Years ago, at E3 2010, a colleague introduced me to someone from Rockstar Games, which had launched Red Dead Redemption the month before. “Love your game,” I said over a firm handshake, “I’ve restarted it half a dozen times.”
I meant it as a compliment. John Marston’s story was so rich, and the things I could do so varied, that I wanted to do it all perfectly, and that’s why I kept starting over. But the startled, nonplussed reaction was the same I saw on my therapist’s face when I kicked off our latest visit by saying, “I keep restarting my careers.”
Even after I explained, this was not about, like, my real job, it was the roles I played in the likes of Madden NFL 20, MLB The Show 19 and F1 2019, my therapist still wasn’t sure why that would be a problem worth leading off a discussion. But something about it has bugged me most of the spring and summer.
Like my encounter in Los Angeles, I first thought it is a compliment to NBA 2K20 (and particularly the director and actors of its story mode) that I wanted to nail my portion of the origin in its engrossing MyCareer. First my created player was just a pure shooter, feeling that’s all I would be good at in this game. After getting more comfortable with NBA 2K20 than I have been in this series since 2012, I added some height and a new name and bulked up on defense.
But then the player was too skinny for the role I’d chosen, and also the joke name (Makhtar Doherty) was no longer funny to me, so I restarted again. Now I had a great, ABA-quality name and a decent physique, but why did I choose the Washington Wizards? Good Lord, they are terrible. I actually called a friend who has written about the NBA for years, described my player’s strengths and potential, and asked what team would draft someone like that.
“I think you created Kevin Durant,” my pal replied.
“No, I didn’t!” I protested. (Yes, I did.)
“Well, the Warriors need scoring and perimeter defense, and Green and Curry will get you a lot of shots,” my friend said.
It kind of made sense. MyCareer, whose preamble gives you the top team on your list of draft workouts, leaves you with the impression you’re a non-lottery first rounder at best. That’s how I justified what would otherwise be a cop-out — picking the Ws, still the bandwagon-fan favorite. Thankfully, my superstar, Vespasian King, is about 15 games into the season, behind Glenn Robinson III on the depth chart.
But it took playing through “When the Lights are the Brightest” four times to get here, and each time I was also obsessing about the role-playing choices, to say nothing of changing hairstyles and beards all the time. Which shoe deal? (Jordan Brand’s pitch was the best, but do I really want to rep someone else’s name?) Where’s my hometown? (I wear all this Chicago stuff in the cutscenes, but I really liked Kawhi Leonard’s mute cameo in L.A.)
Shouldn’t I be, you know, playing the game instead? To NBA 2K20’s everlasting credit, there’s a player-build creator, where you can shape the kind of performer you want to be along a dizzying number of archetypes, reflecting how nearly every superstar in the league is some kind of unique skills hybrid. You can whip up your idealized player template and even test it out at any rating, fully maxed if you like, playing for any club. It’s a godsend for compulsive restarters, assuming there are any other than me. I might have gone through MyCareer’s opening a dozen times without it.
I could have used that in MLB The Show, where I logged four Road to the Show restarts over a pitcher and a first baseman, before ultimately pouring all of my energy into the hitter (and winning the National League rookie of the year with both). RTTS, like NBA 2K20, has a lot of choices that serve both your personality and your performance — your pitching repertoire, for example, or your batting stance, which is fully editable in the same way NBA 2K’s shot creator has been for several years.
RTTS’ perks tree is driven by your personality traits, with certain paths filling out faster than others. This is sort of like the F1 game over the past three years, where a tech tree for upgrading the car corresponds to a real-life racing team’s strengths and weaknesses. F1 2019 also kicks off with a story mode, and also got a few restarts, including one after I learned that Charouz Racing System is the development team for Ferrari. My F2 team choice literally has no impact on my career, but I want to drive for Alfa Romeo and end up with Ferrari, so this would make the most sense to that kind of a career arc.
But at some point, I have to accept the imperfect decisions, the life-altering choices and the terrible games shape an authentic career as much as my first double-double or a points finish at Hockenheimring. What nagged me enough about my behavior to bring it up with a therapist is how emblematic of a perfectionist it is, to escape into this kind of a heavily manicured fantasy and linger on its artificial glories more than seek out any new experiences it offers. As an obstreperous child, that perfectionism caused me to quit God knows how many things I might enjoy today, a lot of sports among them. Mindful of this, I at least forced myself to play a lot more multiplayer in NBA 2K20, something I’ve neglected over the years after convincing myself I wasn’t up to it. I’m confident enough in King’s makeup that I’m on The Playground and in The Rec, a lot more, and if my side gets eviscerated, I consider that non-canonical.
“Well, I can tell you’ve thought about this a lot,” my therapist said, with a tone that suggested maybe I thought about it too much? “Do you still enjoy the games?”
“Immensely,” I replied.
“I like the satisfaction of doing things I’m good at, I guess,” remembering all the tutorials and draft tryouts and practice programs that I have repeated and mastered.
“Sounds like you’re good at creating interesting characters,” my therapist said. “And it sounds like that’s a big part of these games, too.”
Roster File is Polygon’s column on the intersection of sports and video games.