Player ratings in video games are a status symbol. Because games are created for a large audience, most of whom aren't NBA diehards, the ratings represent a general sense of who plays best and matters most in the league.
Tuesday, many of the player rankings for "NBA 2K12" were reported by several outlets, including @PastaPadre and the YouTube user NBA2K12stuff. The top player is no surprise: LeBron James checks in with a 98. After that, things get a little weirder; the rest of the top 10 (via EOB) includes Dwyane Wade (96), Kobe Bryant (94), Dwight Howard (93), Chris Paul (93), Kevin Durant (92), Derrick Rose (92), Carmelo Anthony (91), Deron Williams (90), and, in a tie for 10th, Russell Westbrook (88) and Amar'e Stoudemire (88). All were All-Stars last season, and it's certainly not controversial to suggest that they're among the best players in the league. Only Bryant seems wildly overrated -- he's still effective but not close to the third-best player in the NBA.
There is, however, one glaring omission from that list: reigning Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki. After last June's championship, Dirk was finally acknowledged as the legend he's been for quite some time now. For once, public opinion was on his side. Yet, in the 2K12 ratings, he comes in at an 85, tied with Andre Iguodala and Blake Griffin, behind Rudy Gay (who missed several months of last season and the Grizzlies' playoff run with injury), and only one point ahead of Josh Smith and Monta Ellis. If you asked any NBA observer to rank that batch of players, Dirk would come out on top by a wide margin. So what happened with his ranking?
The answer is fairly complicated. For one thing, these ratings are not determined by simple questions of which player is better; they operate according to a formula. I got in touch with the development team for "NBA 2K12," and they gave me this explanation of their system over email:
Our overall rating formulas are position specific, weighting attributes that are more relevant for that type of player. For example, passing and speed are weighted more for point guards, where rebounding and shot blocking are factored heavily for centers.
Nowitzki was judged as a power forward, which is both his position on the court and an insufficient explanation of his role for the Mavs. While power forwards like Griffin, Pau Gasol and Zach Randolph play an interior game, Dirk prefers to play outside the paint and is arguably more of a tall shooting guard on offense than a classic four. As such, his post scoring may rank rather low, which would explain a relatively poor overall ranking. That said, if you play as Dirk you'll probably find that his style and game are approximated pretty well. Formulas don't always produce accurate results, especially when players as unorthodox as Nowitzki are involved.
On the other hand, there is something rather bizarre about Dirk's low rating when Bryant ranks so highly. Again, Kobe is a great player, but all advanced metrics and most expert eyewitness accounts suggest that he's on the downslope of his career. General public perception is clearly a factor here, so no one could blame 2K Sports for boosting Dirk's ratings a bit -- or at least rejiggering their formula -- to help his placement among the NBA elite. 2011 has been Dirk's year and he deserves some attention for it.
Of course, "NBA 2K12" still allows all gamers to edit rankings as they see fit (except in online play). So, you know, go ahead and make Dirk the best player in NBA history, if you like. Or do the same with Eddy Curry. The virtual world is your oyster.