Of all the players in the NBA, it’s possible that no one has put more defenders on skates than Kyrie Irving. Before he was the boy wonder for the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, he was sneakily showing off his slick handles as the senior citizen ankle-breaker Uncle Drew in a run of hilarious Pepsi commercials.
He has put enough people in a blender to make a smoothie out of would-be defenders.
On the way to this year’s NBA Finals, he added some green to the smoothie. He had Celtics scrapper Jae Crowder draped over his back and made a spin-jab-and-step-back look like one fluid motion before knocking down a 3-pointer.
When he tried to describe it later, all Irving could do was laugh and shake his head. Not even he could put into words a move that looked like it came out of a video game. But the real question was whether the move could even be done in a video game.
The answer, according to NBA 2K’s gameplay director Mike Wang? Sort of.
“I think the components of what he did are there, but maybe not the exact motion, you know what I mean?” Wang said. “We break down stuff like dribbling and shots all the time, and I think we have almost everything you can possibly do.
“But I think what you saw with Kyrie is a different flavor of those moves that we may or may not have. I don’t think you can do the exact combination but something pretty close, I think.”
For the last decade, Take-Two’s NBA 2K series has been the leader in basketball gaming, capturing the most authentic and realistic renderings of NBA players — from pregame rituals, in-game idiosyncrasies, shooting styles, and dribble moves.
In 2006, the company started a push to bring those signature moves to life by working with actual NBA players to capture their movements. Stars from Shaquille O’Neal to Steph Curry have come to the 2K Sports offices just outside of San Francisco and slid into form-fitting Lycra motion-capture suits to have their movements digitized. 2K Sports has built a library of movements to make the gaming experiences as lifelike as possible.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Wang said. “We watch a lot of games, we bring in a ton of athletes — pro-level guys, NBA talent, overseas players. Just run the whole gamut. ‘And-1’ players even. Guys who can handle the rock in ways that most NBA players can’t.
“That’s a lot of fun for us, doing those shoots and just capturing all the content that we put into the game.”
The more players who came in, the more Wang realized how difficult it was for players to replicate what they pull off on the court.
“Back when we first started doing this whole push, we really went out of our way to try and show video to our talent and say, ‘Try to re-create this or that,’ ” Wang said. “Some guys were great at it, but most of the time it looked forced. It didn’t look natural.
“We have guys come in — all of our talent — and we give them these mixtapes, right? We show them, like, ‘Hey, you pulled off this move that we loved at this timestamp in this video.’ And sometimes they can’t do it. It’s weird.
“Then we say, ‘All right, just go play one-on-one with this guy.’ And eventually, they almost pull off that move or something close to it.”
But even with technology, the challenge of capturing the creativity and spontaneity on the court is daunting — especially when it comes to dribbling wizards like Irving.
“I’ve been working on dribbling for a long time now,” Wang said. “The dribbling is such a hard thing to re-create just because it’s such a reactionary thing. There’s so much creativity that one guy has from the next. So it’s always kind of evolving.
“To try to re-create stuff like what Kyrie’s doing these days, Steph, they’re kind of redefining ballhandling in ways we haven’t seen before. So it’s kind of evolving the way we build things.”
Irving’s uniqueness as a ballhandler makes it that much more challenging for game developers.
“We try to make the mechanics of the game consistent, so if you do a certain gesture on the stick, everyone gets the same kind of thing,” Wang said. “So one of the challenges for us is Kyrie’s doing stuff that maybe only one or two other guys in the league can even try to do in a game.
“So it’s really hard to try to figure out how to build him but still make it so that the controls for him aren’t completely different from some other guard.”
One of the best parts of the job, Wang said, has been the up-close work with players. He got to play one-on-one with Curry. From time to time, his Twitter mentions will light up with special requests from NBA players for their video game personas.
“NBA talent, sometimes these guys are tweeting at us saying you’ve got to get this in the game or that,” Wang said.
Typically, it’s the tiniest nuance.
“But if they’re going to go through the trouble of contacting us, we’ll always do our best to accommodate them.”
But the most helpful input often comes from a large and competitive pool of people playing the game. Raymond Harris, a 24-year-old professional gamer who goes by “RedCityBoi23,” will spot things and reach out.
“If someone does a move I’ve never seen before, I’ll tweet one of the [developers] like, ‘Yo, you guys gotta get this in the game,’ ” Harris said. “Something that could be really useful in the game, because I’m someone who basically knows how to do every move. When it comes to jabs, stepbacks, spins, I definitely look back and say, ‘Yo, I definitely wish this could be in the game.’ They’re great with it.”
Harris took a trip out to California for a tournament and threw some ideas at Wang.
“I told Wang once, I would love for you guys to get me out there while you’re working on the game because I have so many ideas that could help them have an impact on the game,” Harris said. “But when you go over there, and you see the work that they put into the game, it gives you a whole different outlook. It’s crazy.”
Irving will grace the cover of the latest edition to the 2K series when NBA 2K18 drops this fall. It’s uncertain whether he’ll put on the motion-capture suit and add his moves to the 2K library, but the thought of having him add his moves was enticing to Wang.
“He’s one of those guys that it’s really tough to replicate him,” Wang said. “We’ve had some guys come in who are amazing ballhandlers, and they looked pretty good with trying to replicate Kyrie. So I think we have a solid version of him in the game now. But it would just be that much better if he could actually come in and do his own moves.”
Still, it’s tough for Wang to say whether the move Irving put on Crowder would ever be something that 2K could re-create.
“You know what’s funny?” Wang said. “If Kyrie Irving comes in, I bet you if I show him that exact clip, it won’t come out the same way.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.