A complex system: A look at Basketball GM and the guy who made it

A player screen in basketball sim Basketball GM.

A player screen in basketball sim Basketball GM.

There is a world where New York basketball is ascendant. It is 2015, and the city boasts one of the best offensive teams in the league, with young talent locked up under reasonable, long-term deals. The team is a consistent championship contender and a destination for free agents.

If it isn’t clear by now, this team is not the Knicks. This team is the New York Bankers, and this league isn’t the NBA. It’s one of many I’ve created while playing Basketball GM, the basketball simulation that has occupied most of my free time.

It might be better to describe the game with negatives.

It’s not 2K. You don’t play the games. You don’t have to use a controller. You don’t get bogged down in minute coaching or scouting decisions, but you will find putting a winning team together is a complex, difficult process. You don’t pay for it. You don’t download it; you play in your browser.

About 700 people a day play the game, according to Jeremy Scheff, its 28-year-old creator. Based on the domains of the people who email him, many of those people are playing at work. (If any of my superiors are reading this, I definitely don’t do this.)

Scheff’s model for Basketball GM was Baseball Mogul, a 16-title baseball management series first published in 1997.

“I used to play Baseball Mogul back when I was in high school and at some point I realized I don’t like baseball anymore,” he said.

Scheff likes basketball. It helps that he’s 6-foot-3.

“Playing basketball, watching basketball, reading about basketball, programming about basketball,” he said.

His aim in creating Basketball GM was to make something “low-friction.” You can start game right away and find yourself several seasons deep in a short time. The current, online version of the game has existed for about two years, but Scheff has worked on Basketball GM on and off for six years.

Every game starts with a message from your tyrannical owner, who demands that you win multiple championships and earn him vast sums of money. He’ll get in touch with you once a year either to admonish your performance or to thank you for earning him more filthy money, and then he’ll tell you how he’s spending it: “Defending my real estate business from entirely frivolous lawsuits (can you believe they called me a ‘slum lord?’),” “Organizing orgies at the governor’s mansion,” “Working on my charity, Sugar Daddies for disadvantaged hotties.” Many of these are inspired by real NBA owners, which you might have noticed if one of these people owns the team you like.

After meeting the boss, the season starts. You can sign free agents, make trades and do mostly anything else you’d need to do to run a basketball team. Team construction works sort of like it does in the NBA: It’s good to have shooters, a big man to defend the paint, someone to handle the ball and run the offense. But you have to decide: Do you want a younger, cheaper player with room to grow, or the established, more costly player? Do you want to deal your expiring contracts or risk losing them for nothing? That depends on your team. If you’re in a big market like New York, you can go tens of millions of dollars over the cap and it won’t matter as long as you’re winning, but if you’re in St. Louis, even multiple championships won’t keep you from going bankrupt. Then you have to think about how much to charge for tickets, how much to spend on scouting, coaching, medical staff and facilities.

“It gets really complicated,” Scheff said.

The player pool is a little different from the NBA. There are a lot more sweet-shooting bigs. The name database, a combination of the most popular first and last names taken from the Census, coupled with the randomly generated player faces, creates a sort of colorblind utopia. E.g.: Jorge Chen, who is black.

The team names were put to a vote a few months ago. Some fit better than their real-life counterparts: The New York Bankers, the Los Angeles Earthquakes. Some fit all too well: the Cleveland Curses, the Dallas Snipers [Ed. note: OOF. Really?].

Scheff doesn’t have a license to use real NBA team and player names. Apparently they are quite expensive.

“The NBA’s losing out,” he said.

While many use the custom roster feature to replicate the association, Scheff said the game isn’t meant to be an NBA simulation.

“It’s a professional basketball simulation,” he said.

Scheff works as computational biologist. He makes simulations of biological events and tries to understand how they work. For example, he models how diseases work and how different variables affect its spread.

While we talked, he had what I thought was an obvious thought.

“This is actually eerily similar to my job,” he said. “I’m trying to build a model of a complex system.”

While playing is simple, the decision-making—valuing established players vs. potential stars, what to do with expiring contracts, how to keep your team solvent—is enormously complicated. That is what keeps people playing hundreds of seasons in a row, though each year of player data makes the game run slower. (All of the data is saved in your browser profile, which Scheff says is a total abuse of how browser profiles are supposed to be used.)

“People have done like 500 years. I imagine it gets really slow at that point.”

Users constantly ask for improvements through the Basketball GM subreddit. He usually responds quickly, fixing bugs, making tweaks, but he doesn’t plan to make any major changes any time soon. Eventually he’d like to add the ability to sync games over different devices, but the game has generally met his humble expectations.

“I wanted it to be simple enough that you could start playing right away,” he said. “No micromanagement, no meaningless clicking. Honestly, that’s it.”

In case you missed the link earlier in the article, click here to try Basketball GM for yourself!

Myles Ma