[7 January 2004]
For those that need college basketball year round, there is always NCAA March Madness 2004. This game offers a virtual experience of the greatness of college game, in absence of its social and cultural realities. You can practice, participate in a “frat tourney online with friends,” create a battle between mascots, build a dynasty or simply take your team into the big dance. The power and enjoyment of the game, in fact, comes from the Dynasty Mode, where players can build a program from the “bottom-up” with recruitment of blue chippers and preseason workouts.
The strength of the game not only lies in its creative options, but in the realism in the strengths and weaknesses of teams and players. Those teams that are the bomb in the real world, are also all that on this game. You cannot touch UConn, nor can you lose with Duke. They have the players, and this is obvious through one game with either team. I not only couldn’t lose with Duke, but I destroyed every team in my sight. On the other hand, UCLA is extremely erratic in the game. At times, they look amazing, unstoppable, and at others they look like a bad junior high team. The game’s realism is so great that people may want to think about using NCAA 2004 as research for forthcoming bets. (Please note, I am not responsible for any betting loses due to game failure.)
Without a Lakers game on the satellite, I craved a basketball fix that only could be met by the craziness of March Madness. I slipped NCAA 2004 into the PlayStation, deciding to give Temple a shot to finally win the championship that has so long evaded John Cheney. In the first two rounds, I walked over two opponents with impressive defense and a batch of threes. I then squeaked by Arizona and Kentucky in the next two rounds. The excitement was getting to me; especially with the highlights from real life tournament games. However, time was running out for me—it was almost dinner with my parents. My memory card was of no help, so I was forced to play on to feel victory. I managed a 15-point victory against North Carolina in the Semifinals. The finals were set: Temple versus Duke. I quickly went up on Duke by 20 points, but I had only ten minutes until the door bell was to ring (I had already scrapped the shower)—I thus went into a slow down office, hoping the time would tick off a little faster. Duke slowly made its way back to the game, especially after I purposely missed free throws; I just didn’t have the time to make them. I wasn’t worried because I was up by five with seven seconds to go. After hours of waiting I would soon taste victory. As I counted down the seconds, Duke made a three, cutting the lead to three. With four seconds left I passed the ball in, and flung a shot, figuring the clock would run out. Boy was I wrong. A Duke player rebounded the ball off the rim, and immediately shot it the length of the court. As the buzzer went off, and the doorbell rang, Duke had taken the lead with an eighty-foot prayer. If this isn’t March Madness I don’t know what is.
From the graphics, to the skill level of various players, NCAA 2004 captures the greatness of college basketball. It just a few weeks of playing I have lived through a number of buzzer beaters; Dickie V. yelling “awesome baby,” and thousands of screaming fans, all of which contribute to the dramatic and realistic nature of the game.
The game simultaneously erases the horrors of college basketball, from its history of racial segregation to patriarchy, racism and exploitation. As the game embodies the hoopla and excitement of college sports, it equally reflects its cultural politics. It, as with Sports Illustrated, network television and the reigning national ethos of sport, erases women’s basketball. Whereas in past versions, players had the option to play through women’s teams, NCAA 2004 renders women to be cheerleaders. Not only a major disappointment because I was excited about dominating with University of Connecticut and seeing Diana Taurasi go to the rack, this programming choice represents a severe problem given the ubiquitous problem of reducing female athletes to sexual objects and the lack of games designed for women.
One of the new elements of this year’s version of NCAA 2004 is its inclusion of a mascot option, in which you can battle 5-on-5 with various mascots. The site of a Kansas Jayhawk dunking in the face of the Syracuse Orange Men is a visual pleasure every person needs to experience. While obviously a hokey concept geared towards kids, this element of the game fascinates me, given the mascots available within the game. Despite the fact that numerous universities have Native American mascots, none are present within the game. In neither the mascot battle royal, nor the actual games themselves, are there any mascots from schools that have yet to retire racist indigenous images. As Illinois faced off against Florida State in Tallahassee, neither Chief Illiniwek nor Sammy Seminole were present, whereas when Oregon battled UCLA, the duck stomped the sidelines. The absence of Native American mascots may reflect EA’s desire to avoid controversy, or the affects of “political correctness” within this realm (I doubt it), but more likely it represent the larger efforts to wash away the dirty little secrets and problems of college sports.
As the game constructs the world of college athletics devoid of social and cultural problems, it erases the realities of exploitation within both the video game industry and the real world of college sports. While college athletes receive scholarships in exchange for their athletic labor, universities, networks and their corporate sponsors disproportionately profit off the backs of student-athletes. As the attractiveness of NCAA 2004 comes through the ability to swat shots like Emeka Okafur, shoot like J.R. Reddick or take the ball to the rack like Salim Stoudamire, the game uses the skills and popularity of college athletes without having to compensate these athletes. Their amateur status disallows use of their real names, even though we all know what number our favorite players wear inside and outside the game. The only actual person who is named is Carmelo Anthony, the Syracuse guard who turned professional after one-year, who dons the game’s cover.
NCAA March Madness 2004 is an enjoyable game. The power of dunking on your biggest rival (damn Huskies) and leading your team to the big dance, as well as the competitive juices of any sporting event, make you want to turn on this game as often as you watch the real thing on ESPN. However, like college sports, the allure of NCAA 2004 reflects the contradictory love and hate relationship of college sports. It embodies the beauty of sports at the expense of a truthful portrayal of a world wrought with corruption, exploitation, patriarchy and racism. Enjoyment, even of video games, need not come at the expense of critical analysis. To me there is nothing more powerful than taking UCLA to a virtual Final Four as I simultaneously dunk on fools and wonder about the ways women, black athletes, Native American mascots and the college athletic arena are constructed through this latest incarnation.