Sunday, October 5, 2014

NBA 2K15 Dunks ruin otherwise stellar gameplay

Every basketball coach will tell you that a layup is worth just as many points of a dunk.  While it's "style" that ultimately popularized dunking, what makes it effective is that it's a layup that CAN'T rim out or be easily blocked.  Wilt Chamberlain used this to great effect in the 1960s.  He was bigger and more athletic than everyone else, and ultimately more effective than everyone else because he didn't leave much to chance when he was in striking distance of the rim.

While dunking in the 60s was reserved almost exclusively for big men, we've seen dunkers evolve through the years.  In the 1970s, Julius "Dr. J" Erving was the first great "wing" dunker.  He handled the ball like a guard, yet finished like a big man.  The 1980s saw Michael Jordan follow in his foot steps, and the rest is history.  Fast forward to the present-day and we have athletic point guards like Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, and John Wall finishing like they are wings.

I bring you this mini-history of dunking as a backdrop to what 2K Sports is doing wrong in their video games.  There are a number of factors that lead to these players being great "dunkers", none of which related to their actual dunking ability.

Michael Jordan might have finished like a 7-footer due to his athletic ability, but what made him so deadly was his ability to create his own shot with the quickness of a 6-foot guard.  He was an excellent ball-handler and teams had to respect his jump shot, a combination that lead to many a poster.   He could spin off you in the post, he could strip you and go coast-to-coast.  He had a multitude of skills that CONTRIBUTED to him being a good dunker.

With all this said, I bring you NBA 2K15 (fast-forward to 1:00).

Behold as 19-year olds Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins give their best Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen imitations.  These players are 72 Overall and 77 Overall respectively yet that does not stop them from looking like bonafide superstars out there.

The Dunk rating is perhaps the most important rating in NBA 2K games despite factoring minimally towards the Overall rating.  The rating serves a number of purposes that can be game-breaking in the wrong hands.  Higher dunk ratings increase the dunking animations available, increase the distance from the basket these animations can be triggered, and how effective these animations are in the presence of a defensive player.

Watching the Zach LaVine show immediately reminds me of another "2K superstar" - a player who isn't very good on the hardwood but plays like an absolute beast on the virtual court.

Fast forward to 3:20.  Austin Rivers drives to the rim, gets hit, isn't even phased, and throws it down with authority.  His combination of speed and handles made him a MyTeam superstar.  Yet in one of the all-time greatest ironies, Rivers did not dunk once in his 1,418 minutes as a rookie.

As a sophomore last year Rivers dunked 7 times in 1,339 minutes (a major improvement).
In video #1 we see him make an off-ball cut to the basket that he finishes with ease.
In video #2 we see Rivers get an uncontested dunk in transition.

There is a huge difference between dunking on an uncontested basket (the vast majority of NBA dunks) and dunking on defenders, a problem that has plagued the NBA 2K series since it's inception.  It's one that STG shows is still present in NBA 2K15.  LaVine and Wiggins' ball handling and athleticism allow them to beat defenders to the spots where the dunk rating takes over.

Don't get me wrong, these dunks are BEAUTIFUL and jaw-dropping, but the ease in which these non-star players are able to CONSISTENTLY get to these spots and generate these "money" animations is where things go astray.   I don't have a problem with Zach LaVine giving us his best Gerald Green impression on the fast break, but when he's doing it off the Pick and Roll or spamming Isolation crossovers ad-nausea, that's when the 4th-wall is broken - where NBA simulation becomes unrealistic video game.

2K Sports knows that they are making a video game.  The majority of fans who pay money for the game are "casual" and not looking for a hardcore realistic experience.  I might represent the "Sim Nation" brand of sports gamers but that doesn't mean I'm not a member of "Fun Nation".   Dunking is one of the most exciting things a player can do in the game.  I am not against dunking.   Frequent dunks are not inherently bad when superstars like LeBron James are recording them.  Fans expect that to some degree.  However, I think I speak for the majority of gamers when I say they feel like they are being cheated when a player the caliber of Zach LaVine or Austin Rivers is is able to perform like a superstar and score with significantly greater efficiency than they otherwise would.

As a gamer, I can deal with losing a game when Kobe Bryant drops 30 points against me on 12-20 shooting.  However when non-stars are able to generate those kind of performances with minimal effort, it creates a level of negativity not just for the user getting scored on, but for the user doing the scoring.  I don't jump out of my seat when I dunk in traffic with LeBron James because I've already done the same thing with a guy like Alonzo Gee who is clinging to the league by a thread in real life.

