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Saturday, September 26, 2020

Living the hoop dream, and a rude awakening

I lived the power fantasy of being a Chicago Bulls point guard through NBA 2K20's career mode. Bare-bones layers of public relations, media and sponsors though broke the illusion off the court.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt | Updated: August 9, 2020 8:38:11 pm
basketball NBA 2K20 career mode

exPress Start is a weekly online column on the intersection of gaming and culture. Level up with Gaurav Bhatt every weekend as he explores the creative and competitive sides of video games.

I am walking out of the United Center when a reporter sticks a recorder in my face.”Hey Che, you got a sec?”

Yep, that’s me, Che. I was picked 12th overall in the first round by Chicago Bulls; a little late given my college career and performance in the NBA draft combine. I spent some time with prospects and journeymen in the G-League. Was called up, warmed benches and got a cumulative 15-minute playtime over six games. Now, I am a starter. If the buzz is to be believed, I might even be the Rookie of the Year. On this night, I dropped 44 points and 14 assists against Steph Curry’s Warriors. Of course, everybody wants a piece of me.

Everybody wants a piece of me.

I know this guy. He’s Ted. We’re on a first-name basis. Actually, his first name is all I know. Ted was also part of the locker room media scrum sometime ago. This was after I had already completed an interview with Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal for the postmatch show, and with sideline reporter David Aldridge during the halftime.

Which unanswered question led to Ted ambushing me? Which exclusive thread will Ted pick up on?

“What does this career high say about your growth?”

He waited for hours to ask that? Banal questions get banal responses: “I’ve gotten more comfortable and confident out there,” my character says, prompting a bizarre exchange.

“Thanks, Che! I was really struggling with this story”

“Nice. Hey, my PR will send you some tickets, all right?”

What story? And what tickets? This is not how any of this works, I’m left muttering.

***

Three weeks back, I talked about the career mode in NBA 2K20. Starring Deric Augustine, Idris Elba, Rosario Dawson and Thomas Middleditch, it is a sterilised, but necessary look at college athletes and raising your voice. But after that 3-4 hour narrative is over, you’re left to play basketball and chart your path to the hall of fame.

That grind is punctuated by various cutscenes. Most see you interact with reporters, with queries ranging from your performance to your hobbies. You choose an option out of two — hype yourself up to gain fans or be diplomatic to remain in the team’s good books. Both have their own merits. More ‘Ks’ in your follower count give you more leverage during negotiations with brands. But antagonising your teammates might result in them ignoring your call for passes during the game.

I like the way @TheChamp23 thinks.

The choices began even before I became a starter. When representatives (read NBA stars, fashion designers, business moguls) from Nike, Adidas, Jordan, Puma, and Under Armour started selling me on their brands.

Courted by multiple suitors, I was Cinderella at the ball but with no shoes. I chose Nike but the choice is strictly cosmetic. The sales pitches added to the immersion but also set my cynicism senses tingling. It wasn’t just about how “dope” the shoes were, but also how ‘woke’ they were. Delivered by different faces, the message was simple.

“We are the only brand that will work with the real Che. We’re not afraid of your voice or giving you a platform to use it. We respect whatever approach you take, on or off the court.”

In June, amidst the social unrest and athletes speaking out, NFL came out in support of Colin Kaepernick, three years after effectively blackballing the quarterback. The same day I rang up Craig Hodges, a two-time world champion with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls who was similarly ostracised by the NBA in the 90s.

READ | Before Colin Kaepernick, there was Craig Hodges

I asked him about corporate America’s sudden awareness and if organisations were responding to the tipping scales. Hodges replied, “No doubt. All of the things that have been bubbling under the surface, like the volcano, are exploding right in the faces of those who have wielded power and now they have to make a change in course.”

Chicago Bulls has a no-nonsense public-relations officer.

I have a complicated relationship with the Chicago Bulls PR staffer.

She often shepherds me to the rest of the starters “to take a pic for social”. She chastises me for wearing a cheap suit and not spending money on fancy ‘Express’ jackets, presumably NBA 2K20’s suit sponsors. But mostly, she’s ushering me to the next interview or sponsor events.

