Coming soon to Xboxes and PlayStations: Maya Moore, Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Tina Charles, and Elena Delle Donne. This month, more than 20 years after the WNBA launched, its teams and players will appear in a video game for the first time.
The creators of NBA Live describe their new partnership with the WNBA as “groundbreaking.” But let’s be blunt: It’s also a publicity grab. And given the state of women’s sports today, there’s nothing wrong with that.
The popularity of women’s sports rises with the Olympic Games or the Women’s World Cup or the pursuit of major championships or historic firsts, then fades at all other times. Women’s sports rarely enter the cultural mainstream the way men’s sports do. They rarely prompt debate beyond how this record-breaking female athlete or that record-breaking female athlete would fare against men. Professional teams in basketball, soccer, and hockey continue to fight for sponsors, broadcast deals, and ticket sales, riding out lows that far outnumber highs.
So, the WNBA’s video game debut is a classic win-win. Publicity grab and all.
By adding WNBA players to NBA Live, EA Sports gets the kind of buzz companies crave prior to a big release. It’s also the kind the NBA Live franchise hasn’t seen in a while as it struggles to compete against rival game NBA 2K. Meanwhile, the WNBA gets credibility with a bigger, broader audience. It takes the world’s best female basketball players and thrusts them into popular culture. It puts the WNBA into the same virtual conversation as the NBA.
“It’s another sign of progress,” says Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “It may be a baby step, but it’s progress nonetheless.”
Wait, progress? One minute we’re talking about closing the pay gap for the country’s best female hockey and soccer players and now we’re giddy about WNBA players in a video game? Is this what the push for sports equality has come to?
Those kinds of questions are understandable, especially from fans of the WNBA and longtime supporters of women’s sports. But consider the larger context and long-term mission. Being able to dish like WNBA assists leader Courtney Vandersloot or dunk like Griner promotes the league’s quality of play and entertainment value. It also normalizes female professional athletes. The more you see them doing what they do best in any context, real or virtual, the more they become part of the accepted pro sports landscape.
It’s about appearances. And appearances often matter more than ability in women’s sports.
Appearances matter when it comes to which female athletes get the biggest endorsement deals. See: Serena Williams, who’s lagged behind less-muscled, far less-accomplished blond players in that department. Appearances matter when it comes to which female athletes get featured in league, team, tournament, and apparel-related marketing campaigns. See: Athletic clothing companies going with female models and actresses over female athletes. And appearances matter when it comes to how fans perceive and value female athletes and the games they play.
It’s infuriating, but it’s also reality.
So, in this rare instance, why not embrace the fact that appearances matter and see it as an advantage? After all, the optics created by WNBA players in NBA Live 18, the carefully crafted likenesses that take into account even small details such as tattoos, signal inclusion and acceptance into more than a video game.
It’s about the WNBA being welcomed into pro basketball and sports culture in a way that hasn’t happened before. It’s about reaching new audiences and growing the WNBA brand. It’s about young kids and teenagers getting the message that WNBA players belong right alongside NBA players and that choosing to play as Taurasi is the same as choosing to play as Kevin Durant.
“Whether or not women should play sports is no longer an issue,” says Kane. “The fact that women are athletes has become deeply embedded in our culture. With WNBA players included in the NBA Live video game, it shows that females as highly gifted, talented, dedicated athletes have arrived. It’s not [being done] because it’s politically correct or it’s a feel-good story. It’s because they deserve to be seen and honored and respected as great athletes.”
And it’s because EA Sports saw the addition of the WNBA as good for business.
EA Sports isn’t being charitable. It’s figuring out how to expand its reach, produce a more competitive NBA Live game, and make money. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.
When companies see partnerships with women’s sports as good for their bottom line, that’s progress, too.
FIFA 16 taught EA Sports why it makes good business sense to add 12 WNBA teams to its NBA product. After the 2015 Women’s World Cup, EA Sports included 12 women’s national soccer teams in FIFA 16. Three months after the soccer game launched, the US women’s national team ranked as the 23rd-most popular team to play out of 600 options. That statistic plus other research showed EA Sports that men and women like playing as women.
Going forward, EA Sports plans to do more with the WNBA. According to a statement from Sean O’Brien, NBA Live executive producer, “This is only a taste of what we have in store, and look forward to working with the league on more great integrations in the franchise in the future.”
Maybe five or 10 years from now, boys and girls will argue over how to build their dream teams around the biggest WNBA stars of the day. Maybe that’ll happen even sooner.