Roster update. In sports video games, it's not a selling point as much as it is a term of abuse, one that implies that accurate rosters in annual titles have almost no value to a discerning video gamer. Well, in a couple of weeks, we may find out how important this baseline expectation really is.
NBA 2K12 will do a lot of new things when it releases, but for as long as pro basketball's lockout continues, updating its rosters will not be one of them. The lineups on the disc for its Oct. 4 release date will be almost a carbon-copy of the last roster update published for NBA 2K11.
Not even rookies drafted in June will be in the game at launch. They, and all other player movements, will be patched in once the NBA and its players come to an agreement, which appears to be an impossibility for the next two weeks and very unlikely before the scheduled start date of Nov. 1.
While the NBA lockout has been a front-page reality throughout the summer, its effect on the league's only licensed simulation this year only now seem to be hitting home for the game's fans. In forum posts and online polls, however unscientific, many do express disappointment that the league rosters will essentially be unchanged from last year, and that the rookies—despite one of the least compelling drafts in years—will be completely unavailable.
NBA 2K12 shrewdly sought to insulate itself from the real-world strife by taking its game into the past with "NBA's Greatest," which delivers 15 of the sport's legendary performers, and still more beloved players who were their teammates and adversaries. But it can only go so far to cover the shortcomings in the game's main roster file. Online multiplayer, the game's weakest area historically, is completely exposed.
None of the 34 teams unlockable in "NBA's Greatest" will be available for online multiplayer modes. There had been some confusion, even hope that they would, as earlier reports suggested that once a team is unlocked from "NBA's Greatest" it is available across all modes of play. 2K Sports just confirmed for me all the modes in which these teams can be used, and online multiplayer isn't one of them.
It makes sense. For purposes of fairness and balance, online multiplayer must use the same roster across the entire multiplayer population. Unless 2K Sports was going to set up specific "NBA's Greatest" lobbies (doubtful) or make the rosters available without unlocking them for everyone in online play only (which defeats the purpose of the "NBA's Greatest" challenge) it was unlikely we'd ever see these online. LeBron James and Chris Bosh's defection to Miami last year made the Heat ubiquitous in online ranked play when the season opened. If the 1986 Boston Celtics, 1987 Los Angeles Lakers, and 1996 Chicago Bulls were included, you'd rarely see any teams other than these three in the team select screen of a ranked game.
However understandable, it underlines how little online multiplayer has going for it in NBA 2K12, even if it is adding an Online Association mode allowing gamers to play an entire season with human participants controlling other teams. Further, "NBA Today," which serves up the real-world matchups of the current day will also be mothballed as long as the league is in lockout.
When analysts hedged that a lockout spanning the entire year could wipe out half of NBA 2K12's sales, my response was mostly "oh, come on." Analysts love making such dire prognostications, especially those whose job it is to be visible to reporters. The NBA is not the NFL; its regular season is roundly criticized as being meaningless thanks to the depth of its playoffs and the number of teams qualifying for them. It's a sport whose fast-paced action lends itself to a video game. And eminences such as Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson and Julius Erving, plus fan favorites like Dominique Wilkins, Sidney Moncrief, Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning, would seem to outshine the modern roster, whose stars are more taken for granted.
The loss of regular-season games in the NBA, either in real life or in a video game, means little to me, then. Especially if the two other modes I'm most likely to play, Association (the franchise management simulation) and My Player (the superstar career) have rosters that stop reflecting reality after the first season, and sooner if you've allowed trades among computer-controlled teams or executed them yourself.
And yet it blows my mind that here we are, two weeks before release, and suddenly this matters to the point of driving a buy/don't-buy decision for some. I can't remember the last time fully accurate rosters was the selling point on the back of a box. The 1990s, maybe?
I have to wonder if this really will drive attention to the things sports gamers always argue are more important: content additions, gameplay refinements and upgrades, more lifelike presentation and player modeling. From everything I saw in my preview with the game, and have read in others' experiences, there's no going back to 2K11 after you get your hands on 2K12.
When sports gamers chew the fat, their list of wants for the next game involve new gameplay mechanics, the removal of nagging bugs, esoteric roleplaying choices and the like. The roster is like a glass of ice water at a restaurant. You expect it. You want it. But you're not going to ask for it, and you'll complain if no one brings it.
To threaten to take your business elsewhere? It seems a bit extreme.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.