This is a complex problem, but one with solutions.  While I take issue with many of the dunk ratings in the game, "nerfing" them league-wide does not present a long-term solution.  It's not the rating but rather the ease of players getting to their spots in conjunction with the dunk rating that breaks the game.  That means balancing the speed/effectiveness of dribble animations (in conjunction with the handle rating).  It means balancing defensive controls and tightening rotations to limit the "clear path" opportunities of players who aren't adept at creating separation.

Ultimately, what needs to happen is the complete isolation of the dunk rating from all these other factors.   If Dominique Wilkins was "The Human Highlight Film" then Gerald Green is "The Human Video Game Mixtape".

It's hard not to watch Green and get pumped.  His sheer athleticism is jaw-dropping.   While he does get a decent chunk of his dunks in the half-court, he's not operating as the primary scoring option of his team.  He's not creating lanes off the dribble, and he's not creating/absorbing contact on any of his drives (as a result, he's not even really "posterizing" anybody)... but when he's got a path to the basket or receiving a lob in transition it's quite the sight.

Green's dunk rating should be reflecting his "clear path" effectiveness and that's it.

Shameless plug time!

In NBA 2K13 I ran a MyTeam with zero Gold players and was able to consistently beat players using superstars.  This was because I recognized players with various attributes/skills whose values exceeded what the Overall rating would otherwise indicate the player's value.

While the title of the video would seem to indicate otherwise, I'm actually running an offense rather than abusing game exploits.  My knowledge of the plays I run, positioning on offense and defense, and utilizing my players strengths is what carries me to victory over a star-studded team.  Green finishes with 31 points on 12-17 FG (7-10 3PT), also generating 4 assists, and did not commit a single turnover.  While it might seem like it looking at the box score, I'm not actually running my offense through Green.

I typically ran pick and roll plays with Sebastian Telfair, by contrast a poor 3pt shooter and terrible finisher.  Telfair is an average athlete and ball handler but once he uses the pick the following situations would typically occur:
A. Telfair gets space, pulls up for easy shot (5-5 FG thanks to 88 rated mid-range shot).
B. Defense overplays, leaves a 3pt shooter wide-open (Dell Curry, J.J. Redick, Richard Jefferson, Terrence Ross) wide-open.
C. Defense overplays, finds passing lane to JaVale McGee rolling to hoop.
D. Defense overplays, kicks it to Gerald Green (stretch-4) who can either pull up or abuse PF or tweeners like Bird in Isolation thanks to his athleticism (at worst, he matches up athletically with LeBron James who frequently plays at PF in MyTeam matchups).

It wasn't overpowered dunks or three-point shots that churned out my wins, but rather my ability to get to my spots and generate those looks, rather than abusing animations.  If I am able to get to my spots with players who have severe limitations, just imagine what I would be capable of with top tier talent!

From a competitive balance standpoint, what makes 2K enjoyable is figuring out what players work well with others.  Whether it's MyTeam, MyGM, or just an Online Quick Match.  The Mavericks won a championship in 2011 because Tyson Chandler turned out to be the perfect compliment to Dirk Nowitzki.  The Heat had more talent but they struggled because their big three didn't compliment each other very well yet.  When every guard with at least 80 Speed and 70 Dunk has the means to take over a game, it really simplifies things, and not in a good way.

In a future post I'll have stats breaking down NBA 2K14 dunk ratings and what 2K can do to fix their scale and performance issues.  I will also follow that up with 2K15 dunk ratings once the game releases in order to see if there were major changes, how they impact the gameplay, and where the game can go from here.


Alio said...

Great read. I hope that the lack of sliders can be palliated with a realistic custom roster. At least for online leaguers, this would be a "patch".

I hope that somebody transfer your rosters to X1

Walter Brady said...

Great article. I like the examples you give of real life dunkers and how you can translate that do simulation basketball.

Patrick Gordon said...

In this article you have good points, but now that 2k has changed the dunking abilities of players in the game, the gameplay has become rather dry. Now the users of 2k have turned the game into a 3 point shooting contest. I get your point that dunking in 2k is blown out of proportion, but it adds a massive flare to the game. I understand your complaint about Austin rivers, but it seems unfair to take away the dunking abilities of players like David Thompson, dunk extraordinaire. He is not able to dunk in any way unless it is wide open on the fast break. This seem rather ridiculous knowing that he was a great game dunker. Both you and the people that manage 2k have to realize both sides of the argument. I can almost guarantee that I'm not the only one annoyed and frustrated by the new changes to dunking in 2k.

Rashidi said...

In the game I played against David Thompson and he was a dunk machine.

Video of him in a quick YouTube search...

98 Driving Dunk, 88 Speed, along with Posterizer, Lob City Finisher, Transition Finisher... he's easily a top dunker in 2K15. I'm able to dunk pretty consistently with less explosive dunkers (Carmelo Anthony, Lance Stephenson), so I don't understand what fans would have to complain about here.