This advertisement for the video game NBA Live 2006 is one example of an increasingly prevalent fantasy on offer in a variety of forms in contemporary media culture. It invites fans to imagine themselves manipulating virtual versions of elite athletes in US team sports. This fantasy has not replaced other modes of engagement, but it represents a significant new development in sports entertainment.
What are the implications of this presentational shift? What might explain its emergence? Clearly, developments in new media technology have been important, but what cultural developments in and beyond sport have led us here? How is this emerging framework complicated by fantasies that continue to idealize the physical, financial and sometimes moral prowess of elite athletes?
My attempts to answer these questions have led me to consider recent developments around race and gender. The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed the wide circulation of anxieties about white masculinity. Some of these found expression in sport through the claiming of a supposed disadvantage for white athletes that had led to a “disappearance” of white stars from the important public ceremonies of masculine power of elite football and basketball. In the decade before this advertisement aired, Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker, and a bestselling book had theorized a race-based genetic advantage for black athletes.
The intersection of race and masculinity has long been central to the way elite team sports have been presented as entertainment. But rather than simply glorifying white athletes and demeaning their non-white colleagues, the contemporary presentation I am exploring here describes whites and non-whites in similar ways while reshaping the nature of fans’ engagement. Rather than encouraging identification with athletes, this new model emphasizes the pleasures of control. In this fantasy, athletes are carefully evaluated and assigned numerical scores that facilitate ranking and comparison by gamers. NBA Live gives each player numerical ratings for a range of attributes, which are distilled as an overall score. The game’s “dynasty mode,” offers gamers the opportunity to trade players, sign free agents, and draft rookies on the basis of this scouting simulation. For more than a decade, the game has included a “Create a Player” option, and the current version of the game offers “dynamic DNA” which regularly updates a range of different basketball skills for each player. According to the game’s official website, this feature “emulates - with absolute precision - an NBA player in every sense of the word.”
Fantasy leagues and the growing media coverage of college player drafts also reflect this trend where elite athletes are positioned as docile, quantifiable collections of attributes, and where competitive evaluation and deployment of these subjects is central to the pleasure of consuming these texts.
The opportunities for those who accept this new mode of engagement are carefully spelled out. Those who can skillfully manipulate these virtual subjects can attain credibility according to the criteria of hegemonic masculinity. The character at the center of this ad is meant to be identifiable to the target market. He is a young white man, athletic looking (just not to the freakish level of his exceptionally oversized athletic “vehicles”), and well groomed without looking like he’s trying too hard. He is a guy’s guy who (as the voice-over punctuates) is engaged in an activity that is unmistakably the arena of heteronormative masculinity.