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 whether NBA 2K’s MyCAREER and its connected modes are too reliant on Badges, and their general implementation.
Sim games have long sought to properly differentiate between players, beginning with detailed ratings. Those base attributes alone haven’t always been sufficient though, and so developers have experimented with mechanics such as Freestyle Superstars in NBA Live, and Signature Skills in NBA 2K. Signature Skills have given way to Badges, which like their predecessors, grant boosts and represent special abilities that the standard ratings can’t account for. As with Signature Skills, or the similar Traits system in NBA Live, they’re available to real players and career mode avatars alike.
These days, Badges are probably more important than ratings/attributes. You can max out a player’s ratings in a certain area, but it takes the effects of a Badge to ensure that they’re sufficiently levelled up. On one hand, this does make the exceptionally skilled stand out from the very good, much as Freestyle Superstars in NBA Live once aimed to achieve. On the other hand, it also means that high ratings – which are theoretically only given to the best real players, and take a long time to grind for our MyPLAYERs – are far less powerful than they should be, if they aren’t paired with the various boosts afforded by Badges. Given these issues, do we need those stinking Badges?
It’s frustrating that high ratings alone aren’t enough to achieve a desirable level of competence, particularly in the online arena. Similarly, it’s frustrating that upon learning the meta, gamers can stock up on a few known exploitative Badges and have success without much effort. Ratings and stick skills still do matter of course, but it’s Badges that will allow you to break ankles, vacuum up rebounds, and make shots with ease. Without them, you’re not going to be able to perform as well, or counteract your opponents who have stacked their build with the best Badges. It makes it difficult to jump online without first doing a lot of grinding and prep work on your MyPLAYER.
At the same time, I’m not about to dismiss the whole concept of Badges. The idea of awarding boosts and special abilities – both to real players and our avatars – has merit. In MyCAREER and its connected modes, Badges not only represent differentiation and special skills, but also balance out the pay-to-upgrade mechanics. Sure, you can buy VC (or the special editions with their bonuses) and level up to 85 Overall on Day 1, but to be truly effective, you need to earn Badges. That means actually playing the game and putting in the work. There are ways to efficiently grind for Badges, of course, but you can’t just buy your way to speedier progress as you can with ratings.
Needless to say, this approach also has its drawbacks. It can take a while to earn enough Badges to be competitive online, leaving the game feeling unbalanced even when your ratings are looking healthy. The freedom to choose a custom array of Badges in NBA 2K20 and NBA 2K21 is welcome, but the lack of standardised skills for each build hasn’t helped with balance, and can overwhelm gamers with choice. As with the approach of builds and archetypes in general, it’s too easy to get locked into choices that aren’t ideal and equally suited to both online and offline play. This means starting over with a long, painful grind, as we’re unable to re-spec Badges and builds.
NBA 2K20 and NBA 2K21 try to alleviate this issue with the MyPLAYER Builder, which offers the opportunity to test out a build before beginning a new MyCAREER save with it. It can be very useful, but of course it is limited to offline play, and it’s a whole new ballgame when you enter the online arena. What works for the NBA side of MyCAREER isn’t necessarily going to be a good fit in the connected modes. The only way of knowing for sure is to jump online, and again, that means committing to a build, levelling up ratings with VC, and hoping that you’re effectively meta-gaming with your choice of Badges. It’s another reason we need to have a re-spec option.
There’s also the matter of how Badges are earned in MyCAREER and its connected modes. For example, you need the requisite Badges to shoot well, but you need to shoot well in order to grind for those Badges in the first place; a definite Catch-22! The current system has streamlined the grind into four key areas which is easier than grinding XP for each individual Badge, but you still need to do the tasks to get the Badges that allow you to do the tasks. It’s easier to grind offline where the stakes are lower, but that’s unappealing to online gamers. It also means you’re behind on earning MyREP, which is important given the elitism that comes from a lack of matchmaking.
Of course, even if the builds are properly balanced and a majority of online gamers are sufficiently powered-up, the in-game effects of the Badges are still a concern. It doesn’t matter if everyone’s bigs can use Intimidator to force misses without being right up in the shooter’s face. It’d be balanced, sure, but it shouldn’t happen. The game becomes less about basketball strategy and skill on the sticks, and more about using Badges to compensate with overpowered boosts. Frankly, the benefits that some of the Badges provide – especially when increased to Gold or Hall of Fame level – run counter to any effort to implement a skill gap in the competitive online scene.
