The "NBA 2K" video game series has gotten attention in recent years for allowing gamers to play out some of the greatest moments in NBA history. In various iterations of the game, users have been able to play as Michael Jordan in some of the biggest games of his career, Bill Russell in black and white, and Isiah Thomas when ruining the New York Knicks was but a dream. These modes gave the series a chance to escape the confines of a typical year-specific sports game, drawing on basketball's rich history to connect the contemporary era to those of the past. It wasn't enough to let gamers control today's greats — they could now dominate as Oscar Robertson and his peers, too.
With the forthcoming "NBA 2K14" centered around reigning MVP and basketball overlord LeBron James, the team at 2K Sports was faced with a new challenge. So, instead of focusing on what James has already accomplished, they decided to concoct two separate versions of LeBron's career. As announced on Friday, "NBA 2K14" will include "LeBron: Path to Greatness," a new game mode in which users get to play out the future of LeBron James all the way up until his retirement. In the first, less controversial path, James stays with the Heat, creating a dynasty to match any in league history. In the other, James bolts for the New York Knicks this summer in free agency, teams with various stars along the way, and finds himself in an eerily familiar yet absolutely fantastical iteration of the NBA. It's basketball science fiction.
2K Sports gave me the opportunity to try out the mode firsthand earlier this week. After the jump, read up on the experience of playing "Path to Greatness," along various impressions of what it says about LeBron's true, as yet undetermined future.
By the description above, this mode would appear to have something in common with "NBA 2K"'s standard franchise mode, in which gamers get to control a team and play many years into the future. Yet this new challenge mode has much more in common with "NBA 2K"'s past legends modes, in which players are allowed to play only specific games (or game situations). Essentially, 2K Sports has chartered two separate courses for LeBron's career and allowed users to peek in at various points along the way, playing in various big games or facing off against newfound rivals. LeBron gets new teammates, loses athletic abilities as he gets older, and gains new skills. The gamer only has so much control and must play to a script, taking specific scenarios and getting rated on a five-star system based on their performance.
This decision freed up 2K's team to get especially creative. Although the Heat Dynasty mode is by far the more normal of the two choices, it still provides the gamer with opportunities to partake in a bizarre NBA future. Imagine, for instance, that a new Cleveland Cavaliers rookie named John Trice enters the league, starts calling himself "King John," and challenges LeBron as an upstart rival. What if the Dallas Mavericks obtained a new European wing named Dimitros Drakos, a lockdown defender who dubs himself "The LeBron Stopper"? (It bears noting that this version of the Mavs also has Deron Williams and Chris Bosh, apparently justifying Mark Cuban's failed attempts to nab a younger superstar these past few summers.) These two figures serve as new rivals for James, just as Andrew Wiggins and other prospective stars could be in the future. However, they are just goofy enough to register more as bosses in an arcade game than real basketball players. It's all in good fun, if also not entirely ridiculous.
It stands to reason that Miami Heat fans will not find the game mode in which LeBron changes teams quite so enjoyable. Given the massive speculation that will surely follow James up until next summer, this mode could be fairly controversial. 2K Sports representatives repeatedly ensured me that James only signed off on the concept for this feature, with 2K Sports coming up with every specific scenario from their own imaginations. In other words, there's no reason to assume that LeBron desperately wants to play for the Knicks, or that he'll eventually head back to Cleveland and Miami to finish out his career. The game's creative team decided to pick the scenarios it found most fascinating, not those most likely to exist.
The experience of playing the game, in both modes, is somewhat jarring in that it combines the series' typical focus on details — accurate player tendencies, styles, etc. — with a future that likely isn't going to exist. In the first scenario I chose, LeBron trains with a retired Kobe Bryant one summer, convinces him to return to the league, and forms a Knicks squad that includes these two stars, Chris Paul, and Kenneth Faried. Unless the league significantly changes its salary cap restrictions or several of these players attain enlightenment and lose their egos, such a situation will never happen. Yet it begins to feel somewhat realistic when commentators Steve Kerr and Clark Kellogg discuss the team's talent level and the challenge of Kobe and LeBron sharing the ball. It also seems a little more credible when you check your bench and realize that a fortysomething Vince Carter signed at the veteran's minimum in pursuit of his first championship ring. Each scenario exists in a well-realized world, if not a particularly likely one.
This game mode flatters LeBron, obviously, in that it presents him as contending for championships well into his mid-30s and the central figure in the NBA for another decade. But it's also hard to read a coherent statement on LeBron into either course for his career, because the game developers clearly decided to explore the possibilities of the form rather than to map a Joseph Campbell-ish hero's journey. There's no message — it's a vision of two potential futures with only the most tenuous connections to basketball reality.
In a way, that means "Path to Greatness" takes seriously every NBA rumor in which LeBron changes teams or finds a new superstar teammate. We see him play with virtually every one of his superstar peers, face off against contenders to his throne, and charge ahead into the future. With this mode, 2K Sports has bought into the NBA's culture of rumor-mongering and narrative-building. The result appears to reflect all the thrills, speculation, and ridiculousness this world entails. By getting crazy, it ends up with something NBA fans know pretty well.