Soccer is the only sport to really have found success in the management genre. With only a few releases before the last few years, the desire for this kind of deep simulation has been enhanced by two factors: the surge in the popularity of fantasy sports, and mainstream sports games’ trend of dumping many deep management elements when making the jump from the last console generation to the current one.
But soccer, with the flagship Football Manager series, has managed to succeed where other sports have failed, and with a baseball entry by 2K and an American football effort from EA, it’s not from lack of trying. World Basketball Manager, from plucky outfit Icehole Games, has seen updates and refreshes since 2004, and it has managed to slip onto Steam along the way. For 2012, the team put a new coat of paint on the project. Does it succeed where others fail?
It’s immediately apparent that WBM is not for management newcomers. You’re thrown into the beginning of a season, staring into this database of numbers next to players and tasked with preparing for a season. The stats aren’t listed in the standard scales, and there aren’t any overall attribute numbers to ease new players’ process of figuring out who the heck should be starting or in the rotation. (Icehole stresses that you look at their tutorial video and manual for help, but the video [below] is like teaching people English by telling them letters and the manual is like teaching people English by handing them a dictionary. Neither will result in knowing how to construct sentences.)
So it’s best if you have some management sim experience, and preferably soccer, since the game awkwardly uses that sport’s terminology in many situations it should be using basketball words. Once you’re in, though, you start to see where these years of work have been going. (And it’s not the interface or visuals; a main selling point of this year’s edition was that they replaced solid-color backgrounds with stock photos of basketballs.) The balance and flow of the game makes playing as interesting as watching the pros on TV, and clever substitutions and management can be crucial for winning.
The leagues themselves are numerous, though there aren’t any licenses here. The “U.S.A League” has cleverly-misspelled names of teams and players, and Icehole makes a wink and a nudge to their site, where it just so happens that people have posted a real names patch. (This is the same dance we’ve seen with mainstream college sports games for years.) So that part’s nice, but the result is that very little of the game has any personality or look that evokes the nature of the teams and leagues. The international competitions are especially interesting, though, as simulating all these leagues at once makes for an omnibus craziness between countries.
World Basketball Manager 2012 is a game that is buried in its backend. With an interface overhaul and some in-game handholding for beginners, it could have a lot of potential. As it is, all the intricacies are nice but don’t disguise the feeling of plugging numbers into an Excel file.
Pros: Detailed simulation of basketball
Cons: Bad interface, super-steep learning curve, no personality