Sports Games, Colin Kaepernick, and the Lie of Apolitical Stardom
Story modes in sports sims shouldn't shy away from the difficult truth.
All images courtesy of 2K
Summer's arrival wraps up another fallow season for the NFL's quarterback position, and yet Colin Kaepernick still doesn't have a new job. Tony Romo, retired, seems to be getting closer to seeing action right now. It doesn't take anonymous quotes from NFL executives or comparative analytics to recognize it for a particularly nasty bit of blackballing, but they're out there if you want 'em. Even POTUS has a weirdly personal axe to grind. All this for kneeling during the national anthem. I have to say, outside of a video game, it's hard to find that kind of disparity between the modesty of an action and its fallout.
In NBA 2K17 there is no option to have your player take a knee during the anthem, of course. Whatever the views of their real life counterparts, the virtual athletes will always stand, mutely reverent, in this scene that nobody ever actually watches because you can skip it with a button press. Its inclusion is an obeisance in its own right: Along with the reproduced commentary and hype reels that play occasionally before tipoff, it signals the video game's faithfulness to the real product.
And in the real product, standing for the national anthem is compulsory, per the NBA's collective bargaining agreement. Many of us learned of that alongside Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, when the guard was suspended—and ultimately boxed out of the league—for sitting during the anthem in the '90s.
It's not as though the team behind NBA 2K17 had Kaepernick or Abdul-Rauf in mind when they advised, in one of the game's preview blogs, "Remember…what you do off the court MATTERS." When developers promise that actions in their video games will "matter," they're usually just referring to a kind of reserved space for the player's input on things—to roleplaying, essentially.
Place that alongside the kind of mattering we mean when we say that "Black Lives Matter," and it seems a very different thing; two usages of a word like ships passing in the night, ferrying their cargoes of meaning on to opposite hemispheres.
Most roleplaying games ride low with the spoils of war, owing to a preoccupation with shooting, looting, and conquest—historically inauspicious activities whenever they've had designs on race. And when sci-fi or fantasy roleplaying games do earnestly engage with the subject, it's typically via thudding metaphor: analogizing it to species, or salting the script with whatever thematic slur they've coined for the occasion. But it's not like we've exactly got a handle on race in the present plane—small wonder transporting to one with orcs or cyborgs mostly sees us losing it entirely. This might even be the secret pragmatism behind some of the farther-flung settings: to let slip the surly bonds of context. It's a drag on a good gunfight, it seems.
Sport offers a new angle of approach to race and roleplay. We find it a layer of abstraction removed from all the violence, but nearer to traditional roleplay than you might think (just the short jaunt from 'wizards' and 'warriors' to 'the Wizards' and 'the Warriors'). Consider: Sports are already awash in number-crunching obsessives. Positions and play styles are basically RPG character classes (see: "sharpshooters," "floor generals," "enforcers," et al.). And the fandom has always been at least partially about the fantasy of imagining yourself out there, elevated by those physical gifts. I'm not even close to being the first to point this out.
And yet sports video games historically opted for more impersonal, team-focused perspectives, rather than the star athlete, singular who'd be required for proper roleplay. It's an approach that's fallen out of step with the way we experience sports these days, where access to athletes is instantaneous, team-based fandom has given way to the disaggregation of fantasy sports, and the NFL draft resembles a rodeo auction crossed with Gawai, that weeks-long Bornean binge holiday.
Of the major American sports, basketball puts the highest premium on the individual, befitting a game that doesn't hide them behind helmets or inward-facing team structures. Perhaps that's why it's basketball games that have led the foray into roleplay, with modes like NBA 2K's flagship "MyCareer" filling the interstices between scheduled games with decisions that affect your player character's personal and professional lives. Now it's joined by roleplaying partitions in FIFA (dubbed "The Journey"), and as of just this week, Madden NFL, ("Longshot").
Add to these a swelling portfolio of modes including franchise management simulations, collectible card minigames, and persistent online playgrounds, and the contemporary sports game starts to look a bit like a theme park, assembling loosely related attractions around the cultural spectacle of soccer, football, or the like.
