NBA 2K19 and the Periphery of Professional Sports

I recently played through the MyCareer Prologue in NBA 2K19, and I thought there was some mildly interesting stuff in there. I know that doesn’t sound like a big achievement, but it’s a huge step up from where these games usually are. Sports games started jamming cutscenes and dialogue into their created player career modes at the start of the generation, and for a while they’ve been coasting on the novelty that a sports game could have a story attached to it. With the exception of NBA 2K16’s bizarre Spike Lee detour (complete with ghost monologue), they’ve all followed the same basic structure. To summarize: “There’s some dude from out of nowhere who is taking the basketball world by storm, and that dude is you, but you’ve still gotta prove yourself out there on the court”. It’s a whole lot of nothing that ranges from kinda fun to incredibly grating depending on the year. But this year’s game mostly ditches that structure for something that I’ll actually remember a year from now.

Instead of being the basketball messiah, in 2K19 you’re an overeager player who declares for the draft before you’re ready, never hears your name called on draft night, and has to grind both in China and in the G-League (the NBA’s developmental league) in order to get your coveted spot in the NBA. You do get your breakout moment. But until then, you’re somebody on the periphery of the league, not a rising star. And there are times when the game is very revealing about what life is like for people on the periphery of professional sports.

When your player (nicknamed A.I. because apparently Visual Concepts didn’t realize that name was taken) first returns from China, it is because he has been signed to play for the South Bay Lakers, the Los Angeles Lakers’ G-League team. But before he even puts on a uniform, A.I. is traded to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in exchange for another player and the cost of one year of lunches from the local deli. The scene is played as a joke, but there’s a very real undercurrent to it. The NBA trade deadline recently passed, and while most of the news was focused around where big name players would and wouldn’t land, there were also players like Nik Stauskas and Wade Baldwin, moved around as nothing more than contracts to facilitate larger deals. In one week, Stauskas and Baldwin went from Portland to Cleveland to Houston to Indiana before being waived by the Pacers. Stauskas signed with Cleveland three days later while Baldwin remains teamless.

The comparison between A.I. and these real-life players isn’t 1:1. For instance, I don’t think Stauskas and Baldwin ever actually packed up their things and moved to these places before the next trade. However, it shows that the idea of being traded and then traded again before even playing with your new team isn’t some ridiculous scenario made up for a videogame. That actually happens. And as Rodger Sherman of The Ringer wrote, Stauskas and Baldwin were being moved around for accounting reasons. They weren’t traded because of what they could or couldn’t do on the court; they were traded because their contracts fit nicely into deals and helped teams save money. So while they weren’t traded for a bunch of sandwich bills, the basic idea of being traded to save money isn’t that ridiculous either. Players at the periphery, whether G-Leaguers or NBA bench-riders, have very little stability. Stauskas and Baldwin went from having a steady job to having a lot of uncertainty to being out of work in less than a week. And if you want the ultimate story of instability, check out MLB relief pitcher Oliver Drake, who has changed teams eight times in the past year and has actually made the move with his wife to a new city each time, frequently for less than a month, sometimes for less than a week.

By spending a lot of time in the G-League, NBA 2K19 gets to tell the stories of players whose stories aren’t often told. In addition to A.I., there are three other players on the Mad Ants who matter. One is a veteran journeyman who played in the NBA for years and is hanging on to the hope that a playoff team picks him up to fill out the roster. Another is a guy who knows that he will never be good enough to make an NBA roster but who’s playing G-League ball for the time being because he enjoys the sport and is good enough to play at this level. I like seeing these two stories, but if the game stopped there I’d be a little disappointed since they are both ultimately content with their status in the league.

Where things get more interesting is with Marcus Young, who, like A.I., has ambitions of being an NBA star. Young is the villain in the story, but some of his actions say less about him than they do about the system these guys are in. In a confrontation in a motel, Young tells A.I., “There’s 491 players in the NBA, and most of them, they’re blue bloods, everything was just handed to them. The rest of us: we down here and we gotta fight for the few spots that they didn’t take. So if the only chance I have is by stepping over my competition, I’m gonna do that by any means necessary.” Young is threatening A.I., but he’s also indirectly calling out a system that forces teammates to compete with each other. The romanticized ideal of team sports is that it’s about sacrifice and working together, but when half the team is only playing in the G-League so that they can one day play in the NBA, that ideal can never be realized. The G-League is about individual player advancement because guys are competing for limited spots. And then even when they do make it to the NBA, in addition to trying to stay, players are competing with each other for limited salaries. It’s nice to think that good team play is rewarded, and it sometimes is, but there are also plenty of times when a gaudy stat sheet has gotten someone an equally gaudy paycheck. And nobody is going to sacrifice themself for the team when there are real costs on the line. As Young says, “I got a family and people counting on me, just like you”.

That implied criticism of this scene is what makes NBA 2K19 grab my interest. G-League Basketball doesn’t have the same bad reputation for player exploitation that Minor League Baseball does (see this interview with minor leaguer Jonathan Perrin for more on that), but at the end of the day it is still a feeder league for the one that people—fans, owners, players—actually care about. That is always going to put guys at each other’s throats and under constant pressure to perform. There are moments when A.I. hits huge setbacks, and the mental toll it takes on him is apparent.

None of this is the main drive of NBA 2K19. The game is more about A.I. learning to slow things down and appreciate the quieter moments in life, and the story wraps things up in the most absurdly Hollywood way. Despite being well made, I’d struggle to call the written story “good”. But by telling the stories of players on the periphery of the NBA, the game inevitably (and perhaps incidentally) aims some light critique towards the way those players are treated. So even if I can’t say it’s “good”, NBA 2K19 at least meets the criteria of “interesting”, which was the last thing I was expecting from it.

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