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 future NBA 2K games could craft a better MyCAREER story.
As much as I’ve criticised the approach, I am somewhat fascinated by the concept of the MyCAREER story. It’s been done rather badly in a couple of games, be it the way it’s affected the gameplay experience, the narrative, or both. As such, it would be nice to have the option of a straightforward career mode. At the same time, a lot of effort has gone into the approach over the years, and it’s paid off with a couple of rather good and enjoyable tales. Since the concept doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, it’s vital that Visual Concepts does the best job possible with it.
When it comes to the MyCAREER story approach – in particular, the times it hasn’t been done well – there have been a few common drawbacks since its debut in NBA 2K14. Ill-fitting back stories and unlikeable personalities for the player character, annoying NPCs and cringe-worthy cutscenes, a lack of story branching, meaningless decisions, and general intrusiveness, are among the most prominent issues. The good news is that these problems can be remedied, and if backed by a well-written narrative with characters that aren’t annoying in a bad way, a story can enhance MyCAREER. To that end, this is how I’d like to see the MyCAREER story crafted in future games.
The MyPLAYER Character & Back Story
We need to feel some connection with the MyPLAYER character, and there needs to be consistency between our role play and the cutscenes. One of the biggest complaints that I’ve had when it comes to various player characters in recent MyCAREER games is that they’re unlikeable. The NBA 2K15 MyPLAYER was arrogant, and while you could select more humble and friendly dialogue options in some scenarios, they didn’t gel with scenes that were on rails. Frequency Vibrations was frustrating in his myopic defense of toxic childhood friend, Vic Van Lier. Pres, D.J., and A.I. are a lot better, but still have their moments where you wish you could make decisions for them.
The other problem is the back story itself. Freq was clearly written as a very specific character, which doesn’t work very well in an RPG-based mode where gamers are invited to create themselves to the point of scanning in their own faces. D.J. had a rather implausible back story that borders on silly, though it did fit the overall tone of NBA 2K18’s MyCAREER story. Once again, Pres and A.I. are better in this regard, though there are elements of their characters that don’t fit well with certain approaches to role play (or are difficult to relate to). This is where having more choice over the character and their back story could really enhance the MyCAREER story experience.
Recent tales have done a better job than “Livin’ Da Dream” of creating a one-size-fits-all character and back story, but are still limiting. I think one of the next steps in the evolution of the concept is to be able to select different back stories that affect how your MyCAREER progresses (i.e. starting ratings, XP rate, and cost of upgrades), and even what your character is like. Whether you want to be a brash blowhard or a more humble personality, there should be consistency. One of the ways to achieve this is to offer up more options so that the story is driven by the user. Every decision we make from the back story onwards will thus shape the narrative, both on and off the court.
Story Branching & Meaningful Choices
I liked NBA 2K19’s MyCAREER story. I’d place it right up there with NBA 2K17’s story as one of the best that the series has featured to date. Having played through it a couple of times, however – once on PlayStation 4 and once again on PC – I was a bit disappointed to confirm that there is very minimal story branching. You can get a few alternate scenes through your dialogue choices (some of which are merely cut slightly differently), but it ultimately leads to the same story beats. You can try to veer off the path a few times, but you’re always pulled back onto a linear route. It would be much more interesting if the story could branch off in different directions.
Going back to the previous point about the back story for a moment, there’s the issue of your favourite team. There are a couple of scenes in NBA 2K19’s MyCAREER story where A.I. brings up his favourite team, which as it happens are the Los Angeles Lakers. Imagine if the dialogue changed based on your actual choice of team. At the very least, it’d help out with role playing and feeling a connection to the character. The same goes for your personality. If you want to be arrogant, brash, and reckless, it’d be awesome if the story played out differently compared to someone playing as a friendlier and more likeable protagonist. These choices need to matter somehow.
Obviously there are only so many outcomes that the developers can account for, and I’m not suggesting a slew of multiple endings. There have been several points over the years where the MyCAREER story could’ve branched in different directions though, making the experience more unique for everyone. Be it choosing whether or not to cut Vic out of your life, deciding not to trust a character that’s clearly going to stab you in the back, or simply having the story change in some way according to your choices during an interactive cutscene, greater differentiation between playthroughs would be another step forward. That comes down to having meaningful choices to make.
