In the crowded field of American sports, college basketball has achieved a unique position as the only major collegiate-level sport whose popularity has eclipsed that of its professional counterpart. Suffering from a major image crisis, a broken business model, dwindling attendance and accusations of corrupt officiating, the NBA is doing everything it can to avoid fading from public consciousness. But as the pros fear becoming the next NHL, the audience and media coverage surrounding Division I basketball continue to expand. March Madness, the NCAA’s annual tournament that decides the national championship, is now as culturally relevant as the Super Bowl and World Series. For many fans, the reason behind this gradual shift is simple: The NBA is mired in fundamentally poor basketball. While college players are nowhere near as developed as the pros, the NCAA offers a better product based on teamwork, good coaching and raw passion for the game.
Right from the start, 2K Sports’ College Hoops 2K8 is a successful embodiment of this “college aesthetic.” The game opens with a resounding drum line instead of the usual montage of awful pop music we see in sports games. Greg Gumbel and Clark Kellog give in-depth preseason analysis, just like on CBS. And playing at home provides a continuous audible barrage from screaming fans, complete with distinct cheers and chanted insults for visiting teams. This last bit even affects gameplay in the form of the "6th Man Advantage." Play well over a long stretch to fill up the meter, and you’ll receive a bonus in shooting accuracy. This small boost won’t push you into NBA Jam territory, but it can still help enough to sustain momentum, much like how you’d see players feed off a crowd’s emotion in the real world. Despite the occasional uproar at inappropriate moments, the 6th Man Advantage is otherwise exhilarating and certain to please anyone who’s attended an actual game.
Channeling the player’s beloved alma mater would be meaningless if College Hoops felt like the average frat party gone wrong. Thankfully, 2K’s faithful implementation of collegiate spirit extends to the gameplay. Dribbling and ball handling are very refined and fluid, with different button combinations affecting any move you make in a smooth and intuitive fashion. Shooting also feels just right; fade-away jumpers in particular are a blast to perform and quite satisfying. These and other actions are aided by the outstanding player animations, which are still a major advantage 2K games have over their EA counterparts. While their life-like nature makes certain actions a tad sluggish by gaming standards, the system offers enough variety and versatility to keep the visuals fresh and rewarding.
Step off the court, and College Hoops presents an NCAA-like level of bureaucratic complexity. Instead of paperwork and red tape, however, you’ll need to sort through mountains of menus and text if you want to explore anything outside of Quick Game. Those unfamiliar with the College Hoops series will be likely overwhelmed by the obscene number of options available. The options menu alone is split into seven sub-menus, one of which has no less than eight customizable volume settings. The Creation Zone lets you tweak playbooks, players, chants, even entire schools. Think Washington State should move to Canada? Curious to see what Duke would look like in Florida’s colors? Wish every team had the same obnoxious mascot as Syracuse? You can do all this and more (much, much more). Most tweaks won’t show up on the court, but anyone who enjoys customization of any sort could find himself several hours in without having played a single game. This level of front end depth is borderline criminal.