I read about the cancellation of NBA Live 13 with much sadness, although I wasn’t planning on getting that game in the first place. As a basketball junkie, NBA simulations have always been a big part of my gaming life, and for close to a decade (2000-2008), the NBA Live series (made by EA Sports) dominated my gaming hours (I owned the 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2006 iterations of NBA Live, all on PC). I was in college when I got myself a copy of NBA Live 2004 and realized my laptop didn’t meet the minimum specs requirement I asked my roommate if he would allow me to install the game on his PC and let me play on it when he wasn’t using it. He foolishly agreed, and I ended up playing NBA Live 2004 late into the night. Despite my use of headphones, the furious tapping on the keyboard prevented my roommate from sleeping well. After a few such evenings, he password-locked his PC. Clearly, he loved me as much as I loved him.
My last NBA Live game (2006) was my first encounter with a simulated slam dunk competition. After some experimentation, I found that the most ridiculous dunk that I could pull off started off like this: First the player palms the basketball in one hand and does a one-handed-cartwheel. At the end of the cartwheel, the player gathers his feet and leaps. While airborne and holding the ball in his right hand, he transfers the ball between his legs to left hand. Then, in a scissor-like motion, he switches his legs – the right leg kicks back while the left leg kicks front. Then, he transfers the ball a second time between the legs, this time from the left hand to the right hand. All of this happens while the player was still in the air. Finally, he dunks. This elaborate maneuver was certain to gain you the full 50 points for the dunk contest. Also, this dunk was physically impossible to carry out in real life.
And this perhaps was why I loved playing NBA Live so much. It was a game with so much flair, so much style, and just so many dunks. It was easy to play NBA Live games – you just needed to pass to a player with a high enough dunk rating, dribble near the hoop, press the dunk button, and you’ll do an awesome dunk (followed up by a replay). It didn’t matter how many defenders there were. It was also a pretty poor simulation of real life basketball, but I didn’t care. Dunking was so fun!
In 2008, I was looking forward to getting NBA Live 2009 when I heard the dreadful news that there wasn’t going to be a PC version. It turns out that the only PC basketball game on the market was NBA 2K9 (a competitor game produced by rival company 2K Sports), which was incidentally the first PC version of the NBA 2K series. Devoid of a choice and feeling like a traitor, I bought, installed and tried out NBA 2K9.
The adjustment was difficult at first; it was so difficult to dunk! If I attempted to dribble or pass into the painted area my ball would likely get stolen. When I did manage to get the ball down low, my dunk attempt would get blocked more often than not. And I kept losing games! This was a totally new experience for me as a basketball gamer. No more easy dunks. No more winning games effortlessly. For the first time in my basketball gaming life, I needed to think strategically about how to score or risk losing the game.
It took me around 3 weeks to climb the learning curve of NBA 2K9. I realized I should only pass to a teammate if there wasn’t an opponent in between us. I shouldn’t shoot the ball if there was an opponent in front of me, even if I’m close to the basket. I needed to use the pick-and-roll to get a teammate free from his defender. Then it occurred to me, this was exactly how real life basketball was meant to be played! Despite the fact that I can’t dunk at will (and even when I did dunk it was less exciting than the exaggerated dunks of NBA Live), NBA 2K was a much more faithful basketball simulation than NBA Live. And soon, I began to enjoy that. I enjoyed engaging the use of my brain and utilizing real basketball tactics to score. I enjoyed knowing that when I scored the basketball it was because I worked for it instead of it being gifted to me. And most of all, I enjoyed NBA 2K because it felt in many ways like playing real basketball. Thereafter, I was a fully converted NBA 2K fan, and I never looked back. I have bought and put in significant gaming hours into NBA 2K9, 2K10, 2K11, 2K12 (on the Playstation 3) and I currently have the PS3 2K13 on pre-order.