Culture, in basketball, means black culture. Has for as long as they've been playing games at Rucker Park. As the sociologist Douglas Hartmann puts it in Midnight Basketball, the sport is "at least in the American imagination, a black practice." Jerry West may be the Logo, but the dominant images of the league are of personalities like Magic, Jordan, Iverson, and Shaq. And after years of stubborn attempts to efface that aspect of the NBA during David Stern's term as commissioner, the league finally seems to be leaning into it. Kendrick's DAMN. is the official soundtrack of this year's playoffs. And this got a long spot during the NBA Finals, as did a female ensemble comedy (and not the one with ScoJo).
This all means that the NBA 2K's pivot away from staid simulation and towards the individual, towards characterfulness, is also a move towards a version of basketball that's more recognizably, self-assuredly black. The effect is most pronounced in MyCareer, where it's manifest in everything from dialogue, to setting, to theme. For as long as I've been playing the mode, it's only ever used black voice actors, the player character's script always tinged with AAVE. It's something that's instantly noticeable when you create a white character.
But it's most conspicuous in 2K16's MyCareer, where if you create a white version of the otherwise prescribed main character, Frequency Vibrations, he still belongs to a black family out of the Harlem projects. It's a bit like that HBO short where Andy Samberg plays a tennis star who was adopted into the Williams sisters' family. And I love it, without irony, because here it's not a joke—just a piquant, if kinda goofy little anomaly.
Here's the rare genre in which the white experience is not default, couldn't be default, not without gerrymandering so blatant that we'd cease to recognize the shape of reality beneath it. Not when the league is three-quarters black, by recent count. And within that, worlds of difference between backgrounds, styles, and personalities.
They all become more pronounced as the games polish the edges of their latest, tallest technological plateau, rendering in fine detail the way Steph Curry chews his mouthpiece, or James Harden contours his Assyrian warlord beard. Basketball games don't fumble with black skin or hair the way other roleplaying games regularly do. Necessity is the mother of invention, maybe—you just really can't half-ass it when rendering Elfrid Payton's 'do (the white-coded haircuts, if anyone's curious, are a Bermuda triangle formed by Detlef Schrempf, Chris Kaman, and Macklemore).
Those gains in graphical fidelity are mirrored by a newfound granularity and expressivity to the statistics underpinning the game. Think of it as upping the number vertices in the model of a player's personal style. If the uniformity the sports games of old can be construed as a vision of the league where the individual is sublimated into the team, then personality, by its very nature breaks that mold. Just take Steph Curry, whose flair for shooting—and hitting—threes at previously unheard of ranges, forced the game's developers to adjust their model. Or the Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving, who defies physics, more or less literally.
Folly, though, would be thinking it's possible to render real black athletes this faithfully, without importing any further context. As Jay Caspian Kang just recently put it, "the days of Woods, Derek Jeter and Michael Jordan just grinning through any edgy conversation are over, at least for now. Athletes, especially famous ones, are less likely to be left to stand alone as ciphers of sporting excellence. Their images will be shaded by their politics, even if these have to be assigned to them."
We expect today's athletes to not just to play well, but also to actively contribute to personal narratives that span in length from a full career right down to a single 24 hour news cycle. Sitting at a bar recently, I caught a commercial for the NBA Playoffs on ESPN Deportes. "QUE VES?" it asked, flipping through black and white stills of popular players. Over each one it layered a suggestion in white all-caps; Russell Westbrook's, I recall, read "VOLÁTIL?" Even as I've been writing this piece, the "Is [Player] a Distraction?" form letters have been flying off the shelf so fast that I keep having to rewrite whole paragraphs to cite the latest one. Hot take pundits on ESPN and Fox Sports posit every insignificant decision a player makes as a saint or sinner proposition, often literally gamified in bits like "Buy or Sell?"
In this environment, the reticence of the video games' sociopolitical commentary stands out. Not just because you can't kneel during the national anthem—even ubiquitous, benign league programs like the NBA Cares charity, or its recent player/police town halls, don't feature. Chalk it up to the practiced apoliticism of AAA video gaming.
