We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Join me as I begin the week here at the NLSC with my opinions and commentary on basketball gaming topics, as well as tales of the fun I’ve been having on the virtual hardwood. This week, I’m tipping things off by discussing something that many of us tried to warn our fellow NBA 2K gamers about, that’s finally being widely acknowledged.
There’s an old episode of The Simpsons – a Season 1 episode in fact, so a very old one indeed – wherein Marge contemplates having an affair with her bowling instructor, voiced by Albert Brooks. Lisa recognises that Marge is showering her and Bart with treats out of guilt; predictably, Bart is only interested in reaping the benefits, leading Lisa to explain that he’s still in the denial stage, whereas she’s already feeling fearful. Later on, when Bart reaches the fearful stage, Lisa says she can’t help him because she’s already moved on to a new stage: self-pity.
Look, I’ll take any excuse to make a Simpsons reference, but that scene aptly sums up what I want to talk about today. For years, many of us have been pointing out the greed and anti-gamer/anti-consumer approach in NBA 2K. We’ve been shouted down time and time again, with predatory mechanics and subpar design being defended with every clichéd argument in the shill’s handbook. This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been successful pushback – hey, haircuts are free now, whoopee! – but way too many people were comfortable with VC-related issues, until suddenly they became too much. For those people, and for those who still shill: don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Before I get carried away doing a smug victory lap that’s hollow given that these issues affect my gaming as well, let’s again consider why people shill for games and billion dollar corporations, defending the indefensible to their fellow gamers. First of all, we’re all young once. I can look back at how I approached games and other things I liked when I was much younger, and how I not only resisted being critical myself, but also how I balked at the critique of others. We adopt the things we like as part of our identities, and so when someone criticises something we’re passionate about, like Michael Jordan, we take that personally. It’s something that we usually grow out of.
Unfortunately, not everyone does. There are far too many people who put being an NBA 2K fan ahead of their fellow NBA 2K gamers, and ultimately, themselves. You’ve also got influencers who are playing nice because that’s how you get access and other perks, and it’s not like 2K are above putting the pressure on people who dare to give negative reviews. Also, a lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction to try and stifle criticism, even if they don’t necessarily disagree. Well, other people’s criticism, anyway. We see ourselves as righteously outraged, while everyone else is whining. We’re making a stand, they’re complaining, and The Complainer Is Always Wrong.
That’s how people have come to downplay the problems with microtransactions in NBA 2K for far too long now. “It’s optional,” they’ll tell you. “You just don’t want to put in the work; you want to be 99 right away,” they’ll insist. “It’s business,” some will say, taking the boot from their mouths long enough to share such pseudo-intellectual snark. Even well-meaning suggestions to use MyLEAGUE to simulate a MyCAREER experience miss the mark when they’re presented in a way that says “Here’s a viable solution, there’s no need to keep bringing it up.” As I’ve pointed out before, just because something is viable, it doesn’t always mean that it’s preferable, or enjoyable.
For far too long, shills – and yes, I’m going to keep calling them that – insisted that the choice between a long grind and paying to upgrade quickly in MyCAREER was a vital part of the experience. Again, it usually came down to the strawman argument that people pointing out these issues were too lazy or entitled to play the game. Never mind that the quality of the experience suffered in order to push people towards buying VC. “Well, that’s just how it is these days,” was the counterargument. If you have the time, grind; if you have the money, spend. This of course has led to snarky comments about being “broke”, because the discourse wasn’t already toxic enough.
We tried to warn you. We tried to warn you that designing MyCAREER around the pressure to buy VC would result in an approach that prioritised pushing recurrent revenue mechanics over a fun gaming experience. Guess what? It did! We tried to warn you that the game was pushing its luck here and there with little increases in prices, and decreases in VC earnings, to see what it could get away with. Turns out, it was quite a lot. Whether it was issues with cosmetic items, beginning with needlessly terrible ratings, wasting time in an open world, or a lack of matchmaking promoting toxicity, gatekeeping, and microtransactions, we tried to warn you time after time.