Impact of the MyCAREER Story on Gameplay
I’m of the belief that gameplay should play a bigger role in driving the story, rather than the story controlling the gameplay in MyCAREER. It was kind of amusing to play a game with a unibrow following a prank orchestrated by Anthony Davis and Marcus Young in NBA 2K19, but I disliked having a scripted injury in NBA 2K17 and the predetermined scenarios in NBA 2K14. “Livin’ Da Dream” butchered your rookie season by reducing it to just eight NBA games following high school and college. NBA 2K15’s approach of having you catch on with a team in the new year was interesting, but made it tougher to contend for Rookie of the Year.
Whatever The Prelude consists of, I believe it should end with you making it to the NBA. This is something that I liked about NBA 2K19’s MyCAREER story, though it does have the plot hole of you playing one game in the 2018 season, and then still being considered a rookie in the 2019 season. There is some dialogue that comes up referencing the situation, suggesting that some kind of exception has been made, but it is a flaw in what is otherwise a very well-told story. However, the story could’ve just as easily ended with you proving yourself in the D-League, beginning your NBA career in the 2019 season, and facing Marcus Young in the season opener.
Whether a MyCAREER story sees you getting drafted or latching on as an undrafted rookie, that’s where the tale should end and the main experience begins. I like the idea of the story being about your road to the NBA, and then having your experiences on the virtual hardwood telling the rest of the tale. If there are a few cutscenes with NBA players, that’s fine if they’re generally entertaining (and can be skipped). Again, apart from the aforementioned plot hole, this year’s game did a good job with the approach. Combine it with more control over role playing the character, choices that actually impact the story, and avoid plot holes, and it’ll be a fresh experience that’s even better.
The Resulting MyCAREER Story
Alright, so what kind of MyCAREER story can we put together using that approach? Let’s begin with the back story options. I’d suggest a choice between being a highly touted college player, a prospect with a lot to prove, or a player in the G-League. This would determine how you get to the NBA, and the challenges you face along the way. It would also offer different starting points with RPG-like trade-offs: the top prospect would have better starting ratings that take longer to upgrade, the raw prospect would have lower ratings that can be increased quicker, and the G-League player would be more balanced with ratings and upgrades, but face tougher competition sooner.
How you respond to the challenges and interact with characters in the story would affect your opportunities, as well as the cutscenes that you see. There wouldn’t be any wrong choices as such, though some paths might be more difficult (but arguably more rewarding as a result). Ideally, there would be some consistency in how your player acts in cutscenes according to your previous choices, though it would be up to you to some extent. These choices could also result in different gameplay objectives. Can you back up your arrogance? If you’re unassertive, will it allow opportunities to slip through your fingers? Either way, it’ll all determine your path to the big time.
The story would conclude before the current NBA season. Depending on your play and how you’ve carried yourself, you may be a lottery pick, a mid-to-late first round selection, or even go undrafted. You may even choose not to enter the Draft, instead trying your luck as a free agent. Your role in the NBA would also depend on your choices, performance, and where you end up. If you’re good enough, perhaps you can be a starter right away. Perhaps you’ll be coming off the bench for a while. Whatever the case may be, it’s your story to tell on the court from there on out. Maybe a few characters can make cameos here and there, but The Prelude should end at the NBA.
A good MyCAREER story should be well-written and acted, with a blend of humour and drama. NBA 2K19’s tale gets good marks here, but as I said, it still suffered from a feeling of being on rails with choices that didn’t impact the narrative like they could have. It’s time for the concept to evolve. Now that MyCAREER has more elements akin to an open world RPG, it should take a few ideas from the genre. While playing MyCAREER without ever having to touch a story-driven experience would be a nice option, the mode may be evolving into what it needs to be in order to blend the best of the prior gen and current gen approach. If so, NBA 2K19 was a good first step.