Tuesday September 15th, 2015

Laughter is a box typically left unchecked on the long list of things you imagine Russell Westbrook does. When we last saw him, he often did all of those things at once, snarling as he filled up stat sheets, toppled defenses, and dragged the Thunder just short of a playoff spot in the absence of Kevin Durant. While he was not the MVP, a dominant Westbrook game glued many to their screens in singular, you-might-miss-something fashion. Empirically, his best comparison might have been the Incredible Hulk.

So it’s disarming to hear Westbrook cackle triumphantly as he picks up a Playstation 4 controller and watches NBA Live 16’s opening sequence for the first time, which features him dribbling a ball and staring directly into the camera. He says his in-game rendering looks perfect, laughing in disbelief. This is all a highly unfamiliar scene, as Russell Westbrook, at least publicly, rarely appears to be in a good mood. He’s notoriously private away from basketball, hates losing, and generally hates interviews even more. After games he’s still more Hulk than Bruce Banner, he just likes to disguise it with elongated T-shirts.

Courtesy of EA Sports

 
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As Westbrook’s photo-realistic 3D avatar dribbles between hands on a giant projector screen, he looks happier than most people will probably ever see him. Terminal 23, Jordan Brand’s private gym in the shadow of Madison Square Garden, has been converted into a party space for NBA Live’s launch event, and as the game’s cover athlete, he is the guest of honor.

“Hell yeah. This is dope, man,” says Westbrook. He’s draped in gray monochrome, a short-sleeved sweatshirt layered over a darker-shaded tee with slim jeans and a pair of red and white Air Jordan I’s. This is the first time he’s gotten to see the game’s finished product.

“It’s a blessing to be able to see that. Growing up as a child, getting the chance to see that, have your own video game, it's crazy,” Westbrook continued. 

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It’s difficult to talk about NBA Live without discussing the other game: the NBA 2K series that, as EA essentially admitted in the marketing run-up to last year’s game—Live trailed in quality for years. After apologizing for the final product of Live 14 and taking a step forward with ’15, as developers worked to distinguish this version from the competition, having Westbrook on board played into their hands nicely.

Of any player in the league, the Thunder guard best combines attention to detail and style with generally not caring what anybody else thinks of him. For an underdog game in need of an identity, that should be the ethos, shouldn’t it? With an emphasis on gamers’ self-expression (one of the game’s taglines) through beefed-up customization options and online gameplay, Live 16 markets to your inner Westbrook, and visually, it works.

Developers teamed heavily with Jordan Brand, even making Terminal 23 a playable online space, and hired an artist to do custom tattoos for gamers’ avatars. They scanned in everything from arenas to playground courts—including Rucker Park and Venice Beach—to players’ gear and sneakers. Players can use a smartphone app to scan their face directly into the game. Taking the whole expression theme a step further, EA commissioned custom graphics from street artist Naturel and two pairs of Jordans from footwear customizer Mache to display at the party, which was held during New York Fashion Week.

“It’s an honor,” Westbrook said of his cover spot “They could have chosen anybody.” But when you think about it, when you’re a long-standing second banana working hard to force the issue, using Westbrook as your dunking, dribbling sigil makes a whole lot of sense.

Game designers estimated 80% of the league’s players have had their faces scanned. They spent 23 days shooting motion-capture footage with players including Westbrook. There are new game mechanics including dribble handoffs, more responsive shooting, and functional off-ball movement. At a glance, the overall presentation looks sharp, though one minor glitch left Blake Griffin running on-screen for a few seconds with half a torso. The game demands proper exploration, but it’s clear that significant back-end work has been put in.

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As for Westbrook, he hauled in a 94 player rating, one point behind Chris Paul and tied with Stephen Curry at their position. Unsurprisingly, he’s the game’s fastest player and strongest and best-dunking point guard. When he finally tests out gameplay, a room-stopping primal scream punctuates his first fast-break slam. He’s playing as himself, of course.

Westbrook is all smiles as he carves up the digital Clippers. For once he seems relaxed, a critical season for Oklahoma City hiding somewhere in the back of his mind. But when asked if he always plays games as the Thunder, for a moment, the guy we’ll see in October makes an appearance.

“100 percent,” Westbrook says, nodding his head. “I don't know, I think we're the best team in the game. 

“Why would I play as anybody else?"

NBA Live 16 releases September 29 on Xbox One and Playstation 4. The demo is available now.

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