Let's be frank, though, no one really gives a damn whether John Stockton is in a video game.
I had to wonder this week what the reaction would have been if Stockton, and not Scottie Pippen, was the lone holdout from NBA 2K13's reunion of the 1992 U.S. men's basketball team, announced on Wednesday. It's true that Pippen played in more games for that team and means much more as a defender in a hypothetical matchup with the 2012 Olympians, also assembled in the game, conceivably to settle the debate of which team is better. It's true Pippen was in the game last year but won't be this year.
Yet Pippen's absence seemed to utterly blot out the return to video games of someone who meant more to the Dream Team—as its leading scorer and most dominant personality—who last year disappointed fans by not sitting down when NBA 2K12 set a place for him in a specially created feature. Charles Barkley, the larger-than-life "Round Mound of Rebound" and television analyst, was convinced to get the band back together in NBA 2K13 by no less than Jay-Z—a celebrity executive producer, but one who insisted on reconstituting the Dream Team for fans.
When Barkley held out of NBA 2K12, 2K Sports gritted its teeth and went ahead with a 1985 Philadelphia 76ers lineup without him. What was 2K Sports supposed to do when it did sign Barkley this year, was still solid with Larry, Magic, Michael, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone, but couldn't get a deal done with Pippen? Scrap its deal with USA Basketball? Put these 11 in the game in a different uniform? Disperse them through the rest of the free agent roster? Yes, there's an argument to be made that "the Dream Team" means all of its members, but would we be having this conversation if 2K Sports couldn't come to terms with Christian Laettner?
It bothers me because the sports audience seems to be the most implacable of video gaming's major segments, fixated annually on what is not in a game, largely because it confuses one label's 20-year-old tagline for an absolute promise: It's in the game, after all and, yes, Scottie Pippen isn't.
Nor is the Baylor fight song in NCAA Football 13. Nor are Division I-AA college football teams. MLB 12 The Show doesn't have the new Major League Baseball playoff format, although the league formally approved it more than two months after the game's release. You didn't have the option to play a strike-shortened schedule in NBA 2K12. You couldn't play the Winter Classic at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field in NHL 10 or 11. Soldier Field wasn't in Madden until last year. Madison Square Garden isn't in Fight Night at all. Neither is Floyd Mayweather. FIFA 13 probably won't have Rangers F.C. And the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship were all absent from Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13.
Somehow, the Republic has survived.
"When developers do their consumer research, it starts with the loudest forum nerds," Zack Hiwiler, a former sports video game developer, wrote on his personal blog last week. Sports video games, which market "to the same, shrinking audience every year," give disproportionate attention to these kinds of details because it's easier to implement them, with a player model or a uniform skin, or a licensing agreement, than it is to refine or, if necessary, reconfigure the controls or a game's in-action experience for greater enjoyability.
That's how you end up with something like NCAA Football 13, whose inclusions of studio updates, Heisman Trophy winners and the USC Song Girls notwithstanding, was deservedly criticized for not differentiating itself enough from last year's edition. To its credit, the NCAA development team enlists forum help to determine where in a stadium the band sits and what type of cannon its ROTC fires after a touchdown. When the Ramblin' Wreck drove out on the wrong end of Grant Field at Bobby Dodd Stadium last year, they heard about it and fixed it.
But I have to wonder if this doesn't also speak to the utterly henpecked state of sports video game development, in which the story, year after year, is consistently what isn't in a game rather than what actually is—and, worse, what is actually new to the game. We'll see it later this week, when Madden NFL 13 introduces real-time physics and a career system allowing live players in control of one team or a single player within the same league, but doesn't have the means to import NCAA draft classes or play the games of CPU-controlled teams. We'll see what the reaction is. If it drives decisionmakers further toward to a desire to not displease, rather than to delight, then we'll see it in games layering on easy cosmetic details instead of remaking worn-out features, where indvidual stars are more important than the team they play for.