And consider the Spike Lee directed 2K16 MyCareer mode, "Livin' Da Dream" an eccentric outlier. The following year's entry pared things back, with a story told via clipped snapshots of NBA banality: hallways deep under the bleachers, locker rooms, practice gyms (all have the added benefit of being graphically untaxing). There's little semblance of a dramatic arc between the games, so what you're left with is a series of platitudes: putting nose to grindstone, doing the blue collar work, etcetera. "We're just focused on the next game" writ large. So basically, the Tim Duncan of basketball narratives (an effect completed by the intentionally frumpy default clothes, designed to incentivize real-money transactions to upgrade).
But it's still a roleplaying game, and roleplaying games presuppose a certain amount of choice and resultant drama. And so you still get dialogue prompts that limit you to the same deeply problematic binary that's been foisted on black athletes from Chamberlain to Westbrook, the one that pundits make so much hay out of: roughly, between being a selfless team player or a ballhog, between obeying your coaches or blithely ignoring commitments, between self-effacement or self-aggrandizement, between keeping your head down or becoming a "distraction."
All variations on an argument that's enthusiastically deployed to tamp down black athletes, whether it's the NBA implementing a dress code in 2005 to forbid clothing that white demographics deemed too "thug," or Colin Cowherd going off on John Wall because he did the Dougie once, or something.
Ultimately, this reifies the racism that claimed the career of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and that risks claiming Colin Kaepernick's
It remains to be seen how Madden's story mode will handle this. The player character, whose father is played by Mahershala Ali, is described as having famously flaked on commitments sometime in his young career, causing others to worry about his temperament. For Alex Hunter, the canonically black protagonist of FIFA '17's roleplaying mode, the binary is euphemized as the milder "Fiery" and "Cool," (a lesser man's Paragon/Renegade). But the implications remain: every situation a choice between two ways of being, with assertiveness posed as necessarily against the will of one's coaches. By mapping the lawful neutrals and chaotic evils D&D-style alignment onto sports-ethics-as-portrayed-by-pundits, you seem to mostly end up with a whole lot of of the kind of respectability politics peddled by hucksters like Charles Barkley and Jason Whitlock.
Ultimately, it reifies the racism that claimed the career of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and that risks claiming Colin Kaepernick's. Sports roleplaying indulges us with the choices that we've always want to make for athletes, like when to call for the ball with the game on the line, or where to sign that lucrative contract. What naturally follows turns out to be who should speak up, and who should be quiet. Few in the commentariat would ever suggest Steve Kerr or Gregg Popovich are speaking out of turn whenever they weigh in on politics, and no red-faced executives bellow that they'll never work another day in the league if they calls the treatment of blacks in America our national sin. Nobody labels them a distraction, the closest thing sports have to a scarlet letter.
Two players in these NBA Finals, each well-accustomed to being labeled a distraction, were recently called on to speak about race. The Warriors' Draymond Green was recently asked if he's ever experienced racism on the court, and he confirmed it so offhandedly as to almost say, "are you kidding me?" And last week, a racist slur was painted on LeBron James' house right before the first game of the Finals, and so he spoke about racism at some length (Whitlock, you'll be shocked to learn, found a way to blame LeBron). Just like that, it becomes one more part of the whole tableaux—a question to be fielded at the same podiums that video games reproduce so you can feel just like a real athlete and answer the same questions, only more anodyne.
Which brings us back to the matter of kneeling. What if you could? One imagines that you might discover, to your horror, that the channels through which the video games pipe in realistic banter can chamber hate just as easily. The spoof twitter feeds, which normally abstracts fan feedback with a couple milquetoast tweets, would suddenly spool into an unmanageable thread of hate speech. Texts would light up your in-game phone, notifying you of censure from coaches and management. Maybe your agent would call to tell you that you'd lost endorsements, a thing that happened to Brandon Marshall the day after he joined Colin Kaepernick's humble little protest.
Then you'd simulate the offseason of your free agency, find no offers had been forthcoming, and the game would delete itself from your hard drive.