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 some thoughts on the changing face and identity of the NBA 2K series in recent years.
Back in early May, I noticed a Tweet from Brian Mazique, in which he responded to the suggestion that NBA Live should be free to play as a way to win people back as they try to return to prominence. He described NBA Live as being irrelevant, noting that when it comes to NBA 2K, Visual Concepts and Take-Two are looking at games like Fortnite and Call of Duty as the competition and sources of ideas for engagement. It may sound harsh, and there are a lot of people who want to see NBA Live succeed and would be willing to make the switch if it did, but it’s an apt statement.
In fact, it’s apt on two counts. Gaining relevance and market share is obviously one of the challenges facing NBA Live, and that’s something I’ve previously discussed here in Monday Tip-Off. However, Brian is also quite right that with NBA 2K becoming a fixture in pop culture, and in some ways transcending its genre, its peers are popular games like Fortnite and the Call of Duty series. That’s a great position for NBA 2K to be in, but it’s also a troubling one for enthusiastic hoop heads. To state the obvious, those games are not basketball titles, whereas NBA 2K is. Competing with and borrowing from those games has resulted in a changing face and identity for NBA 2K.
To spotlight one of the most obvious examples of NBA 2K changing face, I’d like to go back to a Ronnie 2K quote. Look, I’m aware of the danger of harping on things in my commentary, but this is something we simply shouldn’t forget as NBA 2K gamers. In replying to a Tweet about adding more hairstyles for CAPs and MyPLAYERs in NBA 2K17, Ronnie very childishly responded that NBA 2K was “more than a Barbie dress up game”. The reply was disgraceful enough in and of itself, but looked utterly ridiculous when a day later, a new developer blog talking about the shoes we could outfit our player with was released. Talk about a snarky Tweet aging like milk!
That Tweet is even more laughable now that The Neighborhood encourages gamers to visit virtual shops, try on clothes, and buy them at exorbitant prices (especially when you consider the in-universe value). As much as I hate the accusation that someone has “lost all credibility” after making a foolish remark, it’s quite apt when a rep for a game has the gall to liken fair criticism of player likeness options to wanting a Barbie dress up game, when the title in question offers a vast array of options for dressing up our avatars! Again, it only looks dumber as NBA 2K has partnered with an assortment of premium clothing brands, and fills The Neighborhood with other cosmetic items.
And before you say it, yes, a focus on clothes over more important content is also a problem in NBA Live. I went into the matter in-depth in my Monday Tip-Off article on “the avatar’s new clothes“. I have an issue with it in both games, but only NBA 2K ties its cosmetic items to a virtual currency that can be purchased with real money, and is also used for player upgrades. Also, I don’t deny NBA Live’s identity crisis, as it’s something I’ve discussed at length before. We’re focusing on NBA 2K here, and while it’s in much better shape than NBA Live, the focus on recurrent revenue and aping titles like Fortnite has resulted in a changing face, and identity crisis of its own.
The changing face of NBA 2K hasn’t derailed the series’ success – a lack of a viable alternative places the game in a very comfortable position – but it has contributed to a decline in quality, and plenty of gamer frustration. As I’ve previously mentioned, a MyPLAYER’s clothes now play a big role in identifying a gamer’s style and level of experience in The Playground, effectively serving as a form of matchmaking in a mode that has none by default. It has a direct effect on gamer participation and habits, and in that regard, it’s similar to the bullying that has taken place over premium skins in Fortnite. Of all the ideas to adopt, they picked the one that contributes to toxicity.
Whether it’s MyCAREER or MyTEAM, NBA 2K’s modes are designed to strongly encourage gamers to spend money to ensure they get the best possible experience, and all the cool new content that’s pushed through. NBA 2K is hardly unique in that sense, as Take-Two sees Grand Theft Auto Online as a similar cash cow, and the concept of recurrent user spending is an example of the changing face of video games in general, not just basketball gaming specifically. Microtransactions in Triple-A titles may be inevitable these days, but the problem with NBA 2K is that they’re implemented in ways that run contrary to what made it such a great basketball game in the first place.
Take a look back at the beginning of last decade. NBA 2K was improving with each release, much as NBA Live had done in its golden age as the NBA sim in the late 90s. As EA Sports’ game bottomed out with NBA Elite 11, 2K Sports released NBA 2K11, with its great representation of the contemporary NBA and a milestone feature in The Jordan Challenge, which added retro content that we once thought wouldn’t ever be possible. Not only was careful attention paid to the contemporary teams and players, but the level of detail on the retro teams was impressive. NBA 2K12 took that a step further with an even bigger assortment of retro content, thanks to NBA’s Greatest.
We no longer see that attention to detail. Retro teams are getting thinner as 2K loses likeness rights for certain players. Placeholder players are blatant copy and paste jobs, and in some cases they have higher ratings than key bench players on the retro teams! Many retro players have inappropriate animations and attributes, again due to copy and paste, or failure to update assignments when the animations are redone. There’s no longer the same focus on authenticity, and not even current players are immune in that regard. The focus is on MyTEAM and MyCAREER with its connected modes; not to the same detriment as NBA Live’s focus on The One, but it’s still noticeable.
