Fooling around in NBA 2K11, I picked the 1990 Atlanta Hawks for one reason: Dominique Wilkins. Sure, the Hawks had Moses Malone late in his career, but let's be honest. You play this team for the Human Highlight Reel.
Early in my matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves - come on, I needed an easy side to dunk on - the Hawks shot off on the break after a miss and the ball ended up with my point guard. Spazzing on the controls, not yet really grasping the right-bumper/right stick command to leave it for ‘Nique on the trail, I figured I'd just take it in for the easy layup with the little guy, jamming on the trigger out of reflex.
Except he went straight up, higher than anyone that short has a right to jump, and windmilled in a one-handed dunk.
Oh, my God. That's Spud Webb.
It wasn't some cartoon dunk either. I can't break down Webb's technique as an idea, only as a feeling, and this felt authentic. Famous for winning the 1986 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, Spud did not dunk in regular pro competition that often. Dominique, the ‘86 runner-up, didn't even know he could jam. But growing up on Tobacco Road, kids knew what N.C. State's short man was capable of, and Wolfpack fans would see him do it in layup lines all the time.
And when a 5-foot-7 guy who's supposed to lay it in on a routine jog to the hoop goes up and crams it instead, you typically have the same reaction, video game or live broadcast.
"To see them do everything in the same way you remember it - a part of it is your own imagination and your memories added to it," admits Rob Jones, NBA 2K11's senior producer. "But those things also add to the perception that the game got it right, that once you put in enough ingredients, the flavor really comes out."
Visual Concepts' NBA 2K series has long been acclaimed for delivering signature superstar behavior - not just their physical appearance - in the team sport that exhibits it the most, from the dribble to the gather to the takeoff to the slam to the finish and the run back down the court. The greater the performer, the more identifiable each of these behaviors are, almost frame-by-frame.
This year, the game famously added Michael Jordan to the game. And though pulling off his iconic foul-line double-pump dunk or his reverse up-and-under layup motions were a tough enough assignment, the size of the challenge that Jones and his team took on can be seen mostly in the supporting cast of 18 NBA teams spanning 1986 to 1998. To complete the backdrop for recreating 10 of Jordan's greatest games, NBA 2K11 had to add in about 100 more players, many of them Hall of Famers, some of them retired by more than a decade.
"In years past, the guys you don't want to mess up are Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and we've always tried to do a great job on those guys, who are getting used the most in our game," Jones said. To that cast, they were now adding Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing - even Hall of Famers like James Worthy and Kevin McHale whose performances might be more recognizable to a smaller - yet more knowledgable - base of fans.
"I watched an editor play against the Celtics, just to watch Kevin McHale abuse him in the post every time," laughs Jones, who grew up in Michigan as a fan of the Bad Boy-era Detroit Pistons. "I remember saying, ‘Yeah, I remember that!' Or, watching [Celtics point guard Dennis Johnson] score on him. You're sitting there, trying to check everybody else and DJ's the one that scores. It would take me back to when my Bad Boys were out there, I'd go, ‘Man, I can't stand this guy! He always comes up with the big play."
Capturing this behavior is at once simpler and more complicated than it sounds. The good thing about drawing on iconic performers is they have reels of footage to work with. And skilled basketball performers have been emulating legends in their driveways since childhood. 2K Sports flies in former top-division college players of all shapes and sizes to do motion capture, and in their gym studio will show them highlights of various player moves that they want re-created.
From there comes a bit of tuning in the animation studio, Jones said, but the goal is to nail the motion in live performance. The in-game physics - height of the jump, distance to the basket, for example - are more easily adjusted by animators. But nothing works more than a strong, well emulated pose.
"For the most part, we would prefer if there was never a need for animation touchup," Jones said. "The human body just moves a particular way, and if we can record the motion naturally that way, that's the way we want it."
Further, these animations are not patch-addressable. A patch may swap a player's animations, say, taking him from one type of one-footed dunk to a different one. But there's no tuning of individual motions within that animation. "We'll get comments all the time, hey, this guy's layup really looks more like this other guy's, and we can switch that," Jones said. But for everything else, "We have to get it right the first time."
The enormity of the task wasn't borne by the developers alone; actors found it daunting in their own way. "You tell them the first day who they are and what they'll be doing," Jones said. "After you come in from mo-cap a couple of times, it's a job, but it still has exciting moments. You'll ask a guy, hey, can you do the free-throw line dunk, and what you hear sometimes is, ‘I can, if you bring the rim down a little bit.' So we had to make some adjustments to get it perfect."
And the actors on NBA 2K11 aren't rec leaguers. Omar Wilkes, who played at Cal and is the son of UCLA great Jamaal Wilkes, served as one of several actors on Jordan's motion capture. James ‘Flight' White, a former Cincinnati standout and second-round NBA draft pick, is also part of the cast.
"Flight came in and he is an amazing dunker," Jones said. "And yet, after a while, it's like ‘I can still do that, but I'm gonna need you to help me out a little.'" And while they do have a trampoline in the gym, Jones vows it has never, ever been used.
No assistance was needed to capture Webb's slams, Jones says. Guys standing 5-7 who can dunk today are in greater supply than they were in Spud's heydey, Jones said. "With new training, the players' abilities have really evolved," said Jones, who at 6-0 dunked in his high school and college days. "Back then, you're seeing Spud Webb do it, and it's ‘Oh my gosh.' Now there are guys who are 5-6 to 5-8 who can dunk. I wished somebody could have taught me this stuff back then."
2K Sports packs in this kind of detail knowing that, for a game that sells millions, most players will choose from about five NBA teams, especially in online play. It's when they get deeper into their Association mode games, taking on the stars from less popular squads, that the game's truly astonishing depth comes out. "We get players who, months in, can still find brand-new stuff," Jones says.
"When you're attempting to simulate a sport where the most important thing is that every player has his own particular style, if you cannot individualize those players - a small quick guard with quick layips or floaters, or the lanky forward, or the oafy big center - if you can't make every player stand out, the game gets generic very quickly," Jones said.
That's why making NBA 2K11 reflect not only the current league, and its showcase of top performers, but also the dozen years spanning Jordan's apotheosis, is an achievement as satisfying to the developers as it is to gamers.
"When we sit down, and when we figure it all out we realize, yes, this was absolutely great," Jones said. "Yes, this game was about Michael Jordan, too. But I think we did justice to everybody of that era. Even though they may have lost to him, we did justice to them."
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.