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 dumbing down of MyTEAM in recent NBA 2K games, and how it’s affecting the mode.
I’ll occasionally see a comment on Twitter or Reddit to the effect of “Who even plays MyTEAM?” It’s your standard “I don’t like it, therefore it sucks and no one else likes it either” rationale that’s all too common among toxic gamers, but it comes off as especially ridiculous when you’re talking about a mode like MyTEAM. After all, its popularity rivals MyCAREER and its connected modes, and thanks to the content that comes through all season long, it makes Take-Two a lot of money. It is possible to play without spending any money, of course, but many who do spend, spend big.
I like the idea of modes like MyTEAM and Ultimate Team. I never thought they’d be for me, but I’ve had fun with them in NBA 2K and NBA Live over the course of this generation. I’ve generally avoided spending money and in NBA 2K19 and NBA 2K20 in particular, I’ve still managed to pick up some really good cards. However, there are problems with MyTEAM, and it’s safe to say that it’s affecting the quality and appeal of the mode. On the whole, it feels like 2K has been dumbing the mode down with the special cards they introduce every year, along with a lack of attention to detail. The mode hasn’t been completely ruined, but it could be in much better shape than it is.
The problem lies in the lack of accuracy and differentiation in higher tier cards. From an historical perspective, there are retro players with incorrect animations and ratings, thus misrepresenting NBA history. Similar inaccuracies can be found in the current players as well, though it’s usually in the form of special cards that intentionally boost ratings. This leads to situations where Tacko Fall is better than Hakeem Olajuwon, players who couldn’t (or at least, didn’t) shoot threes are able to knock them down with ease, and some cards are ridiculously overpowered across the board, in no way reflecting the actual abilities and skill level of the players in question.
I’m far from the first person to note these issues, and they’re not new to NBA 2K20. However, like a lot of legacy issues in NBA 2K, it’s getting to the point where it’s been going on for some time and our frustration is compounded. Admittedly not everyone has a problem with this, of course. The usual refrain is that MyTEAM is meant to be a fantasy mode, and as such, it doesn’t need to be realistic as it’s all about dominating with stacked lineups. I’d agree that that’s certainly the idea, but it’s more about putting together super teams with your favourite players, across NBA history. It’s not about players having unrealistic abilities, or non-simulation gameplay.
Even if you want to put all of that aside and file it under the heading of “taking this fantasy mode too seriously”, dumbing down MyTEAM with OP cards that all have similar abilities defeats the purpose of collecting different players. Take Pokémon, for example. I’m not overly familiar with the series, but I do know that there are different types of Pokémon, each with their own abilities that have their own advantages and disadvantages in battle. Imagine if there were no differences and they all battled the same way. There’d really be no reason to catch them all, or need to have any diversity in your inventory or strategy. That’s where MyTEAM is headed with its OP cards.
Referring to a game I am more familiar with, the dumbing down of RPG mechanics in Fallout 4 was controversial as it meant every character build could basically play the same way. The distribution of SPECIAL points and selection of perks did matter, but the removal of individual skills made it easier to become proficient in every aspect without the same care and effort as in previous games. When the choice doesn’t really matter, it’s not worth having. So it goes with MyTEAM. If an OP Galaxy Opal Alex Caruso card can do it all, why bother collecting a Michael Jordan or LeBron James card? Why bother getting Stephen Curry when Shaquille O’Neal can hit threes?
I’m reminded of Syndrome’s line from The Incredibles, when he reveals his plan to make everyone super so that no one will be. It’s admittedly a rather grim and cynical take on the concept, but it’s an apt description for the dumbing down that’s taking place in MyTEAM. Yes, it’s a fantasy mode, but Pokémon is basically fantasy as well. Similarly, Fallout is science fiction. The detachment from reality, the fact that it’s a video game, doesn’t automatically dismiss all criticisms of the mode’s concepts and mechanics. Accuracy is important since NBA 2K is a sim game at its core, but again, even if you put all of that aside, a lack of differentiation between players is a problem.