There was a time when NBA 2K prided itself on being the most authentic NBA sim that it could be, and it’s one of the major reasons – aside from NBA Live’s missteps – that it became the brand leader. However, now that its popularity has surged and it’s becoming a big part of pop and gaming culture – like Fortnite and Call of Duty – it’s clearly aiming for mass appeal. It’s hard to talk about that without sounding like I’m being snobby and gatekeeping, but the simple fact of the matter is that the things that appeal to hardcore basketballs fans who like sim-oriented gameplay do not – by and large – appeal to the more casual gamer who isn’t as discerning about virtual hoops.
That’s why we have cosmetic items and the online culture they cultivate. That’s why The Neighborhood has events, and there’s a greater focus on online play. That’s why meta-gaming and animation-based techniques are now far more important than actual basketball strategies. That’s why MyTEAM is flooded with OP cards that don’t depict realistic player abilities. And that’s why we don’t have proper matchmaking, but do have an assortment of Neighborhood emotes and celebrations. It’s appealing to the Fortnite crowd, and looking to boost VC sales at all cost. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still content for the hardcore fans. We’re just no longer the prioritised target audience.
One only has to look at the trailers during the preview season. There was a time when they focused on the authenticity of the NBA gameplay. Now they show off race cars and changing seasons in The Neighborhood. We see influencers excitably reacting to great pulls in MyTEAM, grossly misleading us about pack odds. MyCAREER and its connected modes are heavily promoted, though not so much the NBA side of things. Yes, they’re catering to the gamers that are interested in those modes, and with the influx of gamers who aren’t necessarily hardcore hoops fans, that contingent is larger than ever. It means the “NBA” part of NBA 2K now feels somewhat less important.
Look, I’m not saying that the developers aren’t trying to make a great basketball game. There are plenty of people on the development team who love the sport, and you can tell from their Tweets that they do care and want to fix things. They also have to work with the roadmap they’re given, and implement the mechanics that the suits demand. As the theme song for the ill-fated and ill-advised Pinky, Elmyra, & the Brain spinoff of Pinky and the Brain cynically noted in the lyrics “it’s what the network wants, why bother to complain“, very talented and creative people are at the mercy of the whims, goals, and priorities of executives. Video game development is no different.
Take-Two’s goals aren’t always compatible with the aim of creating the best, most realistic basketball game possible. They’ll interfere with the quality of the experience, from the mechanics that quite obviously push microtransactions and grinding, to the more subtle inability to skip the first five seconds of timeouts in MyCAREER games to sneak in advertising for Gatorade. It’s no longer about creating the optimal virtual basketball experience; or at least, there’s another overarching goal that interferes with that aim. NBA 2K is still definitely a basketball sim, but it’s also going for broader appeal, while tapping into recurrent revenue streams and acting as a virtual billboard.
I should note that this doesn’t mean that NBA 2K has become a horrible, unplayable game. Some people might say that in their disgust with recent titles, but I wouldn’t go that far. There are still many great aspects to the core experience, and it’s still a game for ardent basketball fans. There’s no denying that its identity and focus has changed however, and in my view – and I don’t think I’m alone here – it means that it’s not as good as it could be, and indeed, should be. It gets the job done of course, and it has no competition in its own genre. It’s also in a position to reach an audience beyond us geeky hoop heads that concern ourselves with the minutia of realism and accuracy.
Again, changing face hasn’t prevented the series from being profitable or successful, but it’s also a shame. It’s also unquestionably undermined goodwill and our trust in the brand to the point where if NBA Live could ever get it together, I think a lot of people would make the switch (or would at least strongly consider it). That’s a pipedream right now, and so NBA 2K will continue to look upon Fortnite and Call of Duty – games with their own issues and in no way related to basketball – as its peers and influences. At this point, the changing face of NBA 2K is plain for all to see, and it’s safe to say that it’s not the same game that took over the genre as NBA Live faltered.
Now, I do believe that there’s value in looking for new ideas outside of the genre of basketball games. NBA 2K shouldn’t be unwelcoming to its more casual audience, and other titles do have good concepts. On many occasions, I’ve pointed to Rocket League as a game NBA 2K should take cues from when it comes to its online scene. The key is to adapt those ideas for basketball though, as a great virtual basketball experience should always be at the core of what NBA 2K is trying to be. When ideas start to encroach on the ability to be a great NBA sim – admittedly with some street elements in The Playground – they shouldn’t be a part of 2K’s blueprint and identity.
When it comes to the game’s competitive scene, it also needs to pull back from an elitist mindset. Despite the launch of the NBA 2K League, NBA 2K’s online scene has continued to decline in quality, introducing gatekeeping measures and generally becoming quite toxic. Rather than being accessible to everyone and separating the hardcore competitive scene from more recreational play, NBA 2K’s online modes perpetuate elitist and snobby attitudes. Ironically, it makes for a poor advertisement for the NBA 2K League on top of everything else. Once again, if NBA 2K is going to follow another game’s example here, then Rocket League is the one to emulate.
As a new generation looms, it’s fair to worry about the identity of NBA 2K. Yes, it’ll likely maintain a certain level of quality, but there are a lot of gamers who buy it out of obligation and necessity rather than true enjoyment and affection. As long as 2K neglects authenticity and pushes hard on its recurrent revenue mechanics – and if it tries to be something it’s not – it’s going to be a different game to what it once was, and frankly, inferior and less enjoyable than it should be. Changing face is inevitable, but it’s vital that 2K retains aspects of its original identity. It’s what drew hoop heads in, and will keep them coming back when casuals inevitably move on to the next fad.