NBA 2K16’s MyCareer mode might feature one of the lamest street-to-elite stories in recent years, but there’s a tale worth telling beneath Spike Lee’s cringe-worthy script. The mode, which has you create your up-and-coming basketball star and guide them from college league to the NBA, ditches the typical sports-game approach of the player controlling the entire team in favor of only playing their aspiring pro. On and off the ball, and on and off the court, it’s a smaller and more intimate experience than playing the omnipotent coach most games go for.
The greatest difference is the destruction of the fail state. In a typical sports game, your team wins or loses; the binary result doesn’t leave much room for nuance. In MyCareer, however, wins and losses take a backseat to personal performance. Each match, you’re graded on your chemistry with your teammates and your ability to follow the coach’s directions. Set a good screen for your point guard and you’ll shoot from a C to a C+; ignore your coach’s call to slow down your offensive game and you’ll drop from A to B+.
Not only does the broad spectrum of grades provide a far more informative breakdown of your performance, every time you do something in-game to affect your current grade, you’re told why. If you make a bad pass, it gets called out. If you leave your man and they score undefended, you’re going to know about it. This form of dynamic, constructive feedback stands in stark contrast to the opaque ‘YOU DIED’ mentality so common in games, where you often have no idea what killed you or how to avoid it next time. NBA 2K16, on the other hand, makes it perfectly clear what you’re doing wrong and how to improve. It wants to teach you, instead of obfuscating its systems in service of a cheap challenge.
Control is a prominent selling point for games. Having total power over a virtual environment satisfies our desire for understanding the world around us; if we control every cause and effect, we feel safe, our survival secured. That’s rarely how the real world works, though. There are too many unpredictable and uncontrollable factors influencing our lives, and accepting that anarchy is inescapable is an important part of growing up. MyCareer reflects this fundamental truth by denying you control over your teammates’ behavior, forcing you to guess at their intentions when planning your own strategies. You may post up in the perfect position for an uncontested lay-up, but you can’t be sure you’re going to get the pass. You may see your teammate cutting across the key for a pass, but you don’t know whether they might double-back as you throw it, leading to a turnover.
You’re going to make mistakes like these in MyCareer. The thing is, so will your teammates. So will your opponents. Mistakes are inevitable when no one has access to all possible information, and that’s a lesson society itself struggles with teaching. NBA 2K16 handles it well, squashing the stigma of mistakes by normalizing them among even the most accomplished athletes in the world. We all mess up, and it’s vital we remember that.
More than just a mode, MyCareer is a message, a reminder that the power fantasies we live out in games are just that: fantasy. Real life is full of losses and mistakes, but there’s plenty of chances to improve, too. By embracing our role as a teammate instead of the hero, we learn to look beyond the self and work towards a greater good. For society, that’s a slam dunk.