Even for an NBA 2K13 soundtrack curated by Jay-Z himself, the butchery of Puff Daddy's "Victory," was to be expected. That track contains four N-words, eight F-words and nine S-words, and this is a game played by 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds.
But U2's "Elevation" is about as safe a piece of stadium rock as has ever been conceived. It sounds like something created solely for the purpose of reaping the royalties of being played during a time-out or in a DVD of great dunks.
So why the hell were its lyrics chopped up? The answer, or the blame, isn't with Jay-Z or 2K Sports. It's in the fine-print tyranny of a ratings system that is harshest on sports video games' attempts to present even the most inoffensive realism encountered in every day life.
I almost missed the editing of "Elevation" because its words are so typically nonsensical in the first place. But the first verse came in much shorter, and when I replayed it, found that the following was changed:
• The opening, "High, higher than the sun/you shoot me from a gun/I need you/to elevate me here," was eliminated entirely.
• "A star, lit up like a cigar," had the reference to the stogie deleted.
• And the coup de grace, at the punctuation of the chorus, "So high, elevation," was changed to something that sounds like "Not going down, elevation."
The Entertainment Software Ratings Board will note, in content descriptors that run beside its official rating, if a game's soundtrack has songs with "mild references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol or drug use in music."
But as the words "at the corner of your lips, at the orbit of your hips," were not cut—in fact, they form the new, stupid opening of the song, I have a theory about what's going on here. These lines were cut because they would trip the ESRB's content descriptors for Drug Reference and Tobacco Reference. And NBA commissioner David Stern would shit a statue of Jerry West if the league had any video game with that on it, whether or not any of that really is in it, or if it's unlikely to change the rating from good old E-for-Everyone.
Content descriptors are where the real audit takes place when a game, particularly a licensed one, gets sent in for review. A sports video game, generally speaking, must not have any. EA Sports' NHL gets tagged with "mild violence" because it allows fighting, and is rated E10+ for that. The combat sports, MMA and boxing, feature blood, violence and suggestive themes, but topped out at T for Teen until Fight Night Champion said the hell with it and released a mode that played like an R-rated boxing movie.
Edited lyrics reveal the fine-print tyranny of a ratings system harsh on sports video games
Everything else must be virginal after that E gets stamped. It wouldn't surprise me if that was part of the licensing agreement between league and publisher. They're even more at the mercy of the ESRB, which is disinclined to show any. So you'd be surprised what gets cut out.
Ben Haumiller laughed when I brought this up with him over the weekend. As producer of NCAA Football, he has some experience with the process. After they record all the spoken dialogue they intend to use—from commentators, in tutorials, whatever—it all gets sent off to a transcription service, who note every single word. That file is included with the game's submission to the ESRB, which I guess performs a power word-search on it for anything that might make a letter-writing parent's ears burn.
"We had to be really careful with Rece," Haumiller said, referring to Rece Davis of ESPN, who anchors mid-game studio updates in a feature new this year. Not because Davis is prone to accidental swearing like, well, Lee Corso. "If we have him break in with a score on a UNLV game, he might say something like, 'And in Las Vegas where the dice are hot tonight.' That's the kind of thing he says in his real job."
He can say it on TV, but he can't say it in NCAA Football 13 because that might trigger some kind of content descriptor about gambling.
Here's another. Anyone who knows Ole Miss football knows the Hotty Toddy cheer. In previous versions of the game, Haumiller wanted to have the crowd chanting at least those words (the full cheer contains a couple of hells and damns). Hotty Toddy describes an alcoholic drink, although not one you'd double-fist.
"Our guy for that (ESRB ratings) told me, 'That'll get flagged.'" Haumiller said. Haumiller said he wanted to push back and send it in anyway, because, good grief, this is recognized as the chant of the University of Mississippi and thousands of kids have heard it on hundreds of Saturdays at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium without being scandalized. Maybe the ratings board could at least see that. "I'm thinking, wait, can we keep Purdue in this game? They're the Boilermakers, you know." Ultimately, Haumiller was told not to bother, and he relented.
Approximately 6,251 college fight songs all take the time to tell their school's rival to go to hell. I'm guessing that'll never be in the game either. Fans of the University of South Alabama, which is getting VIP treatment next year because it was mistakenly left out of NCAA Football 13, chant "U-S-A!" like you hear at the Olympics, then: "SOUTH IN YOUR MOUTH!"
"I hope we'll get to use that last part," Haumiller says. But really, when an orifice is involved, who knows?
There's a difference between these kinds of nitpicky things, whose conspicuous absences only diminish the ESRB and a game's publisher, and real features that can shock or offend. Content descriptors are useful when they note something that is much more blatant, or critical to the game's story or experience, such as presenting even an implied threat of sexual assault to the main character—even in an M-rated game where the assumption (foolish, though it is) is that children will not buy, be given or play the game.
I'm not asking for Ron Jaworski to say "shit," or to see ultra-realistic fractures on an injured catcher or defensive back, or to hear an analyst leering at the cheerleaders. But the point of real world immersion is to, well, introduce what people recognize from the real world into the game. Context is everything in that regard. "Hotty Toddy" is no more a command to get drunk than "so high" describes an elevated level of inebriation. Being unable to see the distinction on such trivial details, or having no discretion to do so, is embarrassing.
(Image at top by Getty Images)
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears weekends.