Screen grab of Lakers great Magic Johnson from the 2010 edition of NBA Jam
by Keith Aksel
We learn about sports in a number of different ways. We watch and listen to contests, play them ourselves, and read about them in books and other media. As someone who does a ton of the above, I argue that there is another method of learning about sports that has taught me equally as much: video games.
I think if this was written fifteen or twenty years ago, a grown man admitting this may have been viewed as a liability to his professional career- especially as an academic. But today likely every one reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about. People of my generation have played video games since we emerged from the womb, and most of us never really put down the controller for good. Whether that meant Tecmo Super Bowl at age six or FIFA 16 at age 29, playing sports video games has always held a central role in making us smarter sports observers.
To illustrate my point, I will discuss the 2010 edition of NBA Jam.
The NBA Jam franchise has always been important to people my age. We played the Super Nintendo edition relentlessly, and probably only stopped when our mothers told us to do stupid things like homework and assisting the elderly. Little did Mom know that NBA Jam was actually teaching us some good things.
First, video games can demonstrate rosters very effectively. The 2010 edition of NBA Jam featured rosters with usually four of each team’s top players. Someone who has never watched pro basketball could pick up a PS3, XBOX 360, or Wii controller, and learn where the league’s most important players played in just a few runs through the team selections. Not only that, gamers can quickly discern where those players’ strengths lie. Hey look, this Durant guy hits threes like nobody’s business. I bet he is one of the NBA’s best shooters! And when I play with this Tim Duncan fellow, I can dunk over most other players. I betcha that dude’s an effective inside presence! I should watch him and his San Antonio Spurs sometime.
Another way games can make us smarter is by teaching the sport’s history. After achieving various goals in round robin play, gamers can unlock past greats. Every franchise has two or three retired greats on their rosters who made their biggest marks while in that city. For example, Clyde Drexler won a title late in his career in Houston, but the Glide will forever be associated with Portland, the team he plays for in NBA Jam. You can learn who anchored the great Celtics teams and the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s, or even the best players on the worst franchises, like the Clippers’ Danny Manning. In any case, perusing the rosters and playing with a variety of teams gives insight into who in the past played where, as well as their on-court strengths and weaknesses.
A third way games help our sports knowledge is in the nitty-gritty trenches: strategy. Learning positions and ball movement are important to play well in the game and in real competition. How better to understand on court strategy and set plays than executing them yourself as the all-knowing coach behind the controller? Games force you to learn how to adjust depending on your competition and line up. Getting beat on the boards? Sub in some bigger players. Can’t get an open look at a shot? Change your ball movement. Playing against the Heat’s LeBron James and Dwayne Wade requires personnel shifts like subbing in a post player who can both dunk and reject their jumpers on D. Believe it or not, these are the same challenges real live NBA teams face every night, and games simulate them for anyone to engage with.
I admit that NBA Jam is not the best way to gauge strategy, since you are playing only 2-on-2, and the game emphasizes fictional theatrics like getting “on fire” over things like ”reality”. Playing NBA Jam is after all, still more about entertainment than education. The NBA 2K franchise is a better game to learn strategy and set plays. But, forming a coherent strategy and adjusting to your opponent still has its merits in NBA Jam.
All this is to say that the net value of playing sports video games is much greater than just wasting time. As mentioned above, we take in a lot when we play video games. Most importantly we get more attached to the real thing by transferring what we’ve learned to the live sports viewing experience. Given how daunting learning a new sport is, playing sports video games can contribute to our knowledge faster, and more entertainingly than any other method. Mom never told you that, did she?