The 6th Man
I am a basketball junkie. Every November my excitement rises with anticipation with the NBA season on the horizon. I scour the Internet, study the NBA preview issues of Sports Illustrated and ESPN: The Magazine, and spend ample time talking trash to my students about the inevitable dominance of the Los Angeles Lakers (maybe a little less this year). Yet each year I find a way to appease my basketball jonesing through virtual reality. The arrival of NBA Live spawns greater excitement and pleasure than opening day itself. Like the Mah Jong players of the 1920s anticipating the arrival of the new scorecard each spring, fall brings a new edition, with new options, better gameplay, and, of course, revised line-ups that reflect summer player movement.
While I own the last five years of NBA Live(s), the 2005 version was especially exciting given recent player movement. Before the season even began, game players could experience Shaq in Miami, Kobe ballin with Lamar Odom, or T-Mac as a Houston Rocket. Introducing fans to the new NBA, NBA Live 2005 is an especially powerful advertisement for the league. Featuring new-look teams and those rising NBA stars—Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Dirk Nowetski—NBA Live 2005 represents a powerful interactive advertisement for the image-conscious NBA. Not only selling its stars, but also their signature moves and the gorgeous stadiums across the country, the success of NBA Live 2005 not only reflects the popularity of the league, but also guarantees its continued aesthetic and financial presence within U.S. sporting culture. The reality that EA Sports has tapped into reflects the genius of the game and the industry as basketball junkies will continue to plop down $50 each year for the new fix. Sure, each version offers better graphics and new options, but its basic attraction resides with its ability to reflect the changes within the league itself. Genius!
At its core, NBA Live 2005 replicates its previous incarnations. It offers exceptional, competitive virtual basketball. It allows players to play an entire season, go 1-on-1 in the “school yard” for “ultimate bragging rights”, or merely create a Dynasty. It offers every imaginable basketball move from the power dribble and the finger roll to boxing out and drawing a charge.
As previously noted within my sports games reviews, the strength of today’s virtual sports game resides with the Dynasty option. As with other EA Sports games, the Dynasty option within NBA Live 2005 allows (human) players to take their team through several seasons, making decisions on everything from player personality and development to advertisement and construction of infrastructure. As noted in the game manual, you hold a lot of responsibility: “After the Rookie Draft is complete, you have the chance to bid on and offer contracts to free agents. Financial security is the main selling point to many players but don’t break the bank to sign them. Be sure to keep enough money in the budget in order to sign the key role [white?] players as well.” Yet another example of how dominant discourse reduce (black) athletes to money.
While an addictive element to these games, given the amount of real-life time it will take to move through 25 years of virtual time, the Dynasty option is second to none in bridging sports gaming with the creative energies required by other more business related games.
Beyond offering new team configurations, 2005 brings All-Star Weekend into virtual reality. With hopes of bringing excitement and profitability back to the real-life NBA, NBA Live possesses all of the events of All-Star Weekend (minus those involving WNBA players—surprised?): Rookie Challenge, 3-Point Shootout, the Dunk Contest, and the actual All-Star Game.
These new options of the three-point shooting and dunk contests represent not just strength, but an innovative change from even previous incarnations of NBA Live. While both have historically propelled the NBA into cultural prominence, recent years have shown these events at All-Star Weekend to be whacked at best. The versions within NBA Live, in fact, are far better than their real-life brethren. The 3-point shooting contest, while a little too easy (I knocked down 29 points out of 30 with Peja) brings excitement in effort to secure perfection, especially in those moments where a full game is not logistically possible (those who have children know those moments). The dunk contest with NBA Live 2005 is not easy, but excessively difficult, challenging players to both master the game and the creative aspect of (virtual) basketball. After fifty dunk contests, I am still unsure how to successfully appease the judges with high-flying dunks. The few efforts that have lead to dunk scores above 40 (out of 50) have left me confused, as I have little idea what I did to secure that earth-shattering dunk. The fact that NBA Live challenges players mentally and in terms of game play is a testament to its strengths and utility as a game that will last.
