clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How do sports video games handle scandals like Donald Sterling? They don't

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Michael Jordan said he was "completely outraged." Magic Johnson said the man "shouldn't have a team anymore." And LeBron James, the active player whose star power is possibly even greater than those two, said there is no place in their game for Donald Sterling.

James is factually correct. There is no place for Sterling, the despised owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, in their video game — the one whose cover James currently graces, as Jordan and Johnson did two years ago. No owner of any league franchise appears in NBA 2K14, nor in NBA Live 14.

Without a doubt the weekend's number one story in sports, if not the nation at large, was the ugly, geriatric racism Sterling was caught espousing in a fight with his girlfriend. Sports video games present an idealized portrait of this business, and the scandals that can change much about the game and how its seen will never be mentioned within their virtual representations. Sterling embarrasses basketball with his presence and conduct, but that sense of shame won't be felt by the people who experience the sport through video games.

It's not in the game

No one really expects a league-approved video game to court scandal or incorporate it into a dramatic timeline, certainly nothing as ugly as the mess Sterling is in. Yet as these games become more sophisticated depictions of alternate reality — with fake Twitter feeds, draft-day pageantry, and even signing shoe endorsements — the lack of meaningful controversy in your virtual season is where the genre falls most short of the in-the-game promise EA Sports made on behalf of everyone two decades ago.

Going further, if any group comes away looking immaculate in a video game, it is ownership or management. This is the ruling class that, with a couple of exceptions, is more likely to be viewed with suspicion and resentment by fans than with the admiration video games so often present.

Sterling, 80, was caught on tape by then-girlfriend V. Stiviano — who is being sued by none other than Mrs. Donald Sterling herself, for reasons that should be apparent. In the argument, Sterling expresses his disapproval of Stiviano associating with black athletes; he goes as far as forbidding her from bringing Magic Johnson to any Clippers game. No worries, Johnson later said, he wouldn't dignify the Clippers with his presence as long as that team is owned by Sterling.

if any group comes away looking immaculate in a video game, it is ownership or management

This is no surprise to anyone familiar with Sterling's résumé, which includes paying $2.73 million to the Justice Department in 2006 to settle a housing discrimination lawsuit. In that, he was alleged to have said that black tenants "smell and attract vermin." The difference, eight years later, is that we actually hear Sterling's disdainful voice spewing repugnant things, not words on paper in a court filing.

The team he owns seriously discussed boycotting their next game, a playoff matchup played (and lost) last night in Oakland. Instead, they took the court with warmup shirts turned inside out in protest. New commissioner Adam Silver is under extreme pressure to sanction Sterling, even as Silver faces the uncomfortable possibility that the third-seeded Clippers could still be the team to whom he hands the Larry O'Brien trophy in June. Usually that piece of hardware is presented to someone in ownership first.

This doesn't happen in NBA 2K14 or NBA Live 14. Your head coach accepts the trophy. He's the only team representative, other than the players, appearing in the ceremony. The league commissioner, who typically is booed at any public appearance, shares in the applause as you savor your achievement.

This is standard for every league-licensed simulation that includes a ceremony, and never looks more awkward than when Roger Goodell, the reviled NFL commissioner, is backslapping players like one of the guys in Madden NFL 25.

While the exclusion of club ownership may be because the player is assuming so many of those duties and prerogatives, their absence gives off the impression that an owner's presence can harm the product much more than any cameo would help it. Only this past year did Madden NFL include real-world owners, and created ones, in the game's career suite.

That means Madden has two individuals in its game facing criminal charges. Jim Irsay of the Indianapolis Colts was arrested for drunk driving, and found with a briefcase full of prescription painkillers and $29,000 in cash. Jimmy Haslam, who owns the Cleveland Browns, may yet escape indictment in a fraud investigation charging his truck-stop business with swindling haulers out of fuel rebates they were owed.

owners' absence from sports video games gives off the impression that their presence would harm the product more than a cameo would help it.

It's fair to assume that, if either were a player, they'd be facing some kind of a suspension. It's much easier to suspend players than ownership, who technically are the commissioner's employers. There is some precedence; the most infamous example being Major League Baseball's banishment of George Steinbrenner from day-to-day operations of the New York Yankees for three years when it was discovered he paid a gambler $40,000 to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, a former star player who had sued the team.

Of course, that was in 1990, and there was no sophisticated video game around then to see how it would or should have been handled.

If, however, players are suspended in real life, it's reflected in the current video games, particularly in the rosters used for ranked online play. Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees third baseman, is not playable in any online game of MLB 14 The Show on account of his season-long suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. Aaron Hernandez, the New England Patriots tight end jailed on suspicion of murder, was arrested last summer in time to be pulled from Madden 25.

These absences are treated with discretion by the game, which is to say, they aren't mentioned at all. They're treated basically like an injured player, who likewise is unavailable from the online roster. Still, if the Clippers' Blake Griffin went pants-on-head crazy and insulted whole ethnic groups on tape, it would likely impact the game.

The scandals are a part of sports

Sports video gaming discussion often asks if the latest story in real life is replicable in the games. They often are not. Few even go near the everyday controversy of, say, a blown call costing you a game.

EA Sports' NHL series is a notable exception — the game features on-ice fighting, and a game misconduct penalty will get players suspended in a career season the same as in real life. In NBA 2K14's MyCareer, scripted encounters in your player's rookie year involve a shoving match in practice and a veteran demanding you carry his bags. The incidents themselves aren't ugly, but when questioned about them by media your response can make things worse. The game makes it clear that off-court behavior matters.

The NBA long fought any idea of assessing a technical foul in its game, which 2K Sports once wanted to include by letting a dunker hang on the rim, the most inoffensive of fouls. The league still said no. Then NBA 2K13 sneaked in technicals by hitting you with one if Kinect heard you cursing. 2K Sports actually got in trouble for highlighting that feature over social media. FIFA 13 incorporated something similar, and your club will even dismiss you as manager if your living room behavior is persistently vulgar.

if a player is suspended in real life, that is reflected, somehow, in the current game

One of the greatest renegades of licensed sports video gaming was NCAA Football 06. Your football program could actually be put on probation. As coach you'd be presented with some generic offense a player had committed, and given the choice of playing him or making an example of him. Being too loose with discipline would turn you into an outlaw school, costing you scholarships or even a bowl appearance.

This feature lasted all of one year before the NCAA's agent had it killed.

These are exceptions spanning nearly 10 years and, again, nearly all of it is player-focused. You may move a franchise as an owner in Madden 25, but the anodyne disappointment of your departing city's fans doesn't really force you to role-play the aftermath of the decision. It's probably a coup the league even permitted it in Madden at all, given that any franchise relocation is always a public relations disaster for both club and league.

So, no, Donald Sterling isn't in a game, where some wit can upload a YouTube video of him high-fiving his triumphant players, all but two of whom are black. For all of their assumed realism, the video games we play are the things their leagues want us to see, where ownership and administration are silent, steady, trusted presences.

If there's any area where video games are grossly unrepresentative of the sports they depict, it is this.

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

The next level of puzzles.

Take a break from your day by playing a puzzle or two! We’ve got SpellTower, Typeshift, crosswords, and more.