I’m not capable of breaking anybody’s ankles with my basketball dribble. But for a fleeting moment last month, I felt like I was.
The moment came at the end of my demo of The Professor Presents: #GotHandles, a virtual reality game starring street basketball star Grayson “The Professor” Boucher. After completing an increasingly complicated series of combos with varying degrees of success, I was tasked with trying to pull off the Professor’s famous “spider-dribble.” (You can see that back-and-forth tapping dribble at the start of this “Spiderman Basketball” video, which has 32.8 million views on YouTube.)
I did it, and it was awesome.
Part of the power of sports games is making you feel like you can perform the same incredible feats as professional athletes. Game developers are just starting to figure out the possibilities of virtual reality, and while sports and video games were intertwined from the very beginning, the same hasn’t been true for VR yet. Instead, we’ve seen minigame collections rather than full games — titles like the Oculus Rift’s VR Sports Challenge and the HTC Vive’s VR Sports — and clever sports-inspired experiences like the PlayStation VR’s Headmaster.
Mountain Dew, of all companies, has been experimenting with VR in the form of 360-degree video. The maker of beverages with attitude partnered with Secret Location, a studio based in Toronto and Los Angeles that makes interactive and VR experiences, to produce a VR game based on Boucher’s basketball exploits. Got Handles, which debuted last week on Vive for free and is coming soon to Rift and Gear VR, is little more than a brief diversion, but it’s exciting as a demonstration of the unique possibilities for sports in VR.
The premise of Got Handles is that the Professor himself is looking for new recruits to join his team, and you have to prove yourself in a tryout. The game incorporates 360-degree video in which Boucher introduces himself to you — or rather, three different Bouchers (to represent his entire squad) introduce themselves, making for a fun use of positional audio. From there, it plays out as a Simon Says game, with a cartoony model of Boucher demonstrating a sequence of moves that you try to replicate.
Got Handles uses the Vive’s motion controllers to approximate the feeling of dribbling a basketball. A green circle tells you where to start a move, and a gray one indicates where you should end up. It’s not the most realistic thing in the world; I was initially thrown off by the concept of trying to interact with an object that doesn’t actually exist. Of course, that’s a fundamental aspect of VR — tricking your brain. But I have an intrinsic understanding of how to move my hands to dribble a ball, and there was definitely a disconnect when I started playing Got Handles.
That disappeared quickly, since the game does a very good job of modeling the physics of a basketball’s spin and bounce. Eric Shamlin, managing director and executive producer at Secret Location, acknowledged that the developers use “light cheats” to keep the game fun. But the most crucial part of this kind of experience is that the virtual basketball behaves the way you’d expect it to, and that holds true here.
“You have a sense of what’s going to happen when you release that ball,” said Shamlin.
Thanks to the Vive’s room-scale motion tracking, you have to move your body in order to pull off the moves properly. For the “wobble” dribble, where Boucher shortens the height of the bounce, you need to actually crouch and move your hand closer to the floor. And to pull off the spider-dribble, you have to alternate the placement of your hands in time with the virtual ball’s bounces in a way that resembles the actual motion for that move.
That moment is where Got Handles clicked for me. It didn’t make me feel like I could dribble a real basketball that way, but the hand movements alone — combined with the sensation of bending my knees and the visuals of the environment — did the trick. Got Handles throws a dozen different moves at you, and grades you on how well you can complete combinations of them, so you can try to improve your skills over time. Maybe you’ll get good enough to dribble like the Professor on an actual court.