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It came out last August but NBA 2K20 remains a fixture on the best-selling, most-played video game charts. The controls are sharp and the photorealistic graphics could fool an onlooker into thinking that the NBA season has resumed. But one year later, it is the ‘MyCareer’ mode that warrants a second look.
While career modes in sports games are usually limited to you creating a player, joining a team, playing matches and racking up goals and points, the NBA 2k series was the first to supplement the grind with full-fledged narratives. A high point came in 2016 when the developers roped in award-winning filmmaker Spike Lee to co-write and direct a campaign called ‘Livin’ Da Dream’.
For 2k20, developers Visual Concepts collaborated with LeBron James’ SpringHill Entertainment. The NBA megastar’s media company took production and creative control to present a narrative titled ‘When the Lights Are Brightest’.
The story sees your playable character, not-so-subtly nicknamed Che, stand up for his teammate who gets injured and loses his scholarship. After speaking out against the coach (played by Idris Elba), the college and the system, Che drops out with one semester left, jeopardising his own path to the NBA. Once a top prospect, Che (who looks and plays the way you want) is heavily criticised and soon becomes an afterthought.
The premise wouldn’t be surprising to anybody who has followed LeBron’s off-court endeavours. In 2018, he co-produced ‘Student Athlete’ — an HBO documentary on the exploitative world of high-revenue college sports.
Now, it’s not an all-out assault on social injustice, the type we’ve come to expect from top NBA players including LeBron himself. Che’s exile is a gameplay mechanic for the players to train him again, get him through the Combine and into the NBA. Cynically, once you make it to the big leagues, various brands such as Nike, Jordan and Under Armour woo you, playing up Che’s value as an outspoken athlete.
But the story is still thematically heavy for what essentially is a video game about arcadey basketball. Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen appears to talk about rough childhood in Arkansas, his factory-worker father and growing up youngest of 12. In a meeting with your player, LeBron says, “I believe no one person is capable of turning the tide, but we all have an obligation because somewhere along the way somebody picked us up”.
And the story has aged wonderfully over the past few months. In the current climate of athletes speaking up without reservations, putting careers at risk and braving ‘stick to sports’ comments from a section of fans, NBA 2k20’s ‘Be more than an athlete’ story presses all the right buttons.
Che’s story resonated with Deric Augustine, who played the lead character through motion capture.
“When I first read the script, I was entirely devoted to the Che and felt like we shared the same morals and values. Here was a guy who stood up for a friend who was stripped of his scholarship for an economic and personal gain from the same organisation he worked so hard to be a part of,” Augustine tells The Indian Express.
Augustine, who at 29 is a seasoned theatre performer and has acting credits for TV shows such as Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger and Criminal Minds, believes in speaking up. A day after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, the actor tweeted: “To my dear fellow white friends, if what happened to #GeorgeFloyd happened to me, would you still be quiet?”
“In my personal life, if I see someone being mistreated, I’m going to step up for them. It’s important for me to use my platform to speak about specific issues that we are dealing with today, the same problems that black people been fighting for decades,” he says.
Augustine, who also played Muhammad Ali (still going by Cassius Clay) in the Forest Whitaker-starrer Godfather of Harlem, says it is on artists and athletes to address social issues.
“I think athletes, actors, influencers, entertainers, and other people who have the resources to reach a broad audience must use their platform to speak up about systemic racism, social injustice, and discrimination. It’s up to us to make the world a better place, and the only way to do that is to speak up about these issues and inform and educate the same people that love us for our talents.”
To its credit, NBA 2k20 has embraced the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement in a meaningful way. Last month, the game shut down its servers for two hours to honour George Floyd. It has also added Black Lives Matter clothing to the in-game store, where players can get ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and ‘Say Their Names’ shirts for their characters.
In the video game story, Che stands up to the college coach in intense scenes of clashes of beliefs. In reality, Augustine was facing Idris Elba on a sound stage; both actors in skintight “scuba suits”, covered in rubber balls and dots for positioning, with cameras dangling in front of their faces.
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The charismatic Augustine not just holds his own, but shines playing off of the gravitas of Elba, a Golden Globe-winning veteran and 2018’s Sexiest Man Alive.
“Working with Idris Elba felt so surreal. I am a big fan of his and been watching his work since The Wire so I tried my best not to bombard him with questions because we were both there to work.”
It was when Elba had wrapped up his scenes that Augustine asked the Brit: “how can I grow into a big named actor?”
“He said, ‘Deric, you are on the right path, so I don’t have to give you any advice. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll be fine’,” recalls Augustine. “I am incredibly grateful for those words because it’s easy to doubt yourself sometimes, especially in the film industry, where I deal with rejection all the time.”
Another acclaimed co-star was Rosario Dawson, who played the college advisor and Che’s mentor.
“Rosario was so kind from the first day she arrived until she wrapped. She was like the big sister I didn’t have who made the filming process enjoyable and fun. It was her first time doing motion/performance Capture as well, so it took a day to get acclimated with the suit and the camera directly in her face, but after that, she was ready to go,” says Augustine. “She and I have the best scene in the game where she enters my dorm and confronts me about leaving college.”
The scene he’s talking about is an emotional ‘oner’, a single-take without cuts.
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“That scene was so intense, and our director Sheldon Candis really wanted us to bring it to life, so we had to be on our A-game. She brought it, which inspired me to perform to my best ability.”
A different ball game
The narrative appeal and allure of a new medium have enticed several Hollywood A-listers to crossover to video games. It’s different, and Augustine, who believes “every actor should dabble in video games”, shares his experience.
“It creates a skill that actors aren’t typically exposed to. It was overwhelming at first, but I was a champ after the first few days of shooting. Sheldon, our director, called it a movie inside a video game, which is the best definition I have for the process,” says Augustine, who adds that the process isn’t very different from acting in films or theatre. “The acting, blocking, storytelling, emotions, and preparation were all the same for me as film and television. The only tangible differences were the mocap suit and the mocap stage, which was equipped with around 200 cameras.”
Augustine grew up a Bulls fan watching Michael Jordan, and later gravitated towards Kobe Bryant — ” his death was hard for me to take in. He did so much outside of basketball” — and has been playing NBA 2K since the first title dropped in 1999. His breakthrough role as Che was thus a “dream come true’, but the actor hints that the game isn’t over yet.
“I’ll also be making another appearance in NBA2K21, but I can’t tell you yet in what capacity. You’ll just have to wait and see.”
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