LeBron James Has Broken the Video Game Player Rating System
The King has got his second ring. While winning back-to-back championships in the NBA is a special achievement -- the Heat joined Kobe Bryant's Lakers as the only teams to successfully defend a title since Michael Jordan's '98 Bulls -- the manner in which James won this year's championship is, to me, an even greater accomplishment, as it was one of the greatest-ever displays of multifaceted basketball mastery.
James showcased every dimension of his game—of the game—in the final two rounds of the playoffs. He clinched the title in Game 7 by hitting an assortment of jumpers from mid and long range, including five threes; He led the comeback in the 4th quarter of Game 6 by repeatedly slashing to the rim off half-court isolations; In Game 4, he unleashed a relentless coast-to-coast attack; He abused Paul George in the low block during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals; In that oft-replayed sequence from Game 2 of the Finals, he blocked Tiago Splitter's dunk attempt, then threw a no-look pass to Ray Allen for a three. He went from guarding David West, a bruising tough guy power forward, to Tony Parker, the game's quickest player, in the span of three days.
No one in the history of the game—not even Jordan, my pick as GOAT—had as diverse a set of skills as James, who has continued to get better since entering the league. That presents a problem for video game developers. Only three months remain until the release of NBA 2K14 (and, if EA Sports can be trusted after last year's tumble, NBA Live 14), which means only two or so months remain until player ratings for those games are finalized. The last time each company released a game—NBA 2K13 and NBA Live 2010—they rated James a 99 and a 98, respectively. The real-life player has inarguably gotten better in the time since. But how do you improve on a virtual player who was already the best?
In the history of NBA video games, elite superstars have always been rated in the high 90s, with legends like Jordan and Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Magic Johnson at 99, the max. James has been rated between 95 to 99 for the past seven years. As early as the fall of 2006, he was given a 98 rating in NBA 2K7. A 98! In 2006, when he had no jump shot or post game! (He had a 97 in NBA Live 2007.) In 2011, when James' lack of a post game and mental toughness led to a meltdown in the NBA Finals, he was already maxed out at 99 in that year's edition of 2K.
It's not like these video game makers are grading on a curve. While LeBron's digital self has been right up against the unofficial ceiling of 97 to 99 for half a decade—even despite his drastically improved jump shot and post game in recent years—other NBA stars have seen their ratings jump, including Kevin Durant (from a 92 in NBA 2K12 to a 96 in NBA 2K13) and Dwight Howard (93 in NBA 2K12; 96 in 2K13), and Chris Paul (94 in NBA 2K10; 95 in NBA 2K12). When you look back at the older ratings, it's even more ridiculous: Baron Davis and Carmelo Anthony, two players who were never in the same stratosphere as LeBron, were a 93 and 96 respectively in 2K9.
Let's take a look at some of James' specific ratings for different aspects of his game from NBA 2K7, released in fall of 2006:
Free Throw 74
Post Offense 84
Post Defense 79
Def Awareness 79
Off Awareness 98
James got an 84 rating in post offense, in 2006, when the big knock on him was his lack of jump shot and post game. If 2006 LeBron is an 84 in the low block, then 2013 LeBron must be something like 130. Note that James was also rated a 79 from long range following a real-life season in which he shot 34%. The King is now a 40% three point shooter, so his three point rating, which was still as low as 77 in last year's NBA 2K13 -- should be somewhere in the mid-80s now.
You see where this is going? James has been rated absurdly high -- near the max in several categories -- as far back as 2006. Now that he's a far superior player compared to his former self, how can the existing ratings scale accurately represent his game? Game developers have to either grade LeBron on a curve -- keep him at 99, but lower every one else's rating -- or place LeBron in the triple digits. Since the companies won't want to lower other star's ratings (how do you justify dropping Durant's numbers?), there's no way around it: LeBron should break into the 100s. If 2007 LeBron was a 98 and 2011 LeBron was a 99, then 2K14 LeBron should be, what? A 107?
Going over 100 is not unprecedented. When the NBA Live series brought back Michael Jordan for the first time in nearly a decade in NBA Live 2000 (due to licensing issues and Jordan's alpha male status, he had been missing from NBA video games throughout most of the 90s), his Airness's rating, depending on how hot he was, ranged between 106 to 109.
Still, that was a one-time deal by EA, who had to make Jordan's return to video games special. It hasn't happened since. But neither EA nor 2K has indicated an unwillingness to elevate another player into triple digits—and by raising his real-life game to a heretofore unimaginable level, James has made a damn compelling argument that his virtual game should follow suit. Ben Sin is a freelance writer in Hong Kong; he writes about sports and culture for the Wall Street Journal and South China Morning Post.