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 the drawbacks of the PC versions of basketball video games being digital-only releases.
It’s not fashionable to admit it, but I’m still a fan of physical media. Part of that comes down to where I live, of course. Australian Internet speeds don’t always make digital releases for PC games desirable, and certain streaming services are either unavailable, or don’t carry the same selection as their US counterparts. A DVD, Blu Ray, or game disc not only alleviates any issues with Internet speed and data limits, but also offers a physical collectable that I can put on a shelf. Be it TV series, movies, or video games, I enjoy seeing them all lined up in my collection.
Of course, I also enjoy the benefits of digital releases. They obviously provide a lot of convenience, and save on shelf space. There’s no need to drive to the store, or wait for copies to arrive in the mail. Physical media can be lost or damaged, while a digital release can just be downloaded again. When they’re tied to a platform such as Steam, there are no issues with lost or invalid serial numbers, and patches will come through automatically. These days, we don’t actually have a choice in terms of the only PC sim basketball video game, as NBA 2K is only released via Steam. It’s preferable to having no PC version at all, but there are some perils to digital-only PC releases.
Let’s begin with a few issues relating to the method of delivery. As noted above, there is a certain amount of convenience with digital releases. You can purchase and start installing them without even having to leave home, and if you pre-order a title, the ability to pre-load it beforehand and start playing as soon as it’s unlocked is a great timesaver. Of course, there’s a certain amount of inconvenience as well. With NBA 2K, you’re looking at a 50+ GB download these days, which eats into your monthly data cap if you have one. If you don’t have a lightning quick connection, it’ll also take some time to finish downloading, even with the aforementioned pre-loading.
In the worst case scenario, this is admittedly a once-a-year inconvenience, though should you need to reinstall the game or refresh the files to fix a problem that you’ve encountered, it’s not as convenient as having physical media on hand. It’s also become a hassle for anyone who wants to play with an earlier version of the game, if they feel that one of the official patches has adversely affected the experience. While there is a great deal of convenience in having title updates pushed through automatically, the inability to easily revert to an earlier un-patched version of NBA 2K is a limitation that’s imposed by digital-only releases.
These aren’t necessarily problems for a lot of basketball gamers, though. If you have a fast connection with a high data limit on your plan, big downloads are trivial. It’s also possible to back up files and copy them elsewhere, so if you’re setting up a new PC, you can avoid having to download everything again anyway. You may not feel that the latest official patch has ruined the game, and if you want to play online, it’s a moot point. However, there’s another problem with digital-only PC releases – at least when it comes to NBA 2K – which has become very apparent in recent years. That problem is continued availability, and it’s an issue that has left some gamers disappointed.
I noted that digital releases have an advantage over physical media, in that physical media can feasibly be lost or damaged. Digital releases may be much easier to repair when there’s a damaged installation, but they certainly can be lost, too. As of writing, only NBA 2K16, NBA 2K17, and NBA 2K18 are available in the Steam store. That’s not a problem for NBA 2K14 as it did receive a physical release, but if you want to check out NBA 2K15 and complete your collection, you’re out of luck. Likewise, if you’re willing to drop a few bucks on digital versions of earlier releases, either to have the complete series or to save swapping out discs, that’s no longer feasible.
Well, for the most part. With a bit of Google Fu, you can find the store pages for both NBA 2K10 and NBA 2K11, and purchase the games through your browser. They can’t be purchased through the Steam client itself however, and for old games, the price tag is probably a bit off-putting to all but the keenest collectors. Again, you can at least track down physical copies for PC up to and including NBA 2K14, but that doesn’t help if you missed out on picking up NBA 2K15 when it was still available. Digital releases can be removed at the discretion of the vendor or developer, but physical copies can obviously remain in circulation, and still be enjoyed years later.
Presumably, older NBA 2K games are gradually removed as their online services are discontinued, thus avoiding selling a product that is no longer actively supported. It’s possible that licensing is also an issue, since older games include players who are no longer in the NBA, and thus aren’t covered by the agreement with the NBAPA. The annual sports games also tend to be less popular in retro gaming circles, with very low resale value. As such, the demand for older releases to still be available digitally is probably quite low, and if there are legal issues on top of discontinued online support, their removal is understandable. Nevertheless, it’s frustrating for completionists.
Within our community, the shift to NBA 2K being released exclusively on Steam has also had an impact on modding. It’s been more difficult to distribute custom rosters the traditional way, and made the roster files tougher to work with in terms of external manipulation. Since tools like Cheat Engine also have more nefarious uses, modders have to be careful not to get their Steam accounts banned when using them to create offline content. The key for our community is to continue to find ways of working around the current limitations, as well as expressing our desire for more in-game editing tools, but the situation does present a few hurdles in the meantime.
Despite these drawbacks, it should be noted once again that there are advantages to digital-only releases, and it’s a preferable scenario to not having a sim-oriented five-on-five basketball video game available on PC. The disadvantages are also arguably circumstantial for most gamers; if you already have a game that’s no longer available for sale, or if big downloads aren’t a problem, those issues won’t bother you. They are genuine drawbacks however, and the impact on modding has been unfortunate. While many may scoff at the idea of physical media in 2018, it has had and still has certain advantages that just can’t be replicated digitally.