In fact, I would argue that it represents regression. It’s going back to the days before we had in-depth player ratings and attributes, when everyone moved, dribbled, and basically played the same way. It’s throwing away years of improvements to player differentiation and a dedication to enhancing realism in basketball video games. It’s creating a situation where it doesn’t really matter who you collect and use, because with so many overpowered cards, there are plenty of viable alternatives. Why get excited about pulling a top star – past or present – when a benchwarmer’s card can be just as good, or better? Why bother seeking out any genuine superstar player cards?
One of the odd things about this approach is that 2K is obviously trying to create a demand for new cards as they introduce them to MyTEAM. However, by dumbing down the mode with so many OP cards, and not bothering with accuracy for the players we might otherwise be interested in, only the most dedicated collectors are going for them all. Obviously that still generates a significant amount of recurrent revenue, but recurrent user spending is reportedly down in NBA 2K20. Some of that is likely due to backlash – and admittedly some more user-friendly opportunities to collect cards this year – but I’d say it’s also down to new cards feeling unnecessary.
It does create imbalance in online play of course, especially sets like the recent “Out of Position” cards. Along with the “Glitched” cards, it also walks back on concepts such as position locks, and other ideas meant to discourage exploits and encourage fair play. It means less consistency in the experience; a vision that’s compromised by giving in to pressure from a vocal minority, all in an attempt to chase bigger recurrent revenue profits. It eliminates strategy and skill gaps when cards are similarly OP, as it no longer matters which players you choose, or how you play on the sticks. If you do care about the realistic depiction of players, that’s an added layer of frustration.
Going back to the argument of it being a fantasy mode, the fact that a game or mode isn’t intended to be one hundred percent realistic is no reason to abandon balance or good design concepts. One of the reasons that the NBA Jam games are held in such high regard is because they are very well-balanced despite their lack of realism, and present different strategic advantages despite inflated abilities. The NBA Jam games by EA Sports continued that tradition, but were brought down somewhat by the lack of an “injury” system as in Tournament Edition. Without it, the CPU didn’t have the need to substitute players, and there was rarely incentive for the user to do so either.
That didn’t mean that the games weren’t fun, just as MyTEAM’s issues don’t render it completely unenjoyable. It did remove an element of strategy, challenge, and balance from EA’s NBA Jam games though, just as the dumbing down of cards in MyTEAM has watered down the importance of collecting players who are actually stars. Again, it’s like dumbing down established elements of Fallout’s character building, or making every Pokémon the same. It leads to a homogenised experience where gamers are punished for deviating from the norm, or at the very least, different choices don’t matter as much as they should. Every card may as well be the same generic player.
To me, that sucks all the fun out of a fantasy mode. I’m far more excited about the idea of teaming MJ and Shaq up with Derrick Rose and Luka Doncic, than I am collecting an assortment of cards just because they’re powerful and in no way reflect the abilities of the player on the front. Beyond the ratings, if a player doesn’t play at all like their real life counterpart in terms of tendencies and animations, what’s the point of even using real players? In this context, “fantasy” doesn’t mean abandoning all aspects of reality, especially if it’s dumbing down the cards so that they’re all more or less the same, or that benchwarmers and mid-tier stars are the best cards to have.
Opinions on this are divided to say the least. If you just want to collect cool cards and beat people online, then you’re likely fine with it. If you have more regard for realism, balanced gameplay, and an emphasis on strategy and savvy collecting, then dumbing down MyTEAM has likely turned you off the mode. From 2K’s perspective, it goes against the goal of making the best sim game possible, and ironically, will likely cost them recurrent revenue because some cards just aren’t as desirable as they could (and should) be. I’d like to see the trend reversed, but as with problems in MyCAREER’s connected modes, I have my doubts that we’ll see a change in course anytime soon.