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You owe yourself an escape: An ode to sports career modes

Because they’re more than a role-playing game

Stephon Johnson

Working the count to three balls and two strikes, the man Mets fans knew as "Professor" dug back in the box. A little nervous, he called for time to collect himself. One of the greatest careers in the history of American sports was coming to its crescendo. Professor’s prolific home run hitting not only brought baseball back to prominence in American popular culture; he brought African-Americans back to the game. He made the Mets synonymous with winning. He made New York a Mets city. Nine championships in 11 seasons would do that.

Professor's eyes grew when he saw a slider start in the middle and dip to the inside corner. He turned on the pitch like he had turned on so many others and smashed it into the topmost row of Citi Field’s right field seats. The greatest player of his generation — the greatest player in Mets history — had hit his 700th career home run.

After rounding the bases and being saluted by teammates, fans and opponents, Professor stopped the game to walk to the refrigerator and grab himself an apple. He had to keep his blood sugar up.

Such is the life of someone playing MLB The Show's "Road to the Show" mode, or NBA 2K’s "My Career" mode or any other sports video game that allows you to live out your virtual athletic dreams.

Playing these games can make one feel powerful — like they’re as good as the athletes they watch, if only for a second. Tough day at work? Press the power button and see if you can drop a quadruple double. Dealing with an injury that’s keeping you at home? Grab the controller and see if you can extend your hitting streak to 30 games.

If you're like me and you have Type 1 diabetes, you can enter a world where the possibilities are endless, despite any physical condition.

Many sports video game fans remember Baseball Stars on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Released in 1989, it was one of the first titles where the player could create teams and players and configure leagues before playing a season. But the create-a-player option really picked up in the mid-1990s with games like NBA Live '96, Triple Play '96 and Madden NFL ‘94, letting the player live out their athletic dreams.

However, they still had to play the entire game and call plays for yourself in order to shine. It wasn't until MLB 06 The Show arrived a decade later that players could focus squarely on their journey and nothing else. Instead of creating a player while still having to play entire games with the whole team, you could focus squarely on your athlete’s journey and progression, cutting straight to his at-bats and defensive chances in the outfield.

Not only did The Show’s switch make the sports gaming experience special, it provided the type of gaming rewards that players typically only saw in role-playing, fantasy or first person shooter games.

One academic has noticed. Orin Starn is a professor of cultural anthropology and history at Duke University. Starn’s ”Sports and Society" course includes includes two lectures on sports video games. When I spoke to him about the bond sports gamers have with "career mode," Starn described how it is now one of the few places where a sports fan can feel like they have control.

"Being a sports fan is a pretty passive process — we are stuck with the front office decisions of our favorite teams, with no say in the matter," Starn said. "It’s still a great thought experiment to be able to construct a sports world as we’d like to be, imagining, as the Zapatista rebels in Mexico used to say, that another world is possible."

If you’re an African-American baseball fan, your dream is to have more people who look like you get into the sport. But every year, things look dire. Even as players on the field have become more diverse, particularly when it comes to Latinos and Asians, the culture and business of the sport remains white in many ways. Most of the ownership, front office and fan demographics are white.

So, why not imagine yourself breaking unwritten rules, hitting towering home runs, stealing bases and doing it all with a charisma that surpasses Ken Griffey, Jr.’s in the 1990’s? You can do that with the world inside a PlayStation 4. You can be the player who restores black interest in baseball.

Race also figures into the idealized sports world that Starn describes in his lectures. “The games allow the pleasure of taking control of our teams, and even of racial dynamics, by making the game look like we’d like to be as against how it actually is,” he said.

But above the desire to see people who look like you playing the sport you love most, one can also use a sports career mode to get away from life’s ongoing struggles: depression, work-related stress, family and relationship conflicts. Humans seek escape from their personal hells. Some find it in books and others in movies. For a sports gamer, escape is a button push away.

My friend Scott Lunn and I spent four years together at St. Bonaventure University in western New York state. Our bond was equal parts basketball, music and cynicism about the world around us. Our bond also included video games. His experiences with career modes in the games we enjoyed have helped him through personal crises.

"Games like FIFA and NBA 2K have been an escape, a place to find calm for me the past few years, and in particular career modes," he said. "In August 2013, my youngest daughter was diagnosed with cancer a month before her second birthday. The immediate aftermath was a lot of time spent at doctors, hospitals and away from work. There was a lot of chaos and I felt like I had almost no control over anything.

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“Throughout all that, games became my escape and my chance to find calm and order in an otherwise chaotic life," he said. "Specifically, I would create myself as a player in game modes like My Career in NBA 2K or player career mode in FIFA and get wrapped up at trying to accomplish goals within the game. Personal achievements, team success, and generally trying to make 'myself' the best player possible were goals I could actually feel as though I had a measure of control over and had a chance to succeed at."

In a life full of anxiety, turning on your PlayStation 4 or Xbox One might be one of the few things the average person can control.

"While every trip to a hospital brought a fear of unknown test results, setback, etc. for my daughter and our family, winning a league title in a video game gave me some small sense of accomplishment and relief," said Lunn. "I would relish the time I would set aside late in the evening after the kids were in bed where I could just zone out for an hour or so and wrap myself up in trying to lead the league in scoring."

Yes, sports gamers know what they’re doing isn’t the same as an athlete hitting the weight room, practicing free throws or running routes. But the work-reward dynamic of a career mode can provide a release fans may not know they needed.

“Something about having a virtual representative of yourself that you have almost complete autonomy over, where you can create success in the games that you love so much, is a very cathartic experience,” said Lunn. “Many would claim tons of hours are wasted in these endeavors, but for me, it's been a great source of stress relief and a coping mechanism when reality has been extraordinarily challenging.”

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Lunn shares something with millions of sports gamers who might feel this way: they’re mostly men. Women who love sports and games haven’t been given much of a shot to live out their virtual athletic dreams or create their digitally perfect selves, as male sports fans take for granted.

Women have gotten more attention in sports video games over recent years. In 2015, EA Sports included women's national soccer teams FIFA 16. In April, Brian Mazique wrote for Forbes that he wished a 2K game existed for the WNBA. Yet today, the only way for women to live out their hoop dreams in games is via modification to the PC version of NBA 2K13. Though series like FIFA and UFC have brought them into the arena, women may still realize the barrier-breaking premise of sports by watching Fox’s Pitch on their gaming console.

"We live in cosmos where we have so little control," Starn said. "Somebody else designs our games, and we only get to play them. We will all die even though we don’t want to. It’s one of the great pleasures of both sports and sports video games to give us a feeling of control, of power to change our circumstances, the sensation that we matter. Freud talked about playing games as giving us an ‘illusion of mastery’”

Some things life offers also take away what makes life great. It doesn't mean you stop living. Everyone has problems and responsibilities; they also have daydreams and fantasies. For sports fans, the chance to live a double life comes in The Show, NBA 2K, Madden, NASCAR Heat Evolution and FIFA. Practically every sports video game today has a career mode.

You owe it to yourself to feel powerful again. If only for a few minutes, or days, or months. Now, excuse me while I shoot for Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds in the record books.

Stephon Johnson lives in New York, where he is a staff writer for the New York Amsterdam News. He is a 2005 graduate of St. Bonaventure University and has contributed to The Classical, The Sports Fan Journal, and The Cauldron at Sports Illustrated.

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