The ball weighs 22 ounces, the court is 94 feet long, the hoop is ten feet high. These dimensions provide obstacles and opportunities to be overcome or taken advantage of through a blend of sound strategy and pure physical ability. Competitive balance is achieved through a mixture of trial and error and planning; the hoop is ten feet off the ground for no particular reason other than James Naismith nailed the peach basket that high, but something like the 3-point line has moved in and out, in an effort to create an ideal threshold that can prevent average players from regularly making the shot, but enable excellent shooters to benefit from the additional point offered.
Steph Curry is threatening to ruin that hard-won competitive balance. This is a thing that happens in the world of professional video gaming all the time.
To create a truly competitive eSports game, developers need to craft a game world whose rules and restrictions – on movement speed, jump height, weapon accuracy, etc. – create a system where the chief determiners of outcome are player skill and strategy, just as it is in the real world. The problem is that in creating these worlds, developers sometimes slip and create loopholes, elements of the games that become what gamers call “overpowered” or “OP.” Examples include the Blue Shell from Mario Kart, the pistol from the original Halo and basically anything that hardcore gamers could call a “win” button.
Or consider Destiny, a currently popular video game in which players roam the solar system getting angry at Destiny. Rewarding your hoarding and self-improvement impulses like a good role-playing game while simultaneously stroking your itchy trigger finger like the best first-person shooters, Destiny pits you either against teeming alien hordes in player versus environment (PvE) modes, or against other people just as hopelessly chained to their Xbox Ones and PlayStation 4s in player versus player (PvP) modes.
One of the major problems Destiny‘s PvP modes dealt with in the game’s first year was of its own making: one of the game’s best weapons was not just really, really good – it was actually kind of breaking the game. At the top of the loot chain in games like this are the vaunted “exotic” weapons, and Thorn, an exotic hand cannon acquired through a long path of convoluted requirements, was at the top of that class. In addition to a truly foolish amount of range for a pistol, it would also poison whomever was hit by it, meaning an opposing player could tag you a few times and then walk away secure in the knowledge that you – now half-blind and frothing at the mouth – would be a puddle of goo in moments.
Once people started figuring this out, it was pretty much all anyone was getting killed by. You either got it and used it, or took a moral stand knowing you were consciously handicapping yourself. Forums and messageboards were swamped with all-caps cries for a rebalancing that would bring Thorn into line with the rest of the game’s weapons: “THORN OP PLS NERF.”
You can probably see where I’m going with this.
Last night, Steph Curry defaced the Minnesota Timberwolves, racking up 46 points en route to a 129-116 win in which he was only really attempting to score maybe 50 percent of the time. He took 13 3-pointers and made eight. The Wolves as an ENTIRE TEAM took nine. All I could think was, “Steph Curry is OP, pls nerf.”
Perhaps nothing encapsulates it better than this play, where Andre Miller literally gets a hand on the ball as Curry is going into his shooting motion from three feet beyond the arc AND IT STILL GOES IN. Steph Curry is an exotic hand cannon.
“He was decent tonight. He was OK,” joked acting head coach Luke Walton. “He’s just so dangerous. At any time, he can go on a 6-0, 8-0 run just off of transition and getting a steal and putting it up for three or whatever it is. He’s always in attack mode. He’s definitely playing at an MVP level again right now.”
But at this moment it is quite honestly something beyond an MVP level. It is gamebreaking in a way no player’s game has been since Shaquille O’Neal, and that’s saying something when the player in question is 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds. Players like Kobe and LeBron have always been more Batman than Shaq’s Superman: leveraging physical talent and a diverse set of skills into a dominance that defined the upper limit of human capability but nevertheless remained human. Curry’s combination of handle, court vision, shooting speed, touch and range seems much more like something granted by a radioactive spider bite.
And therein lies the problem when it comes to competitive balance. Discussions have been had at various times (dating all the way back to 1919) about raising the rim to discourage dunking, but the fact remains that a dunk is worth two points – the same as a layup. That is, it has an aesthetic impact on the game, but not a very noteworthy statistical one.
The problem with Curry is that he is a danger to hit a shot worth 50 percent more than a 2-pointer as soon as he crosses the timeline, hand in his face (or on the ball) or not. When he’s on fire – as he was last night – it looks about as difficult as shooting on a Nerf hoop in your living room. He played the entire first quarter, scored 21 points, then mostly took the second quarter off, returning from the bench for the final 7:07 of the half and scoring just 4. But even then, the moment he came back on the floor the Warriors went on a 14-3 run.
As a team, of course, Golden State has learned to take maximum advantage of Curry’s possibly supernatural talent. The instant he’s trapped in a double team, the other players on the floor begin sliding into position for a first pass and then an immediate second pass that often leads to a criminally open shot. Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala are not exactly what you’d call knockdown shooters, but they don’t have to be when they’re as open as Curry’s work gets them.
“Steph is doing a great job of baiting the guys,” Green said after the game. “Baiting them as opposed to getting rid of it too fast so they can get back. He’s baiting them, baiting them then getting rid of it and really giving me a great opportunity to make a play.”
This is what Curry’s shooting has become: an existential threat manifested as a physical presence that warps the floor on the outside as surely as Shaq’s size once did on the inside. Like Curry, Shaq was not just a colossal offensive threat on his own but an excellent passer as well. Any effort to double Shaq or trap Curry was – and is – simply a path to a slightly less gory death.
After last night’s win, the Warriors are now 10-0, with a simple rating system (SRS) score of 13.9. To put that in perspective, last year’s Warriors had an SRS of 10 and the 72-win Chicago Bulls from 1995-96 had an SRS of 11.8. Where other players talk about being more aggressive or not overplaying, Curry sounds only like a Zen monk who has seen through Creation itself when talking about what he can improve.
“Be more consistent,” he said. “Do the things I did well last year even better. That’s starting to show. That’s my only motivation. I don’t really need anything else.”
If things continue this way, the game is broken. Steph Curry broke the game.