The Competitive World of NBA Video Games



As he’s done so often this season, LeBron James is hitting everything: contested three pointers, step-back jumpers, dunks where he takes off from the three-point line and somersaults four or five times before crashing down in an explosion of fire and glass. You know, the usual.

I’m watching a game of NBA Jam: On Fire Edition, and within a few minutes it’s obvious that LeBron James is unstoppable. It’s also obvious that the man controlling LBJ is almost as good. His name is Chris and he bears a strong resemblance to Shaggy from Scooby-Do but with glasses and limp blonde hair that hangs down to the middle of his back.

We’re in a large conference room with the kind of green-yellow lighting that makes everyone look like they ate the fish on Airplane!. There’s almost no furniture except for a sprawling mess of chairs and two long tables holding a row of TVs and Xbox 360s. It’s not exactly Madison Square Garden, but on this Friday night it might as well be. This is the NBA Jam tournament at PAX East, the biggest video game expo on the East Coast.

“I’m better than everyone else I know, but I guess there’s always someone better,” says Chris’ opponent after their match. The 81-30 final score flashes on the screen as the men shake hands. “I won the tournament last year,” Chris explains, shrugging his shoulders. It’s the most humble thing he’ll say over the next two hours.

Despite the goofy commentary (“Boom Shakalaka!”), NBA Jam is like a prison pickup game where every athlete has world-class talent and Lance Armstrong-grade steroids. Skilled players operate their All-Stars as if they were muggers. Chris Paul grapples for the ball the same way Jerry Seinfeld steals bread from old ladies. Kevin Garnett throws elbows like, well, Kevin Garnett. It’s a full-out brawl where even nice-guy Kevin Durant isn’t above ramming an airborne opponent.

By the end of the first round, the weaker players have been culled from the field by gamers who have perfected the art of tackling and swatting (“Not in this house!”). Meanwhile, Chris continues to thrash his opponents so badly that they start rooting for him. “If you don’t win this, I’m going to be pissed off,” says one player as he falls behind by 20 points. “If I don’t win this, I’m going to be pissed off,” Chris replies.

I pull Chris aside as we near the final round to find out what’s going through his head as he approaches the culmination of years of playing basketball video games. “I just felt like I had to come back and defend my title,” he says. He looks around the room for a second. “I think the guy in the Zelda jacket is my biggest competition.”

There’s an upset during the final four round and the guy in the Zelda jacket loses to a guy in an Arsenal jacket named Nick, making him the last obstacle between Chris and a repeat championship. There’s no hesitation while setting lineups. Chris chooses LBJ and Dwayne Wade from the Heat, Nick takes KG and Ray Allen of the Celtics. NBA Jam is in desperate need of a roster update.

If the tournament’s earlier rounds were a shoving match, the championship game is the Thunderdome. By the end of the first quarter, the two teams have scored just 11 points combined. “Just put it in, bro,” yells Nick’s friend as Ray Allen finally avoids Wade’s thrashing arms long enough to reach half court. His three pointer rattles around the rim before popping out.

A few eliminated players wander back from the Super Smash Bros. tournament next door to witness a clinic in virtual basketball brawling. “This is the lowest score I’ve ever seen,” Chris says at half time. He’s winning, but the score is 17-13.

Chris gets hot and pulls ahead in the third quarter but Nick fights his way back to within a few points. “This is just like March Madness!” someone shouts from the crowd. The players struggle back and forth, but Chris slowly stretches his lead into the double digits. When the game ends, the players shake hands. “You’re the best person I’ve ever played,” Chris says.

I grab Chris before he can fade into the crowd of bleary-eyed gamers wandering the halls. How does it feel to have successfully defended his title, to have proven himself the best NBA Jam player two years running at an expo devoted to video games? Chris pauses a moment to consider my question. “It feels right,” he says, and then walks away.