Like Lisa, we were in the fearful stage. We could see the writing on the wall, and the negative impact that these issues were having on the series. It’s not as though we didn’t have positive things to say, either. Indeed, our concern came from the pushy approach to microtransactions encroaching on experiences that could be a blast. Too many people were like Bart though, happily stuck in denial and outright shilling for design choices that made the games worse. We were told to be quiet, to appreciate what we had. “Go play NBA Live if you don’t like it. Oh I’m sorry, it doesn’t exist!” The lack of choice and competition sure hits a little different these days, doesn’t it?
This isn’t to say that NBA 2K23 isn’t a great game at its core. It isn’t perfect, and there are too many people shouting down criticism under the tired rationale of “get good”, but I’m really enjoying it. However, there are more and more people calling out just how expensive it is to upgrade your MyPLAYER. More gamers are growing weary of the extracurricular activities in The City that have nothing to do with basketball, and how the story and its quests impede the traditional MyCAREER experience. It’s great to see people speaking out, but again, these are things many of us have been saying for years. We tried to warn you that “it’s optional” wasn’t looking at the big picture.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad more people are seeing it. It’s just that like Lisa, I’ve moved on to a new stage; in my case, a mix of smugness and exasperation rather than self-pity. I’m certainly not alone in expressing these thoughts and sharing warnings since NBA 2K18 pushed the envelope. I’ve been using the word “many” because I have seen countless posts from others over the years that shared my concerns about recurrent revenue mechanics. Pundits like Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett are among the few in gaming media readily calling it out, culminating in a scathing NBA 2K23 review. It’s refreshing, as too many influencers and pundits are scared of losing their access.
As for the gamers who repeatedly shouted down valid criticisms of the rising cost of upgrading players in MyCAREER, making the journey an unpleasant grind in hopes of driving recurrent revenue, and turning the mode into a freemium MMORPG in a fully-priced annual release…well, what was in it for you? Journalists get their access, content creators get their logos and other perks, but you were getting screwed just like the rest of us! If you’ve been fighting the good fight along with the rest of us all these years, this doesn’t apply to you, and by all means keep speaking out! If you defended those practices before NBA 2K23 however, what took you so long to get on board?
I’d also like to address the more passive version of shouting down criticism of NBA 2K’s microtransactions, which usually takes the form of “Yeah it sucks, but you’ve already complained about it, just don’t buy the games and let it be.” I can see where that’s coming from, but it’s myopic, and defeatist. The problem still exists, so it’s still worth talking about. No one’s under the delusion that microtransactions are going to disappear, but if the backlash is strong enough, there might be some changes for the better. More to the point, talking about it allows us to warn our fellow gamers about what to expect as far as predatory mechanics, and the overall quality of the game.
I want to wrap up here by pointing out a few truths that shills find uncomfortable, but so be it. There is no reason, other than greed, that MyPLAYERs begin at 60 Overall. The mode could still have a lengthy, fun journey if we were rated a bit higher, or at least our athletic ratings weren’t disgracefully low. If it were more enjoyable at the start of our career and more viable to jump online without buying VC, or picking up the special editions with their bonus VC – which won’t even get you to the first ratings cap, mind you – it wouldn’t ruin the game or its competitive scene. The only reason to take that approach is to squeeze more money out of a fully-priced annual release.
A fun journey isn’t one that we should want to mindlessly accelerate through, or pay to skip. Imagine skipping through a film to see the good parts, or indeed, paying for the privilege. Would you consider it a good film that’s worth watching? So it goes with video games, too. We should want to savour every step of that journey! There shouldn’t be such a disparity in the quality of the experience between those who refuse to buy VC, and those who are willing to shell out to skip the grind. The NBA experience in MyCAREER shouldn’t be affected by a horribly-written and acted story, quests that have nothing to do with basketball, and a push for recurrent revenue.
The only reason to design MyCAREER the way that it has been is to make money. That isn’t a crime, as video games are a product to be sold at the end of the day. If aspects of a product are not being enjoyed by its target audience however, it’s only fair that said audience calls that out, and identifies the reasons why they’re unsatisfied. A pushy approach to microtransactions is not vital to creating an enjoyable game, and the only ones who benefit are the executives who aren’t actually working on it. It’s great that people are realising these issues and not letting them drop; again, always speak up! If you’re only just coming around though, don’t say that we didn’t warn you.