NBA public-relations personnel have a tough job of protecting and promoting the players. A HoopsHype piece from last year spoke with two anonymous PR staffers about their jobs.

“There are times when players aren’t in a good mood. There are times when they don’t want to talk to the media. It seems like when that happens with younger guys, they don’t always understand why they need to talk to the press. However, over time, I think they realize that media members just have a job to do. When players understand and respect that, it’s easier.”

YouTube is littered with compilations of verbal skirmishes between NBA stars and reporters. But a cordial relationship between the two parties could be equally entertaining. Exhibit A: ‘The Last Dance’. In addition to providing valuable context to his six titles, the documentary showed how Michael Jordan was also the Michael Jordan of giving interviews. Friendly yet reserved, available but withdrawn. Yes, he blacklisted Sports Illustrated for the supposedly unfair coverage of his baseball sojourn, but he also bantered along with the Chicago clique of reporters.

The HoopsHype article quotes another staffer on how budding athletes handle media situations by mimicking their favourite athletes.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that most players, especially nowadays, grew up watching games and interviews on national television or YouTube, so they sort of have a road map for how to answer questions when they enter the league… Sometimes, they’ve seen how LeBron James answered a question or how Kevin Durant answered questions and they’ll do something similar.”

I wish NBA 2K20 had an ounce of that complexity, instead of the usual binary choice.

David Aldridge appears as the sideline reporter and looks almost as good as he does in ‘The Last Dance’.

The game does give a cursory glimpse into a star athlete’s headspace though.

Within six months in Chicago, I have attended kids clinics, morning shows, podcasts and product launches. Before each event, brand representatives walk up to coach me on the buzzwords and prepared statements, quickly followed by disclaimers like, “But be yourself. We want it to be organic.”

Initially, out of respect for Che’s rebellious persona, I purposely squandered the interviews or “forgot” to plug the products or buzzwords. Soon I realised the defiance was costing me money from my sponsors.

I’ve brought up money a couple of times, but what does it do exactly? You can spend it on clothes, tattoos and shoes. But the in-game currency is chiefly used to upgrade your skills and attributes to become a better player. It’s a vicious circle that demands joining the system.

Me plugging Beats with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

It isn’t as easy as it looks. You have to pay attention during the briefing to avoid screwing up the spot.

I was still coming off of the high of a win against LA Lakers — during which I tormented cover star Anthony Davis with blocks and dunks — when a Gatorade representative began talking me through an upcoming conference. I sped through the dialogue, barely glancing at the talking points.

During the event, I regurgitate the first two answers (something-something-ID on the lid-customisable bottles) but stumble on the catchphrase. The two options read: “It’s gonna change the way you fuel” and “It’s going to reinvent how you fuel.”

I choose the former, the rep gave me the side-eye and whispered, “reinvent how you fuel.”

“Yes, and it’s going to reinvent how you fuel too,” my player blurted out and I couldn’t help but think, “there goes my bonus.”

But I’ve rolled my eyes most at NBA 2K20’s interpretation of reporters. It gets a few details right (the aforementioned straggler waiting for a quote, a reporter asking a question and others whipping out their recorders and swooping in). It reduces the interactions to a silly mechanism and the reporters to one-note characters. I know Vinnie is always trying to bait me into speaking against my coach, Patty only asks questions related to the game and Ted wants to mooch free tickets off me.

Che’s not asleep, he’s thinking.

Perhaps I need to take the journalism-tinted glasses off and realise that it’s an arcadey video game about shooting hoops and cussing opponents online. But imagine how much fun it would be to play spin-off modes where you control a PR staffer putting out fires or a reporter conjuring stories out of nothing quotes. Currently, they’re just professions thrown in for realism but functioning as bare-bones mechanics.

Hold on, gotta go. They’re giving me my signature Nikes!

***

Some snapshots from my journey so far.

Shaq’s tired of interviewing the future GOAT. Cue a near-stampede for free goodies. Everyone knows Che’s a company man.

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