We are in that weird in-between period in the life cycle of sports titles where the ramping down of one game for its updated replacement is occurring. Announcements of cover athletes are abound, conversations about what next-gen will bring in terms of physics and sweat models are being written. One conversation that seems to have gotten benched was is the topic of how sports titles are, again, woefully behind reflecting the current cultural climate.
Dropping the Ball on Social Injustice
For the sake conversation, the focus will remain on the NBA. The NBA has had a really interesting year. It has dealt with the onslaught of a worldwide pandemic by nearly shutting down what was to be a pretty fantastic season. Alongside COVID, this season has also seen a huge resurgence of political action and civic unrest due to more killings of minority men, women & children at the hands of the state with many of it’s Black and Brown fans asking for some kind of response from the league.
These transformative moments have been balanced out a little by the respite that sports can bring. I know personally getting to see my favorite stars battle it out helped so much with giving my brain moments to shift my anxiety away from an inept and malicious American government back to the stress of seeing a missed wide open jumper.
Those feelings of watching masters of their craft play in “the bubble” while being in my own self-imposed lockdown has given me lots of time to think about how sports and their video game counterparts are uneven in how they talk about the world they replicate and why that’s a problem.
On the NBA side, the NBA and NBPA came to an agreement to let players choose between words and phrases pre-picked by the respective organizations:
Black Lives Matter, Say Their Names, Vote, I Can’t Breathe, Justice, Peace, Equality, Freedom, Enough, Power to the People, Justice Now, Say Her Name, Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can), Liberation, See Us, Hear Us, Respect Us, Love Us, Listen, Listen to Us, Stand Up, Ally, Anti-Racist, I Am A Man, Speak Up, How Many More, Group Economics, Education Reform and Mentor.
First, the fact that undeniably white Americans both had a say and had to give approval of what Black players would be sharing in response to actions that mostly affect their communities starts the conversation off on a wobbly ankle. Second, most of these don’t even speak to the actual problem. Having phrases like “Love Us, Vote and Peace” to me obfuscate what the conversation should be about. Sure, people don’t have to pick these and I don’t recall seeing any players pick them but you can tell their addition was definitely made by the same people who pitched the Kendall Jenner “Pepsi Peace” ad. I would have much rather if you are going to have this “all-in” moment from players that you simply have the words “Stop Killing Us” be the message you send. This has been the main point of BLM and most of the adjacent movements. Say that loud and proud for the most impact.
As always, the WNBA has been at the forefront of these conversations. From George Floyd to Sandra Bland to Jacob Blake, the ladies have shown us all the ways to do this kind of activism right. A league of amazing stars with the most to lose in terms of visibility and financial stability continues to stick its collective neck out for the Black community in real ways.
The most recent show of solidarity came in the form of players showing up with shirts with bullet holes representing the amount of times Blake was shot in the back by cops. It was a sad and beautiful tribute to another person taken away from his family in an unnecessary way.
Taking all of that into account, we shift to the biggest basketball video game on the planet in NBA 2K. Now, I will fully admit I don’t know the minutiae of what it takes to make a thing like an art asset patch happen. What I do know is that many of my friends did find it interesting that a game that toutes being one of the most realistic representations of the NBA didn’t have any changes that reflected a COVID bound league. No bubble court, no different opening scenes when you boot up the game and most interestingly no uniform updates.
Note, this is in a game where they can have new alternate league approved assets pushed in a patch or jerseys hotfixed. This exclusion seems even more weird on the heels of them putting a loud and proud loading screen that talks to their support of the Black Lives Matter cause. To their credit, you can adorne “I can’t breathe and Black Lives Matters gear on your player. Knowing how weary publishers can be when it comes to connecting to and sharing political messaging, it was refreshing to boot up the game and see this be an option. It does make me think though of all the continued missed opportunities we see in sports gaming as a whole.
There are still no real references to players kneeling as a way of protest in the game. Madden still doesn’t ever reference Colin Kaepernick’s iconic moment and in some ways have helped the blackballing of Kaep by previously removing his name from two songs on the Madden NFL soundtrack.
Most of the commentary in these games never really talk to the current climate either which again is weird. When games can use technology to give you daily statistical changes that can be talked spoken about, it sometimes puts a huge flashing light on them when these kinds of omissions are present. I know there are segments of each of these leagues such conversations like these hush-hush. Those conversations and pressure clearly trickle down to the gaming companies who have been given their permission to make money off licensed material. For consumers of these games with huge player bases that look like many of the players, it feels a little surreal to see this unnecessary separation of the game from real life.
The players have been standing up for their values and I for one have appreciated it. I want my games to do the same.
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