We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Start your week here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games. This week, I’m tipping things off with a few thoughts on how getting back to basics with NBA 2K19 would be a great move after the controversy and dissatisfaction that surrounded NBA 2K18.
For years, NBA 2K has been the dominant brand in basketball gaming. It started with EA Sports’ misfire when NBA Live 06 was released on Xbox 360, devoid of Dynasty Mode and generally being a rough transition to the next generation. As NBA Live continued to struggle, NBA 2K stayed the course and went from strength to strength, garnering higher ratings from reviewers and eventually becoming the top-selling NBA game when NBA 2K9 outsold NBA Live 09. The series has continued to innovate and receive praise from gamers and gaming publications alike, setting sales records and expanding its brand with its own weekly TV show, and now an eSports league.
And yet, despite all its success, the brand doesn’t feel as untouchable as it once did. NBA 2K18 received an unprecedented amount of backlash over its greedy and anti-consumer approach to microtransactions, which greatly affected some of its most popular modes. Beyond that controversy, a lot of gamers felt that the game had simply taken a few steps backwards with a new motion system that didn’t seem quite ready, AI that didn’t feel as smart or realistic, and rosters that were riddled with problems. While 2K’s strategies for “recurrent revenue” obviously won’t be going anywhere, I’d suggest that NBA 2K19 could otherwise really benefit from going back to basics.
That doesn’t mean overhauling everything from a technological standpoint, of course. This isn’t a situation where the whole game needs to be rebuilt from scratch because the current engine and code aren’t capable of getting the job done; far from it. No, this is a matter of design focus, namely substance over flash. I’d like to see NBA 2K19 get back to basics in terms of improving and fine-tuning the core experience, instead of adding flashy new gimmicks and a fresh coat of paint. I’d also like to see that core experience prioritised ahead of creatively forcing gamers into microtransactions. We need to be given bang for our buck, not forced into shelling out more cash.
Of course, we need to acknowledge two things here. One, an annual release does need some kind of hook beyond simply being advertised as “better than last year’s game”, so there will be some kind of new feature that’s potentially a gimmicky selling point. That’s fine, as long as it isn’t the be-all, end-all focus of the development cycle. Two, the fact of the matter is that microtransactions have become a part of gaming, and they’re not going anywhere. So be it, but the key here is to ensure that they aren’t intrusive, or necessary to have an enjoyable experience. Handled with care, a shiny new feature and recurrent revenue mechanics needn’t ruin NBA 2K19.
So, what does it mean to get back to basics? It means making the general experience as good as it can be, focusing on the core elements as the NBA 2K series has done so well in years past. It means polishing up the new motion system that was introduced in NBA 2K18, to reduce skating and improve player collisions and physicality. The AI, which seemed dumbed down in NBA 2K18, needs to be smarter, especially in MyCAREER. Exploits must be addressed, with gameplay that emphasises basketball strategy over meta-gaming. It means paying attention to the finer details, like ratings and other attributes. Our Wishlist obviously goes into greater detail on the matter.
NBA 2K has historically prided itself on being a realistic NBA sim, but recently, and especially with NBA 2K18, focus has shifted away from the NBA. Admittedly that’s catering to a current trend that favours MyCAREER and its connected online modes, but it’s come at the expense of the core sim experience. At the same time, online play has also been affected by a focus on gimmicky features, and opportunities to increase recurrent revenue. The Neighborhood is a glorified loading screen, full of ways to encourage microtransactions. What the game needed was to eliminate cheese and improve balance, not a sliver of an open world and prominent pay-to-win mechanics.
This year’s game should be more about polish than ambitious innovation, though it’s not just the current mechanics and content that need to receive care and attention. Focusing on the basics also means implementing systems that other video games have in place, such as proper matchmaking in The Playground and 2K Pro-Am. Rocket League’s multiple tiers, as well as their casual and competitive options, make its online experience welcoming to newcomers. It’s a template that NBA 2K19 should consider, as it would allow gamers to face competition of the same level, and could avoid the pay-to-win mechanics dictating the competitive balance in online modes.
The more NBA 2K has tried to expand its brand, the more it’s moved away from what made the game so great in the first place. An endeavour like the NBA 2K League is big for Visual Concepts and Take Two, but there’s no tangible benefit for 99.9% of the userbase. Collaborating with big YouTubers is great for their channels and a good method of promotion for 2K, but it hasn’t made the game any better. Appealing to the elite gamers, big name content creators, and of course, the sponsorship dollars, hasn’t rewarded the loyal fans who have helped NBA 2K reach record sales figures, and trusted the brand because of the quality experience that it’s traditionally provided.
As such, many gamers have been left feeling cynical, jaded, and betrayed, something that’s been reflected in the user scores for NBA 2K18. However, I would suggest that there’s cause for optimism. As we recently discussed on the NLSC Podcast, NBA 2K Gameplay Director Mike Wang (aka Beluba) is running polls on his Twitter, asking gamers for feedback about core elements of gameplay. While 2K’s business practices leave something to be desired this year, I honestly believe that the development team do care about producing a great game, and are eager to focus on the basics. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be showing an interest in our feedback on minute details.
I would therefore encourage everyone to keep providing constructive feedback that will allow the NBA 2K team to tweak, tune, and add to the experience. Whatever gimmick NBA 2K19 introduces, there will need to be substance beneath the flash. The basics must be a lot better than they were in NBA 2K18. They also mustn’t steer gamers so blatantly and greedily in the direction of spending more money. There are certainly fair ways to capitalise on an acceptance of microtransactions, but making it impossible to enjoy the game without either spending more money or madly grinding isn’t one of them. After NBA 2K18, many gamers won’t stand for that approach.
To put it bluntly, NBA 2K19 cannot be a cash grab, and the NBA 2K League cannot be the priority. NBA 2K’s success has come from creating the simulation hoops title that gamers have always wanted. A game like that is going to make money, not only in pre-orders and post-launch sales, but in recurrent revenue, too. Treat customers right, and they will be loyal. Gouge them, or fool or annoy them with gimmicks, and they’ll turn away. By all means expand the brand, but don’t forget what’s important; as in real basketball, it’s the fundamentals. NBA 2K is selling copies and making money, but on the court, the game is in a bit of a slump. It’s time to get back to basics.