machines of the NBA and the NBAPA have been jockeying to better sympathize with the plight of the typical fan, but the ways in which fans are negatively affected are beginning to mount.

Not only are NBA players tenuously out of work for the foreseeable future, but thousands of middle-class employees of teams and the arena they play in are as well. Ticket takers, journalists, broadcasters, camera operators, cheerleaders and security guards, among many more, remain temporarily jobless. As David Stern announced the cancellation of the first two weeks of the season during an impromptu press conference, he stated that the two sides are “a gulf apart” in negotiations. Things are not looking up.

Beyond the tangible world, into a digital world where polygons can be easily influenced beyond the realm of physical possibility and the so-called “real world” can simply be coded and morphed into any conceivable scenario, there’s an NBA lockout there, too.

At the beginning of the lockout, which was more than 100 days ago, the NBA removed all content from NBA.com, NBATV and other NBA-owned properties that included players currently negotiating for a new collective bargaining agreement. As you may guess, that left few options for the teams and the league itself, considering nearly all NBA-owned properties almost solely use players to promote their league and team brands. Leaving the pre-lockout content available could have given the players a reason to sue, since the current licensing agreement between the NBA and the NBAPA allows only “fair use” of player likenesses during such labor negotiations.

The term “fair use” is a particularly tricky legal term to hash out, and instead of getting into that debate, NBA website administrators and marketers were forced to replace their star players with cheerleaders, mascots and pre-1993 NBA players. According to Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN’s True Hoop, “Depending on how you interpret ‘fair use,’ the prohibition could include the mere mention of a player’s name on an NBA-owned site, though different teams have different interpretations of this particular stipulation.”

As there will be no actual NBA games, many fans have been particularly anxious for the latest release of the NBA 2K series. In replacement of the real thing, many gamers use the best-selling video game series to mimic the experience of the NBA, vicariously become the players and immerse themselves in the spectacular environment of a professional basketball game.

2K Sports, the developers of NBA 2K12, must have planned in advance in case of a lockout. The inclusion of NBA legends in the best-selling series began last year when NBA 2K11 put Michael Jordan on the cover of a video game for the first time since 1992’s Bulls versus Blazers and the NBA Playoffs. A total of six versions of Jordan could be unlocked over the course of playing the game, each representing a different era of his career. With the various MJ’s also came various incarnations of Jordan’s Bulls teams (including Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Dennis Rodman, etc.) as well as many of their chief rivals (the ’90 Pistons, ’92 Blazers, Karl Malone and John Stockton’s ’96 Jazz, etc.) now available for virtual use.

In this year’s release, the developers kept going with the idea, making other legends of the NBA available to unlock: Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Patrick Ewing, Jerry West, and lots more. Historically important teams, such as the ’86 Celtics, are also fully available.

By most measures, 2K Sports has succeeded in recreating the experience of an NBA broadcast. The upgrades in artificial intelligence and graphics provide a realistic feel to the gameplay, which is even better compared to the studio’s previous critically acclaimed title, NBA 2K11. Playing in the ‘NBA’s Greatest’ mode or in using any of the legendary players in the game, the gameplay is era-specific and tailored to the players on the court: black and white grainy film for Bill Russell’s Celts, the familiar organ sounds of Ewing-era Madison Square Garden, and the current smorgasbord of spectacle and stimuli found at today’s typical NBA game.

Players move, function and act just as they do (or did) in reality, while in-game commentators Steve Kerr and Kevin Harian provide nuanced, relevant detail to what is going on. From the gorgeous opening sequence (which, it should be mentioned, makes perfect use of Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball”), to the optional short-shorts and lack of three-point line, and to the greatly expanded sneaker section, the creators covered all the tiny details any NBA fan would want.

Except for this year’s crop of rookies.

Normally, the major reason most gamers update sports titles annually is for the updated rosters and new players. While the technology of “living rosters” and shareable draft classes, customizable rosters and created players in sports games makes developer-issued updates less crucial than they were in the days of Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, they continue to be one of the strongest selling points for new games. To fans of NBA 2K12, the lack of roster updates and the newest draft class of rookies is a big drawback, and yet another example of how NBA consumers are an afterthought to the larger powers of players and owners.

For now, gamers will have to forge on with custom patches and meticulously designed custom players. Anyone wanting to use Jimmer Fredette or Kemba Walker in the new game will have to wait. According to sources, 2K Sports has plans for an official update when the lockout is lifted, and player references and likelinesses have already been programmed.

Though some experts predicted that the NBA lockout could cut into sales of NBA 2K12 by nearly $40 million, others have suggested that the cult-like popularity of the NBA 2K series and the measures to include legends and historic teams saved the game from tanking sales. Luckily for 2K Sports, optimistic experts were correct and sales have been very strong since the October 4 release date, despite the lack of rookies or diminished likelihood of seeing professional basketball anytime soon.

People now have their cure for NBA basketball, but for how long will they want to live in the past? The longer this lockout goes on, gamers will grow increasingly weary of gimmicks. Without a future in place, fans will stop caring about the past. Even in the digital world, where anything you can imagine can be programmed into being, there are still owners and players bickering over themselves, leaving the resentment of their fans in its wake.

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Travis Nicholson

Travis Nicholson is a writer and graphic designer who lives and works in Vancouver, BC. Having written for the web since the 90s, he grew up in a haze of bad haircuts and NBA Jam on the shores of Lake Erie. He is currently a candidate for his Masters of Publishing from Simon Fraser University, and still has a pretty good jump shot even though the nets at the beach are heinous.