Given the cultural, economic and aesthetic importance of the dunk within the contemporary NBA, it is no surprise that the dunk contest takes a prominent place within NBA Live 2005. Over the last 15 years, the dunk has increasingly begun to define professional basketball. While a manifestation of a convergence of factors, ranging from the advent of the ABA, the increasing popularity of street basketball, the prominence of ESPN and SportsCenter in terms of marketing or the emergence of the dunk contest, the NBA and its stars has become synonymous with dunking. This reality is never more obvious than within NBA Live 2005, which not only embodies the importance of dunking within contemporary NBA basketball, but represents yet another source of advertising, commodification of black aesthetics and the elements of moneymaking that define contemporary sports. More than this, the place of dunking as both a fixture of the virtual All-Star Weekend and within the games themselves, inscribes a racial and gender text with predominantly white males donning virtual blackface with NBA Live 2005 that allows them to finally fulfill their great fantasies: to dunk like Lebron, Kobe or even Gerald Wallace.
The fulfillment of this racialized and gendered fantasy speaks the rhetorical and material allure of dunking within virtual reality. In “Attacking the Rim”, Davis Houck reminds us of this cultural (racial/gendered) context: “dunking is about disciplined, controlled, and productive bodies” (153). More to the increasing importance of dunking through the advancement of virtual culture, Houck argues, “interactivity holds interesting implications for the dunk. It seems clear that the dunk will be increasingly divorced from its most important context—a game in which there is a winner and a loser. Instead, it will continue to proliferate simply as a virtual image, one whose appeal seems increasingly far removed from real players in real games at real points in time” (Basketball Jones, 166). Whether trading a player as part of Dynasty mode or throwing down in the dunk contest, NBA Live 2005 offers a powerful space of racial and gendered performativity that not only bespeaks to meanings of race and gender within contemporary sports, but reflects the shifting relationship between fan and player, which is also racial, gendered and class-based. Yet as I played this game and began to write this review, I was struck by its relevance in the context of the recent fight at the Palace, in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
On November 19th, the tenuous line between virtual reality and professional sports became even more pronounced during the much-ballyhooed brawl between members of the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, some fans and a security guard. While some may be wondering about the connection, hoping that in 2005 players can attack fans when provoked or that during play fans spit racial epithets or hurl beer bottles (maybe the next extreme version will offer these options), the relationship between NBA Live 2005, virtual sports, and the recent brawl is much more abstract. While commentators lament the changing relationship between fans and the game, caused by talk radio and a widespread sense of entitlement (racialized to say the least) that has led to fans seeing themselves as part of the game, the Pistons-Pacers-fan-security guard brawl reflects a confluence of factors. These commentators rightly cited this metamorphosis as reason for fans throwing beer at Ron Artest, and for their charging the court. While constant references to fans as the 6th/12th man (the Detroit Pistons even gave a fan a championship ring last month), or the hyper-masculinity cultivated within sports talk radio are certainly explanatory factors, the increased importance and cultural dominance of sporting virtual realities has contributed to the changing presence of fans, all of which penetrated the surface during this riotous spectacle. Whether playing at home or participating in competitive virtual basketball, the rise of EA Sports and NBA Live 2005 reflects and contributes to hegemonic belief that fans are active participants in the game.
NBA Live 2005, with its emphasis on being part of the game through participating in virtual reality, has equally contributed to the popular belief that fans are as much a part of the game as players, referees and equipment. In fact, the strengths of NBA Live lies with its replication of reality—skills, players, arena—and the offering of a simulated basketball experience. As with the emphasis on the 6th/12th man and the popularity of player jerseys, games like NBA Live 2005 have further blurred the line between fan and competitor. Worse, at many NBA games, EA Sports or the NBA set-up competitions, in which fans taste NBA competition through battling others for the crown of ultimate NBA Live Baller. In fact, leagues and competitions can be found throughout the country, further reflecting on the popularity and cultural importance of NBA Live 2005.
Before you get worked up, put down your pens and remove your hands from the keyboard—I am not going Delores Tucker or Bill Bennett, blaming NBA Live for fan hooliganism. Nor am I arguing that the popularity of NBA Live reflects a declining moral center in America that bubbled over last Friday night. These clichéd, racialized and nostalgic arguments offer little insight into both the virtual and real sports worlds. Rather, that NBA Live, given its emphasis on realism, its play to masculine competitive tendencies, its commodification of black male bodies (further conferring hegemonic belief that predominantly white fans hold the power to gaze and control black men), and its overall play to desires of fans to become professional athletes, has created a new environment within the sports world. Amidst this blurred line between the virtual and the real that has further solidified white power to gaze at black male (athletic bodies) within both professional sports stadiums and our own homes, incidences such as those which lead to a brawl between players and fans is hardly surprising. While I surely love this game, I also see the need to reflect on its place within a larger cultural, racial and gender milieu of social meaning.