Screenshot: NBA 2K League

The NBA is doing its best to put the “sports” into esports. For the past two months, the NBA has run the first video game league sponsored by a major sport, NBA 2K League, featuring 17 teams connected to franchises within the association. But sports simulation games, despite seeming like an obvious choice to go esports, face an even more stark comparison with their “real life” counterparts. Why bother watching NBA 2K League when you can just watch the NBA? It’s a question that the NBA still appears to be working out.

NBA honchos have invested a lot into this new venture. NBA 2K League is, by a wide margin, the largest scale entry a major traditional sports league has made into the esports world with their own product. The first season of NBA 2K League contains a 17-week season and multiple in-season tournaments, culminating in a $300,000 championship this August. NBA 2K League has the full support of the NBA, including significant enough salaries for the players behind the sticks that the NBA got shamed into raising salaries for their minor league players in the developmental G-League to match those of NBA 2K Leaguers.

NBA 2K League’s competition setup does not involve one-on-one matches, as some past iterations of sports game competitions have done (remember Madden Nation?). It’s an intriguing decision, and perhaps a shrewd one given the success of so many team-based esports, from Overwatch to Counter-Strike to League of Legends. It also makes 2K League a more faithful simulation of the NBA, and it allows the league to to bill its product as a combination of flashy individual skill and highly coordinated teamwork, the same combination that makes basketball one of the most popular sports in America, especially among younger demographics.

Yet NBA 2K League’s attempts at realism, from the graphics and engine of NBA 2K18 to its five-on-five format, only serve to highlight its failures to recreate the real thing. Every hitch in a digital player’s step, every awkward bounce off an invisible surface, and every collision the game doesn’t quite know how to handle stabs at the eyes in comparison to the real sports at our fingertips in HD every day.

The problem for me lies in the conceit of NBA 2K, a game designed to simulate the look of NBA basketball. The point of the sports simulation genre—FIFA, Madden, and so on—is to give those of us holding the controller an opportunity to do something we otherwise could never achieve but in our wildest dreams. That’s great when you’re on the sticks. It’s less enticing when you’re yet another degree removed from the experience—in this case, watching people pretend to play basketball.

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NBA 2K League’s current approach to pushing a sports simulation as an esport is flawed from both angles. Sports simulations can never escape comparison with the genuine article, and the video game version will never live up to the physical marvel of the real-life athlete. Playing NBA 2K in a five-on-five format, rather than one-on-one, produces a game that more closely adheres to the strategies and tactics used in the real thing. Yet it also shows the flaws in the 2K system, which doesn’t seem able to best showcase the amount of movement required in a basketball offense.

Ironically, this is because NBA 2K seems too complex, in terms of how many different problems can arise during a game. There are too many ways for the picks and cuts of a dynamic offense to be off by a pixel and destroy the entire plan. As such, many possessions in the half-court wind up as a two-man game with more than half of the players standing to the side and just waiting for a rebound or deflection to come their way. Given that issue, it almost seems like playing one-on-one matches would’ve made more sense than attempting to ape the NBA with five-on-five matches. Anyone who complains about the lack of defense in the NBA would find NBA 2K League all the more insufferable to watch. Most games feature shooting percentages well above 50 percent, as these players have developed such a mastery of the shot system to render most defensive efforts meaningless.

From the gamer side, the sports simulation is so constrained by the necessity to look as close to the genuine article as possible that it often loses the feel of speed and power we imagine the athletes must feel when we watch them on TV. Why worry about man-to-man defenses, traveling calls, and the NBA 2K League’s vague and opaque balancing mechanism of player archetypes when you can just fly above the backboard and slam dunk over opponents in NBA Jam? Or blast home goals in a rocket-powered car in Rocket League? Or lock horns with foes in a futuristic sci-fi world like Overwatch, or a magical battleground like in League of Legends, settings the physical world could never reproduce? The beauty of the digital world is its limitless nature, but the sports simulation instead imposes rule after rule to keep you grounded in a disappointing pseudo-reality.

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This disappointment felt especially jarring during NBA 2K League’s opening weeks, which coincided with the conclusion of the NBA playoffs. NBA 2K League matches featured lots of ugly moments, like when a Raptors Uprising player failed to inbound the ball to a player directly in front of him. It was particularly hard to watch the Bucks Gaming and Pistons Gaming teams toss errant passes into the backcourt and mistakenly step out of the bounds in the last two minutes of what had been one of the tightest games of the season to that point. It didn’t help that memories of LeBron’s thrashings of various hapless Eastern Conference foes were still fresh in my mind. Each of these NBA 2K plays served as unintentional reminders of how poor a simulation the game’s universe is compared to the real thing.

It was probably for the best that NBA 2K League was under the cover of the NBA playoffs for the first few weeks, though. The commentators and hosts used that time to gel and settle into their roles. The league also experimented with a few camera angles and display layouts before eventually landing on the design they’ve been using for the past month or so. The league originally showed games from a camera angle similar to the angles used on NBA broadcasts. That seems like an obvious choice for a Twitch broadcast as well, but most competitive 2K players use the “2K Cam,” a camera mode that follows the action from the back court. Since the league’s midseason tournament, NBA 2K League has been using the 2K cam.

By far the most appealing part of the league in my time as a viewer hasn’t been the gameplay but rather the cuts to player reactions. The energy from the players has been incredible, and it’s clear that the league is encouraging players to be loud and show emotions on stage. The league-leading Blazer5 Gaming squad loves to get loud and in opponents’ faces, and the 2K cam allows us to see the lead-up to the action and not just the end of the pop-off.

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This moment unfolded during the only game Blazer5 lost in the regular season, a 69-63 loss to Celtics Crossover Gaming and by far the most entertaining game I have seen since the league began. The players were fast but sloppy. The teams combined to turn the ball over 24 times, only four less than the average NBA game last season in half as much game time. But the best part was seeing the way the Celtics stood up to the Blazer5 barrage of trash talk. Mel East of the Celtics let loose after Boston erased a 16-point deficit with a 29-11 run to end the first half.

The staff of the NBA 2K League has done an admirable job of trying to adapt NBA 2K to the needs of a stream viewing audience, but unfortunately for them, the biggest problem lies in the game itself, not in the presentation or the talent. I understand why the NBA is pushing NBA 2K. It’s the most faithful reproduction of its product and an advertisement for the league in itself. But NBA 2K—and the sports simulation genre in general—suffers from a significant lack of imagination, and that imagination is what a successful bridging of the sports-and-esports gap will require.

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It’s not enough to just mimic the look of basketball. You have to find a way to capture the feeling of watching LeBron James make one of his signature chase-down blocks, or Steph Curry launch three-pointers from near half-court. NBA 2K’s nature doesn’t allow for unexpected or surprising plays; it’s too prescriptive a system for that to ever be possible. The digital universes our gaming consoles are capable of creating can offer so many more creative ways to simulate the energy of these plays than by trying to perfectly match what we can watch on TV almost every day from October through July. NBA 2K League serves its promotional purposes just fine, and the players bring an undeniable spirit to the competitions, but the restrictions imposed by the NBA and the bland nature of this particular sports simulation will always hold it back.