What’s Next for NBA 2k’s “MyPLAYER” Mode After Spike Lee’s Livin’ Da Dream?

NBA 2k16’s interactive short film, Livin’ Da Dream, is a precocious little thing. It coalesces a passive and interactive medium into something flawed, but cohesive. It does so much to push forward narrative in sports games even with the dissonant potholes it falls into.

I don’t want Visual Concepts, developers of the NBA 2k series, to get away from what they created with Livin’ Da Dream; but I am doubtful Spike Lee will be signing up for another year with the franchise — if you’re reading this Spike please come back for another Livin’ Da Dream. Spike’s departure is leaving Visual Concepts in a predicament. They’ve tried to deliver what Livin’ Da Dream did with in-house talent, and all of those attempts are lacking in their composition, illuminating the directorial prowess of Spike.  

Visual Concepts is a video game developer; no one is expecting a critically acclaimed film director to be a staffer on a basketball sim.

The ‘journey’ to the NBA is a timeless story that is lived out by someone yearly. Yet, I have to suggest that maybe it’s time to move past that story, because Livin’ Da Dream is the best rendition of these tropes. It’s a crutch that’s keeping narratives in sports games in their infancy.

Spike brings his brand of film making to Livin' Da Dream
Spike brings his brand of film making to Livin’ Da Dream

How myPLAYER is structured has a lot to do with what stories Visual Concepts can draw from. In Livin’ Da Dream the amount of games the player plays is condensed to service the story Spike Lee is trying to tell in the first chapter. The game then breaks into something a bit more familiar with the player focusing more on basketball, improving their skills and securing endorsements. This is an essential part of the game, and I was a bit turned off at the lack of freedom in the first chapter, but equally bothered when Livin’ Da Dream ended.

It’s a hopeless balancing act. How do you give players the freedom they’re accustomed to while also providing a narrative that propels the player forward that isn’t just endorsements and more Virtual Coins?

How about syphoning from the years of history the NBA has?

NBA 2k11 had the Jordan Challenges, in which players had to lay through curated moments in MJ’s career (like the Flu Game, or the Double Nickel game), and upon completing the challenges MJ: Creating a Legend unlocked. In that mode players took Michael Jordan as a rookie and played through his career. Jordan aged throughout that mode (a very neat touch), but it was lacking any of the off-court details that made Jordan’s journey unique. It was incredibly sterile, and only about the ins-and-outs of basketball. Everything from the court, to the number Jordan was wearing, to the roster and the likeness of the players on said roster were recreated in painstaking accuracy, yet, there were glaring omissions in these moments.

Jordan

The Double Nickel game in particular omits things that are so important to what made that game so rememerable. Jordan’s father, James R. Jordan, was murdered, and the grief-stricken Jordan retired from the sport famously saying he had lost his desire to play. Jordan then went on to play minor league baseball and AA baseball for multiple teams — a decision influenced by his father’s wish to see him play the sport. I’ve never had a conversation with Jordan, so please take my interpretation of this portion of Jordan’s career trepidatiously. To me, what makes Double Nickel game so heartwarming is Jordan’s grieving period ending. He was back.

Excluding this part of why the Double Nickel game is important just makes it about Jordan scoring fifty-five points in Madison Square Garden after a string of uncharacteristically poor outings.

Presumably, there’s not much Visual Concepts could have done with Jordan’s likeness — the licensing to get him in the game was probably a nightmare. And this is, understandably, excusable. Jordan doesn’t seem like the type of guy that likes to reopen wounds, or the type of guy that would want to see such a personal moment recreated in a video game, and what he does and does not let developers do with his likeness is to be respected. Nonetheless, the moment feels oddly hollow without all the relevant details.

MJ and his dad

The technical complications of pulling off such a thing has to be unfeasible for a game that sees a yearly release. Where do you start that story? James R. Jordan’s death? Do you start during Michael’s baseball career, and include a minor league baseball game? Do you create a timeline of Jordan’s career with fully acted cutscenes for off-court moments in his life? Probably not. Oh, and let’s not forget that the NBA 2k series is historically rated E for Everyone. I never see the series going anywhere near topics, such as, Len Bias, because the NBA isn’t letting drugs anywhere near their brand.

It’s an impossible task, and as soon as these questions surface NBA 2k11’s sterile Jordan Challenges, MJ: Creating a Legend and rehashing of the ‘journey’ to the NBA tropes seem like the only solutions.

Creating their own narratives that push past the ‘journey’ trope could work, but like previously stated, they would have to get people involved that have experience in directing, because with the exception of Livin’ Da Dream all the other myPLAYER narratives have fell flat. Albeit, it could work. Trying to draw from the rich historical tapestry that exist would make basketball buffs like myself happy, but the obstacles involved with achieving that yield more questions than answers.

Frequency Vibrations, Livin' Da Dream's main character, celebrating with his family
Frequency Vibrations, Livin’ Da Dream’s main character, celebrating with his family

Livin’ Da Dream doesn’t draw from reality. It relies on a story that is familiar, but does not veer close to retelling any NBA player’s personal story. There are recurring familiarities that happen within any given NBA season that can be used to draw inspiration from. For instance, injuries; how about a player with a thought to be snake-bitten career reemerging as an all-star in the league? A player who a small market team, like the Milwaukee Bucks, were expecting to bring a championship? That’s a story that I’m interested in seeing in a sports game — the story of Derrick Rose. That idea would insert players into a pre-established world, but reserve the player building and customization that myPLAYER is known for (nursing yourself back to health with rehab), while also tell a compelling story of redemption. A story that isn’t reliant on what draft pick you are. 

I really don’t know what’s next for myPLAYER, but I do know Livin’ Da Dream is the best telling of the ‘journey’ NBA 2k has been able to achieve. Cyclically going back to that subject matter in next year’s game just isn’t going to cut it. Visual Concepts has finally proved that good stories can be told in sports games; now they just have to figure out what story they are going to tell next.

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