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Sponsored post -- Video games will continue to transform sports fandom

(DA -- This is a sponsored post.)

The current generation of young adult sports fans are either afflicted by, or have the advantage of, having played video games most of their lives. Whether you ran back to the one yard line before weaving 99 yards through the defense with Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl or dunked from half court in NBA Jam*, I suspect the vast majority of the 40-and-under crowd have undergone the fantasy of controlling modern day supermen via the console game medium.

This has implications for our sports fandom worth exploring.

Contention #1: Sports knowledge is accelerated by video game simulations, albeit in a limited way, and at different rates for different sports.

Transport yourself to 1965. Imagine you are 20 years old and a football fan. Though you've never played on a team, yourself, you probably know the basics about how football actually works, such as the names of the positions, and names of a few formations. But if you haven't been on a team before, if you haven't been coached, your opportunity to learn about schemes and play design are extremely limited. Enter, John Madden.

Ask any young 'un who's played a full season of the Madden video game, or its college football equivalent, and he or she will be able to explain to you the differences between two-deep and three-deep zones, the responsibilities of cornerbacks, how a quarterback keys on different players when reading defenses, and on and on. It's remarkable that because of video games, we have a generation of people who don't need to have it explained to them that a wide receiver was open on his flag route because the safety in two-deep who was responsible for over-the-top help drifted into the middle of the field when the tailback who'd motioned into the slot streaked at him. in 1965, recognizing and analyzing such a situation was the purview of experts, and not relatively common knowledge. In 2010, actual NFL players acknowledge that a game played by eight-year-olds is one of their valuable tools.

Basketball video games have not lent themselves to this kind of Xes and Os popularization, yet. The best-selling games of the past have been cartoonish takeoffs on basketball, like NBA Jam, that emphasized the larger than life qualities of NBA players, and even the more simulation-oriented basketball games have tended to reward sheer athleticism more than subtle skill. However, I see a possible virtuous cycle. The more knowledge of pro basketball process bubbles into public view via sites like NBA Playbook, and the more coaches become simply more open about what they do in an era of information explosion, the more demand there will be for video games that force gamers to learn and use details that pro basketball players and coaches know and use.

Contention #2: Even if it's an inaccurate simulation, thar be truth in these waters.

I once calculated that I've played -- judging conservatively -- around 800 hours of NBA video games since the summer of 2008**, much of that in Franchise mode, in which the gamer takes on the role of general manager, as well as plays the actual games. Having played that much and watched a ton of real-life NBA basketball, I can tell you that if the Bobcats fielded a starting lineup of Rudy Gay, Josh Smith, Danny Granger, O.J. Mayo, and Andrea Bargnani, they wouldn't be as awesome as they were on my fictional Bobcats team. However, that's only because the real-life players don't possess the precise attributes their video game selves do.

Just as football video gamers inevitably come to understand that going for it on fourth down is the correct choice far more often than real-life coaches go for it, basketball video gamers come to understand certain truths about their real-life game that isn't necessarily espoused by coaches at the highest levels. For example: in video game basketball, gamers tend to take three types of shots: threes, dunks, and very close layups. Why? Because those are the most valuable shots. And as it turns out, that's true in the real-life NBA, too.

If you could build a real-life team like I did in my video game, with 1)a center (Bargnani) who could hit 40% threes, had a reasonable post up game and reasonable post defense, 2)a power forward (Smith) who could shoot out to 20 feet, slash to the rim at will for thunderous dunks, was a ferocious shot blocker, and occasionally posted up***, 3)a wing (Gay) who could hit 40% threes, slash to the rim at will for thunderous dunks, and play lockdown on-ball defense****, 4)another wing (Granger) who could hit 45% threes, sometimes slash to the rim for dunks, and play lockdown on-ball defense, and 5)a point guard (Mayo) who could hit 40% threes, slash to the rim for dunks, post up smaller point guards, and play lockdown on-ball defense... that would be a monster team.

In real-life, those players would all be stars, by themselves, and no team could afford them all. Additionally, teams in real life win in many different ways -- but that's because it's not always possible to get players who excel at the most valuable, efficient, skills, and general managers have to make tradeoffs that video gamers don't.

What do you think would happen if general managers identified the skills video gamers identify and elevated those skills to the top of their priorities list? I think there is an NBA team that does this.

The Orlando Magic were lucky enough to end up with Dwight Howard, the most dominant defensive big man since Dikembe Mutombo was in his prime, and so they are able to surround him with players exactly as a video gamer would build his or her team around him: shooters who play solid-to-good defense at every position. Not only are the Magic filled with guys who, essentially, shoot threes, play defense, and run a little, they simply don't take mid-range shots.

All that's to say that one of the most effective offenses in the NBA the past few years is, basically, what video gamers do. When this generation of young adults makes its way to the pro coaching ranks, we're going to see those strategies employed across the league, and, more importantly, we will have all played with those strategies enough to understand them before they're explained to us.



** Check my math: 82 regular season games, 16 playoff games, and give or take 2 preseason games/All Star games, for five seasons in Franchise mode of NBA 2K9, and one season in Career mode in NBA 2K10, at, give or take, an hour and change per game. And that's before all the "scouting", "practice", and "draft prep". Yikes.

*** Basically, LeBron James, if he were willing to bang a bit in the block.

**** A more aggressive Kevin Durant.