Around the same time when I changed my basketball gaming preferences from the more arcade-y NBA Live series to the more realistic NBA 2K series, I was also changing my understanding of what the Christian life was supposed to be. For the first couple of years as a Christian, God was someone who appeared in my life working awesome miracles such as the healing of the sick, or the way he divinely intervened by sending someone my way when I was at the lowest point of my fight with depression. God’s presence was this awesome emotional sensation when you close your eyes, sing very loudly and raise your hands in church. God was present when “two or more are gathered” to pray for each other, and we feel spiritual in the process. God was in the clearly in spiritual and supernatural experiences in my life. I was living the Christian life like playing NBA Live – it was about the thrills that take my breath away, the experience of emotional peaks, the punctuation marks which reveal the super-ordinary.
But apart from those moments of spiritual high, God wasn’t really present in my mundane everyday life. God wasn’t there when I had to wash the dishes. He wasn’t there when I was idling in front of my computer at work or when I was talking and interacting with people in my life, such as my family, colleagues and friends. Back then, I was theologically savvy enough to articulate that there was no such a thing as a secular-sacred divide, but that was precisely how I was living my life. God only appears in the “sacred” moments, and disappears in my “secular” moments. I wasn’t really sure how else to live my life. It’s not my fault that God doesn’t show up when I’m typing stuff on the computer, right?
It was around that time when Singapore began to be influenced of the “young, restless and reformed” movement in the US. A good Christian brother gave me two CDs of John Piper’s sermons to listen. I was introduced to the Gospel Coalition and T4G. D.A. Carson and Paul Tripp came to Singapore and I attended their talks. We started studying “The Gospel Centered life” (by World Harvest Mission) in my small group. Most significantly, my church decided to hire two young pastors who just graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (quite possibly the only SBTS graduates based in Singapore) who invested their lives into teaching and discipling me.
Just like my initial switch from NBA Live to NBA 2K, I was uneasy with all these changes in my Christian life. As a leader of a small group of young adults, I wondered if our new pastor was being legalistic by making all of us doing a serious study of the Bible every small group session. Some of my small group members were not pleased; they found it too academic, too boring, and “not meeting their needs”. I had some members leave my small group. It was sometimes a painful experience.
Yet at the same time, I had an increasing sense that I was moving towards something more genuine than what I previously practiced. I stared to see how the gospel works and shapes more and more of my everyday life, even the mundane parts. I work because God requires me to be submissive to my earthly authorities, demands me to be diligent and beyond reproach, and calls me to be a witness for him in the workplace . I do the dishes because I love my family and want to serve them. The people whom I have relationships with are opportunities to display God’s love and grace, just as God had first loved and shown grace to me. I was starting to see how God can be glorified in each and every moment of our lives, and not just in the big, awesome supernatural moments. Even though I stumble and fail so often, I was starting to see what I previously could not see – what a truly authentic Christian life looks like. The Christian life was becoming less like NBA Live and more like NBA 2K – it requires harder and more consistent effort, the exclamation points don’t feel as thrilling anymore, but this is a more authentic, more genuine, more true, way. And it is the better way.
As much as I love playing NBA 2K, it pales in comparison to the enjoyment and the satisfaction I get from playing basketball in real life in a real court with real people. At the end of the day, NBA 2K, despite how close it comes to mimicking the real thing, is but a simulation and not the real thing. In the same way, this life I lead now, despite the glimpses of God’s glory that by grace my eyes have been opened to see, is but a fore-shadow of the pure joy and satisfaction of the life I will lead when Christ comes again. For in this life we are imperfect reflections of God – made in His image but corrupted by Adam’s sin. But there will come a day when all trace of sin’s corruption will be purged, and we will become perfect reflections of God, living life in limitless pure joy, enjoying God forever in his infinite glory.
[Note: It is not the intention of this article to assert that only Calvinists or those from the Young, Restless, Reformed movement can live an authentic Christian life. I believe many who claim to be from this tradition have failed to live an authentic Christian life, just as I believe many from outside this tradition have succeeded in doing so.]