NBA Ballers: Chosen One

Joe Bernstein

Sitting solitary in a totally anonymous, ESPN-on-a-budget studio, Chuck D looks and sounds like a 48-year-old who knows much better.

Publisher: Midway
Genres: Sports
Price: $39.99
Multimedia: NBA Ballers: Chosen One
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3
Number of players: 1-2
ESRB rating: Everyone
Developer: Midway Amusement
US release date: 2008-04-21
Developer website

I listen to Public Enemy, I write about Public Enemy, I worship Public Enemy. It's no secret. So friends sometimes ask me whether Flavor of Love bothers me, whether the spectacle of American pop culture devouring and defecating out a man who once made the same bigoted body shudder in its sleep bothers me.

I take the high road, the long view; I take the Chuck-ian view. He'd be generous and circumspect. Public Enemy represents many elements of the black American experience, and many of them contradict each other. People in Public Enemy have done and said worse. Flav was always a jester and never a radical. I congratulate myself on a considered and difficult answer. I scuttle back down, safe, into my hip-hop hobbit-hole.

Scholarly distance is an excellent coping mechanism, one which I'd probably still be hiding behind if not for a sentence in the Midway promotional copy for NBA Ballers: Chosen One. It's a sentence, a fact, an emotional cluster bomb:

Chuck D, the famed front man and founder of Public Enemy, will serve as announcer and studio-host for the Chosen One tournament, and also provide play-by-play commentary throughout the game.

I can't turn to Flava for guidance on how to deal with this. I know what Flav would say. He'd say, "Get Money Chuckeee D!", and that's not helpful.

Still, the Rhyme Animal + NBA Ballers equation could work, if only as a tasteful paean to the confluences of "B-boy" and "B-ball". After all, the NBA Street series captures these two cultures admirably. It's not exploitative or lazy when the immortal Pete Rock beat from T.R.O.Y. drops over the opening credits of NBA Street Vol. 2; it feels respectful, earned, appropriate.

Well, I'm sorry to announce that the Rock Steady Crew and Mark Ecko were not consulted on this project. Midway found other qualities after which to model their game: NBA Ballers: Chosen One is a tasteful paean to baffling design and wasted talent.

So, yes, the man who was once Louder Than a Bomb is now the volume of a groggy Stuart Scott. Sitting solitary in a totally anonymous, ESPN-on-a-budget studio, Chuck looks and sounds like a 48-year-old who knows much better. Consigned to exclaiming things like "dunkalicious goodness!", he makes little effort to hide his sheepishness or generally justify his presence in the game. It all feels random, lazy, and confused: if Midway wanted a bland announcer for the game, couldn't they have asked Greg Anthony?

Chuck's commentary is only one instrument in a grating symphony of outrageous ideas that never harmonize. The game leverages an insultingly contrived premise -- the NBA's best compete in an off-season tournament of skill to determine the world's greatest 'Baller' -- into an excuse to move the action between opulent locales the world over. Arcade sports games do not need premises, and the laughable one in NBA Ballers just raises questions. I want to see Gilbert Arenas, Paul Pierce, and Lebron James play a game of 21 in a Chinese monastery just as much as the next guy, but I absolutely do not want to know how and why they got there.

Repetitive and herky-jerky gameplay ensures that the Robin Leach-approved settings quickly lose whatever meager appeal they muster. The players control like antique Sherman tanks. The basic strategy for winning any 1-on-1 game -- pulling off enough trick moves and combinations to set up multiple-point, action-halting special shots -- inevitably devolves into frantic tapping of the trick button on offense and the steal button on defense. I call it basketball videogame mutually assured destruction, which is about as fun as it sounds.

Arcade sports games have always been better than simulations at two things: letting the player easily experience the most exciting aspects of a given sport, and communicating the culture of that sport. One learns more in a single game of NFL Blitz about the American spectator's appetite for steroidal collision than in ten simulated seasons of Madden; Midway's own 15-year-old NBA Jam conveys what the average fan loves about basketball in a way the newest NBA Live never can.

NBA Ballers: Chosen One does neither. Whose wildest hoop dreams involve Clyde Drexler taking Dwyane Wade one-on-one in a Dubai palace as Chuck D bellows that the Glide has a level one power move stored up? And what do the creativity and spontaneity that make basketball an internationally revered sport have to do with repeatedly tapping the same buttons so you can freeze the action and deliver an 18-foot jumper off the backboard via bicycle kick?

As a sports lifestyle game, Ballers is a lazy mishmash; as a basketball game, it's repetitive and unexciting. My recommendation for a great NBA Ballers experience? Put your frequent flier miles towards a trip to Dubai. Bring along your SNES and a ghetto blaster. Post up at whatever 7-star monstrosity your budget allows. Pop in NBA Jam. Bump Fear of a Black Planet as loud as culturally permissible. BOOMSHAKALAKA.


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