Ordinarily, NBA 2K12 updates its rosters once a week. This week, it got not one, but three revisions in the span of four days. Jeremy Lin had a hand in all three.
The first update came Wednesday, well after the 38-point coming-out party Lin and the New York Knicks staged on February 10 against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Anyone picking up the sticks after that show-stopper would have found Lin preserved his his pre-phenomenon state, a 56-rated bench warmer. The scale goes up to 99.
An update from 2K Sports on Wednesday boosted Lin to an overall 69 rating. Even that was not enough. Another update late Friday raised Lin to an overall 75, and still a third on Saturday didn't change Lin's ratings, but did add J.R. Smith to the Knicks' roster — signed overnight Friday.
That kind of roster movement is typically addressed days later, but here, the message was clear: Whomever is on the floor for Sunday's showdown with the Dallas Mavericks — a meeting of last year's champion with this year's No. 1 story — had better be on the console when fans play this weekend, either in anticipation of the showdown or in recreation of it.
I've never seen this kind of post-release reaction to a single league story before. The closest thing that comes to mind was when Stephen Strasburg joined the Washington Nationals in June of 2010, dominating Pittsburgh with 14 strikeouts. Even then, Strasburg's inclusion in MLB 2K10 and MLB 10 The Show was dictated by other factors. The first is that he could not appear in a game licensed by the Major League Baseball Players' Association until after his major league debut. The second is that Strasburg, as a number one overall draft selection, was very well known to fans before he entered the game. Indeed, MLB 2K10 gave his fastball the highest speed rating of anyone in the game, owing to a reputation built in college.
Lin, however, is a classic up-from-nothing story whose talents upon arrival were a lot harder to approximate. While he was the best player on his team in college, that team was Harvard — world-renowned known for many things, few of them involving basketball. Had Carmelo Anthony not been injured and — as horrible as it is to put it in this light, it's still true — Amar'e Stoudemire not taken a bereavement leave when his brother died in a car crash, we wouldn't be having this discussion. As is well known, Lin had been cut by two NBA teams, spent time in the developmental leagues, and was about to be cut until the Knicks ran out of guys to work their offence.
Lin's circumstances identify one of the great truths of sports, from Wally Pipp to Tom Brady: "Time and chance happeneth to them all." Lou Gehrig began a streak of 2130 consecutive games played when Pipp was hurt on June 25, 1925, Brady started the third game of the 2001 season when the #1 overall pick Drew Bledsoe — six months after signing a record contract — was sidelined by injury. Both Gehrig and Brady are multiple world champions and hall-of-fame talents, whose debuts depended on being in the right place at the right time. Whether Lin wins a ring or ends up in Springfield, his story at least has the same arc in its first seven games.
And yet, that is something that seems impossible to replicate in a video game, an entertainment product that derives its meaning either from its sport's current season, or the ability to replicate the storylines that make following the league so enjoyable. They have become extremely sophisticated at mimicking the day-to-day occurrences of their leagues, but the kind of story Lin is living today is usually only found in a singleplayer career mode, in which a player created in the user's image becomes a superstar. That's why I said, after Lin and the Knicks downed the Lakers and the Garden roared, that "he is NBA 2K's My Player come to life."
This week I had an interesting conversation with my colleague Pierre Bienaimé, who pointed out that Wayne Rooney burst upon the world football scene in an unpredictable way, too. "Sports games can't capture rookie magic," he said, and he's right. No matter how robust the post-release support, they'll be behind the curve. "Rookie magic comes from low or no expectations."
There's another reason sports games can't capture that. The low expectations I have in real life are different from those in a video game. In real life, I deal with stories like Jeremy Lin from a position of wonder, because they're based in fact. If I'm in a franchise mode and some 56-rated benchwarmer takes over the league, my instinct is not "what an amazing story that is." It's more like, "Who the hell wrote this AI?" Franchise modes are heavily nitpicked experiences — typically in the trade and free agency mechanics. To try to code into an unknown player the moon-shot potential of a Lin, Brady, Rooney or Gehrig, is asking for trouble.
"It would be unjustified to put a tiny percentages of possible marvel in players," Pierre said, and I agreed. And I lamented it, even though "tiny percentages of possible marvel" is a wonderful concept. The tiny percentage of possible marvel is what makes sport the world's original and most compelling reality drama. It's what underwrites the "you couldn't do this in Hollywood" cliché that follows Jeremy Lin, Drew Bledsoe, Kirk Gibson, the 1983 Wolfpack, the 1980 US Hockey Team, Minoru Murayama, Roger Bannister and all others like them. Because no matter how staggering their feats, they are there, registered in fact, and you can lean those facts to justify your hands-clapping amazement, no matter how childlike you seem.
If that kind of joy, if that kind of story is too corny for Hollywood, then it is also too contrived for a video game. A simulation of reality should never try to perfect it it; it should remind us how precious and amazing life really is.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.