Outside of MyCAREER, Badges are also a concern. There’s been an increasing lack of attention to detail when it comes to the attributes of current and retro players alike, and that includes Badge assignments. Some gamers have even felt that recent NBA 2K games play better with custom rosters where all Badges are removed. There’s also the issue of OP cards in MyTEAM; the ones that are dumbing down the mode every year. Those cards are stacked with Hall of Fame Badges that turn Shaquille O’Neal into Stephen Curry, Alex Caruso into LeBron James, and so on. A mechanic that is intended to be realistic has, in some ways, made NBA 2K’s gameplay more arcade.
Does that mean it’s time to axe Badges? No, I wouldn’t go that far. If nothing else, chances are they’d be replaced by a similar system with similar problems. The issue isn’t the concept; it’s the execution. As I said, Badges perform a vital function when it comes to player differentiation and avoiding a pay-to-win scenario. The solution isn’t to scrap the system entirely or replace it with something similar, but to improve the approach. That begins with identifying any Badges that are known to be overpowered and either remove them or tone down their effects, or adjust the situations in which they have an effect. That way, gamers need to work harder to enjoy their benefits.
For a Badge like Intimidator, that means being close enough and facing the offensive player – actually making a play on the ball – to have the maximum effect and the best chance of altering the shot. Contact Finisher shouldn’t let you dunk on everyone on every play down the floor, rendering defensive Badges moot. The key is to use the Badges in a way that provides a balanced boost to relevant skills, but not make them overpowering and absolutely necessary for success, especially to the point where the user barely has to make an effort because a Badge’s abilities do all the work for them, and high ratings are essentially useless without being complemented by a Badge.
In other words, we do need Badges in the game because of the depth they provide to player abilities, but we also need them to be implemented in a way that doesn’t throw off the balance. While freedom of choice is important with builds and archetypes, it facilitates meta-gaming that unbalances competitive online play, particularly as there’s a lack of proper matchmaking. We need them to be enhancements, not crutches for cheesy gamers to lean on. Unfortunately, the current build system – for all its good intentions – has made the situation worse. If you let people create OP builds, then they’re going to create OP builds, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t know the meta.
The problem is that while all of the approaches to builds, Archetypes, and Badges so far have had merit, none of them have quite got it right in terms of which Badges can be earned, and how we grind for them. In some ways, the current approach is the best, but it would arguably benefit from having some of the restrictions seen in previous games. I like the idea of being able to choose Badges, but I believe that the choices should be appropriate for a player’s build, position, and physical attributes, and not advantage or disadvantage players through overpowered abilities. Perhaps the best parts of every build system so far could be combined to achieve such balance.
Another option, one that I’d suggest should be adopted regardless of how builds are handled, would be to limit Badges and their tiers based on ratings. After all, they’re meant to represent boosts beyond the usual abilities, so a Hall of Fame Badge should logically require a high rating to earn. With that in mind, each Badge could have their own ratings requirements to be chosen for a build, and be capped at Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Hall of Fame, according to the maximum rating a build can achieve in any category. That way, builds can’t min-max on ratings, only to compensate by picking Badges that make it far easier than it should be to succeed with lower attributes.
As for the official rosters, they need more care and attention to detail when it comes to player abilities, including Badges. I would suggest that there also needs to be some restraint when it comes to powerful MyTEAM cards. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I do believe the most desirable cards should still be designed with a certain amount of realism in mind. Exaggerated abilities should still reflect actual skillsets. By all means make a Galaxy Opal Shaq that’s an unstoppable dunker, but don’t make him a wizard with the ball who can shoot threes as well. I’m also not a fan of the return of Badges as consumables in NBA 2K21, as I believe it’s simply too many variables to have.
Again, whatever the approach NBA 2K implements moving forward, balance will be of the utmost importance. In their current state, Badges are the key to victory in online play, and if you are partaking in those modes, you need to pick the right ones, assign them, and then upgrade them as quickly as possible. I do like that they reduce the impact of paying for quick ratings upgrades and encourage putting in the effort to earn abilities, but as with the ratings grind, the rate of progression must be fair for online and offline gamers alike. Above all, if they’re going to be necessary mechanics, then we shouldn’t suffer a subpar experience while grinding for those stinking Badges.