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This is Jerry.
See him, over there in the back? He's the faceless guy in the green shirt, completely indistinguishable from those around him. Jerry's blending in seamlessly with the crowd, an introverted social trait he developed and perfected in high school. For as long as he can remember, Jerry has been an avid basketball fan. He's been showing up to every game, no matter the team, for over a decade. In fact, he's seen the entirety of Visual Concept's NBA 2K franchise, ever since its inception on the Dreamcast in 1999. But on November 15, 2013, Jerry will cease to exist.
That's the day that NBA 2K14 hits the PlayStation 4 in North America, two weeks before the UK release and one week ahead of the Xbox One version. It's no mere port of the PS3/360 version, either; the next-gen version of 2K14 has been built from the ground up, without a single art asset reused from the previous generation. Sports games have typically been the pictorial leaders at the start of each new console era, showing off what's possible with the upgraded hardware. With NBA 2K14, 2K Sports hope to wow gamers with the graphical power of the eighth generation.
"In approaching graphics for the next-gen, we were trying to think of what 'next-gen' meant," says Anton Dawson, art director on NBA 2K14. "We knew we'd get more polygons, we knew we'd get higher texture resolution--but we also knew that wasn't the answer to making things look next-gen. We felt the answer was [the detail in] thousands of little things, so that the whole frame screams next-gen. Not just players, or animated cloth, or arenas--but everything."
Part of that "everything" is the crowd, all of whom--like Jerry--have looked artificial up until now. In his infancy, as seen in NBA 2K, Jerry was little more than a cardboard cut-out; a two-dimensional sprite with a handful of two-frame animations. Jerry would maintain his flat disposition until NBA 2K5 on the PS2 and Xbox, but something still wasn't quite right. Though Jerry now occupied three dimensions of space, he looked positively comatose, sitting calmly with his hands in his lap, unmoving. His composure was the antithesis of the frenetic, excited energy typical to hardcore basketball fans.
Even as recently as NBA 2K14 on PS3 and Xbox 360, Jerry's appearance was still being held back by graphical limitations. Granted, he now had something resembling a person's face, rather than a muddied texture; shadows where his eyes should be, with an indeterminate mouth. But now, something stranger was afoot: it seemed Jerry was getting lost amidst a sea of clones. His facial features, his clothing, the way he moved--carbon copies of these traits surrounded him on all sides, doing little to convey any sense of realism as crowd.
All that's going to change with 2K14 on next-gen--we know, because we've seen it for ourselves. "We basically built this completely for next-gen from scratch," says Dawson. "We don't have legacy art. We started over." The graphical improvements are sweeping, from the focal points--namely, the players themselves--to the most granular detail yet imagined in a game. Cutting-edge face scan technology makes the players more lifelike than ever. Grease from an announcer's thumb can be spotted on his desk phone at the media table. Basketballs now behave as they should, spinning with inertia as they leave the hand mid-dribble. The Jumbotron now casts dynamic light from each individual pixel in its LED screen, changing the illumination of the crowd and court depending on the image it's displaying.
And in Jerry's place are onlookers that look like people. They fidget in their seats when watching a close game. They stand and cheer when their team scores, throw their hands up in frustration when their star player shoots a three-point brick. Granted, these sports fans still have very similar taste in clothing, and still move in well-rehearsed ways. But they feel more like individuals, not a block of indistinguishable bodies. Jerry and his fake-looking ilk are nowhere to be seen.
We do not mourn for Jerry, though we may never see him again. As video games veer closer and closer to photorealism, an unconvincing crowd would only hold our suspension of disbelief back. When NBA 2K14 arrives on PS4 and Xbox One, gamers will likely be amazed at how the little details add up to a truly impressive sum. Anyone can appreciate this new layer of visual fidelity, whether they like basketball games or not. And no one will miss Jerry, a relic of spectators past.