Why NBA 2K14 is the PS4 RPG to beat

Flick open the gaming section of Writing for Film and TV for Lazy Hacks, and find the chapter on RPGs. You'll recognise the description instantly: man in late twenties sits in mother's basement, his face illuminated in an otherwise pitch-black room by the glow of his LED gaming keyboard.

He's either painfully thin or morbidly obese, and his on-screen character is a grubby, throbbing mess of manliness in ebony armour carrying a sword bigger than Peter Crouch (the book recommends making the most of this reality-game disparity for maximum lols). He clatters at his keyboard and mouse like a concert pianist while a dragon gets hosed by magical abilities in a forest.

Just before the mighty beast's health bar is fully depleted, in comes the guy's mum to tell him dinner's ready. The dozy cow! Doesn't she realise the whole realm's at stake? And scene.

In short, RPG gaming doesn't have a tremendously glamorous or likeable image. Perhaps part of role-playing's PR problem is that it implies a lack of investment in reality. It's associated with spending massive amounts of time pretending to be somebody you're not. You want to escape into a fantasy world, so you must be lacking IRL. Poor you.

It's a massive generalisation to make, but it doesn't stop movies, TV shows, internet comments and even me from making it pretty regularly. I very rarely introduce myself to girls by telling them how I carried over my saves from Mass Effect 1 all the way through to 3 because I'd been so successful at keeping my crewmates safe, even though that's the most responsible and committed thing I've ever done.

Which is why it's so important to establish that NBA 2K14, with LeBron James on the cover and Robin Thicke on its soundtrack and its MyCareer mode (the singleplayer epic that takes your created player from entry draft to Hall of Fame) is absolutely an RPG. A glamorous, sexy RPG that will never garner such condescending looks as its Elven-eared, kobold-slaying brethren.

Hoop dream

RPGs are about playing a role, being someone you couldn't otherwise be. For me, a 5'10", 70kg games journalist from Askham Bryan in the Vale of York, being a starting power forward for the Phoenix Suns is just as far into the realm of fantasy as being Cthulu.

You love Skyrim so much because if you like you can just chill out in Riften all day watching people mill around, pop into the Bee and Barb at dusk and then go to bed, comforted by the sense of an entire ecosystem living all around you. In any decent RPG, the lore (a word that instantly summons our basement-dwelling friend from the opening) is extensive enough to hold your disbelief suspended over long periods.

So where's the lore in NBA 2K14? 2K's sport sim actually better at supplying the illusion of a world around you than most dungeon-dwelling RPGs. You see yourself flying in private jets with team-mates to away games. You vent your frustrations with coach about the lack of minutes you're getting, and the exchange has repercussions.

Commentators debate your career prospects while you play. Players, fans and pundits tweet you daily to slate or celebrate your performances. At no point, on the court or off it, do you have any reason to zoom out mentally and remind yourself that you're controlling some polygons and watching some cut-scenes. You're living an NBA player's life - at least, the bits you've fantasised about.

+1 swagger

And, of course, RPGs are about stats. Call it "character progression" if you like, but essentially you're doing what you need to do to make the numbers go up in a particular menu until it feels like you're God. And holy damn, if you've played a second of NBA 2K you know how important, how all-consuming those stats are.

Not just your base stats - speed, 3-point shooting, blocking - but perks too, like warming up quickly in front of a home crowd, or being more likely to pull of flashy dunks. Your time on-court is the combat of NBA 2K. Sure, the controls are a little different, but the principles are identical: you're using the advantages of your class (7ft center with blocking perk, or lithe 3-point specialist PG) to prevail on the field of battle.

This is a game that ensconces you in a fantasy world, encourages you to grind at stats, gives you dialogue options, and requires tens or even hundreds of hours of play to get the most from. And it pulls the rug out entirely from under that stereotype we began with. There's much less stigma attached to striving for hall-of-famer status in NBA 2K than there is in shouting a talking dragon to death in Skyrim, yet they require just as much time investment.

It's time to kill all the stereotypes. Dragon Age veterans: put aside your preconceptions about sports games and shoot some hoops, you'll love it. Sports game jocks: no-one will laugh at you for giving Dark Souls II a go, and you'll love that too. And ladies, did I ever tell you about the time I was drafted sixth overall by the Phoenix Suns and led the league in offensive rebounds in my rookie year?

Phil Iwaniuk is games editor at Official PlayStation Magazine UK. In his teenage years, he spent a whole summer trying to dunk on a 10-foot rim. He still can't.

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Phil Iwaniuk

Ad creative by day, wandering mystic of 90s gaming folklore by moonlight, freelance contributor Phil started writing about games during the late Byzantine Empire era. Since then he’s picked up bylines for The Guardian, Rolling Stone, IGN, USA Today, Eurogamer, PC Gamer, VG247, Edge, Gazetta Dello Sport, Computerbild, Rock Paper Shotgun, Official PlayStation Magazine, Official Xbox Magaine, CVG, Games Master, TrustedReviews, Green Man Gaming, and a few others but he doesn’t want to bore you with too many. Won a GMA once.