How a yearly sports update could revolutionise gaming storytelling

Curious, but hugely interesting news: Spike Lee, the man who directed Malcolm X, Inside Man, and He Got Game, is directing the story in NBA 2K16. Yes, a sports game with a plot. Having already written the script, Lee has started shooting scenes for the latest version of the hugely popular MyCareer mode. And that's a pretty big deal.

On the surface, the idea of a cinematic legend getting involved with a yearly-released sports series seems like the flashiest kind of razzle-dazzle. 2K has been guilty of this kind of showmanship in the past (yeah, I'm looking at you Jay Z, 'executive producer' of 2K13 my arse), but this move is far more credible. Lee himself is a passionate NY Knicks fan. Not a 'celebrity who sits in court-side seats to be seen' fan; he's a 'throw his hat on the floor when someone fluffs a free-throw in a regular season game' type fan. He's worked with players like Ray Allen in his movies, and ESPN heavily featured his abrasive relationship with Reggie Miller in one of its 30 for 30 films. He cares.

But why would he involve himself in the storyline of a sports game? Surely the often-derided plots of games are career suicide for a film-maker? Well... ever since 2K14, when the series jumped to current-gen, MyCareer has not only been the most popular mode, it has also been the most innovative and acclaimed. 2K14 on PS4 / XO added a proper story with cut-scenes, scenarios, and real decisions to make (with last year's iteration expanding heavily on that) making it feel more like a basketball-themed RPG than a traditional sports game. Aside from some awkward acting and stilted dialogue, MyCareer is entertaining and very well imagined. Having Spike Lee on board, who has already directed a slew of hoop-heavy films, makes just as much sense as bringing in Guillermo del Toro to work on Silent Hills (rest in peace). He's adding focused expertise to polish an exciting, yet underdeveloped, core concept.

Dig deeper into Lee's background, and you get a feel for what we can expect from this year's MyCareer mode. Given his passion for showcasing harsh reality over idealised depictions of life, I wouldn't be surprised if Lee takes the mode much further back than previous games (which start at the draft), letting us experience the tough, tough road to the NBA that thousands of teenagers face as they fight to excel in the US school / college system. Think Hoop Dreams: The Game, with all the difficult choices, sacrifices, and cruel life-changing events that come with it. If he manages to capture even a fraction of this fascinating real-world scenario, NBA 2K16 could be one of the most important games of the generation. Yes, I know it's a yearly sports game, please remain calm.

Post-draft, we're likely to see more honest, realistic storylines too. Lee's rather mixed documentary Kobe Doin' Work made a decent attempt to highlight the brutal work ethic that top NBA players subject themselves to, and it's easy to see how this could be translated into MyCareer mode. Sure, we've played through some tricky scenarios in previous games that forced us to choose between personal excellence, team dynamic, or popularity, but Lee's insider insight can take this to a whole new level. How far are you willing to push your on-screen persona, and at what cost to their personal life? And will the glory be all the sweeter for it? Maybe not. It'd take a bold director to make players feel like they've lost, even when they've won, a trick few have dared to attempt since Silent Hill 2 famously made you (yes YOU) the villain of the piece. Modern games are too eager to please, too keen to reward. Spike Lee - if anyone - would be someone who could kick against that.

Obviously, 2K is keeping the content of the story a well-guarded secret. It's both unique and rather thrilling to see narrative (and the desire to know more about it) as the talking point of a 'traditional' sports game. While many will summarily dismiss this as a “publicity stunt” and the game itself as “another lazy update yawn, lol, when can I play Fallout?”, it could represent a significant moment for the genre, and video games as a whole. Sports titles are perhaps the best placed to really allow video games to hold a mirror up to our own reality, without becoming too dull or sim-like. They are - after all - realistic representations of activities, in which the majority of players can actually partake and take an interest in, outside the game itself (albeit with a focus on the superstar than the everyday). And who better to hold that mirror than the man who gave us He Got Game? If Lee manages to tell a relatable, human story via the medium of a sports title... that's big news for games.

Andy Hartup