The cool thing about video games, especially one that has to do with sports, is the amount of work that goes into to making each addition better. 15 years ago, the question was all about graphical improvement and making each one more lifelike than the last. But today, it’s all about AI, game play, and replicating real world mechanics. The NBA 2K series was no different; it fought the same battle.
Until Steph Curry came along.
A recent article for Forbes took a closer look at how the Golden State sharpshooter is changing how basketball games are being built, but it can easily be about how he’s disrupting the way that sports simulators are designed. For years, says 2K Gameplay Director Mike Wang, “Scoring in the paint and 3-point shooting have historically been the toughest areas to properly balance.” Developers have always been looking for ways to prevent users from outright dominating their competition with the rampant abuse of one of the best available players. Remember Madden ‘04 when you could just select the Atlanta Falcons and make quarterback Michael Vick a personal superman?
Same thing for basketball. It was too easy for an inexperienced player to select the Pacers and rain threes with Reggie Miller— so easy, that it took away from the overall enjoyment of the gameplay itself. I mean, would you really want to sit down and have a go with a friend who actually played like that? No. It was tantamount to cheating.
So 2K finally figured itself out. If you were used to playing basketball simulators in the late 90s on Playstation and picked up the sticks run the boards in a more modern incarnation, you’d be in for a wakeup call.
For starters, the game is so much harder. The old strategy of inbounding after a score, and using your point guard to rampage up the floor and into the paint just doesn’t work. Each squad is refined, and you have to play to their nuances. In fact, you need to know the plays. In what’s either the most frustrating or amazing thing about the recent editions of 2K— depending on who you’re asking, of course— the game is brutally unforgiving for players who don’t actually know the game of basketball.
Now, all those years of plugging gameplay leaks has been upended. Developers never, in their right minds, expected they’d see a player as consistently otherworldly like Steph Curry. Again, it’s not as simple as giving him the highest shot rating. Even the best players— real and digital, mind you— have to adhere to the rules of the game. LeBron can dominate the paint, but he won’t be taking these drives from one end of the floor to the other. So it makes sense that you won’t see that happen in a videogame. But LeBron can dominate once certain conditions are met. Granted, the better you are, the more lax those conditions can be, but they are still conditions.
Shooting the ball is no different. Even the best shooters in history have attempted and made some wild shots, and those shots have gone in. That’s part of being great. What holds it in check is that those shots aren’t necessarily consistently attempted. Chang loves talking about shots of the dribble, since it’s one of things that developers had to work hard on discouraging in game play. But Steph Curry does it pretty frequently.
Even if you’re a great 3 point shooter, you still won’t be jacking up 32 footers with such confidence. I mean, did you see that final shot against OKC on Friday night?
For what it’s worth, that game was played after this Forbes article came out. It’s almost like Curry went out there to prove that point. And it’s not like this was a desperation shot that was a lucky Hail Mary. Steph can make crazy shots like that whenever he pleases:
All this is to say that Curry has sent these game designers back to the proverbial drawing board. And now, they’ve found themselves in a Curry-22. On one hand is the desire to make these games simulate real life. On the other is real life itself: Stephen Curry’s style of play isn’t supposed to exist. These developers have worked so hard against having a player you could button mash to victory, but Curry is doing that night after night. And that’s not ragging on him, it’s a testament to how good he is. He can’t be represented in a game without making the game unfair. For now, at least. And I can’t wait to see how this problem translates into other sports, when we see our next ascendent football or soccer player. Stephen is changing the way our sports games get designed, for better or for worse.
Curry is like a living cheat code. And until developers can figure out how to bring everything back into realistic equilibrium, maybe the Golden State Warriors are better off being a locked team. Maybe they’ll be the 2K17 boss fight, to be unlocked after you win in a best of seven series.
Or maybe, the rest of the league will get as good as the Chef.