I have two vices: videogames and basketball, I've probably played every iteration of the digital version that you can think of. From Double Dribble to Slam-N-Jam 95' the sport has seen numerous changes. With each technological advance we've seen a huge improvement in graphics, commentary, AI and physics. All this brings me to today's topic: The Digital Dunk Contest.
To show you where I would love to end up, let's start at the beginning: in 1988 Jordan Vs. Bird had the first videogame dunk contest. The funny thing about it was the fact that you could only play as Jordan, so I'm not sure how it was really a contest. (But did you really want to play as Bird?) You were given a selection of ten dunks to choose from and relied on a timing meter to execute the dunk you wanted to perform. The game captured the likeness and signature moves of Jordan plus gave you a challenge while trying to pull off his dunks. I think I might have played this one aspect of the game more than anything else.
Here is your throwback video to illustrate:
Fast forward to 2005 and Electronic Arts is holding court with the NBA Live series. EA decided to go all-in with both the use of the NBA's All-Star Weekend and Sprite branding. They also added specific commentary from Ernie Johnson and Kenny "bring out the the gospel choir" Smith. What made this version of the contest special was that for the first time you could bounce the ball off of multiple structures around the court, use different gathers and throw down some pretty awesome dunks. With minimal effort, it was still really challenging to the player. The multiple button layout of the Xbox made it easier to map specific controls to different moves, and it gave the player the ability to modify a standard dunk into a more spectacular one.
We move ahead to the time between 2008-2011 where 2kSports adds their version to the mix. They decided to run with a street motif having the contest in a mocked-up urban playground and snagged Hip-Hop and streetball legend Bobbito, aka DJ Cucumber Slice, for commentary. This quickly became the most annoying addition to a sports game since the concept of first-person football. Grating voice-overs aside, this looked to be the pinnacle of what mo-capped dunks, physics and graphical fidelity could be in our generation. Then you picked up the controller and had to fight through a mess of uncoordinated inputs, Street Fighter-esque quarter circles and nonsensical tutorials. I believe that 2k had a great idea in theory but botched some of the execution. Check out the example below:
NBA 2k13 recently showcased a small snippet of what the new dunk contest will look like:
And to say it looks a bit disappointing is an understatement. I will admit no one has seen the final product and I will hold final judgement until I get my hands on it, BUT the move to make it less interactive and more casual really is off-putting. A guitar hero-esque highway that requires nothing but follow-the-number button pushes is the last thing most basketball fans would want. So let me run down a couple of things that are needed for a fun, engaging and challenging dunk contest.
- ATMOSPHERE: The venue, having the dunk contest in an actual stadium with all branding helps a great deal with this and I'm happy that 2k finally has this in the new game.
- SOUND: Kenny Smith can be your ace in the hole and also the land mine that blows up the whole shebang. If you listen to the hype that he brings in the clip below, you see how much it adds to the experience. It has just the right amount of energy and is very contextual. It makes you feel like you are watching a live event and not a bunch of stitched lines of dialogue. Also most importantly the crowd needs to sound excited or disappointed about whatever dunk is done or awful judge score is given. If you've watched the past couple of years' contests you can tell just how a dead crowd kills both the dunker and your personal viewing pleasure.
- INTANGIBLES: This is the part of the article where I play "All of the Lights". The smoke, flash, player intros, full motion video, overlays, and even music should be blown out. Make it flashy but realistic, make props cool and fun, stop making the court look like they are fixing potholes for your local utility company by giving them construction obstacles to jump over. Introduce a human prop, maybe try to incorporate tandem dunks or wearable items.
- CONTROLS: Here is where the I think 2k can make their mark by taking a page from an old NBA Live book. The controls in the Live 95' version could be tweaked and updated. Put in a couple more modifiers and make navigation easy with a decent video tutorial and you could absolutely have a winner. Making the player feel like they are an active participant is the key to making any dunk contest viable and should be the first things developers prioritize.
Check out these last two videos that pretty much sum up what I am hoping for in a new dunk contest — pay close attention to the audio and presentation and imagine what an NBA2k13 or next-gen engine would bring to the table.