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 free content in basketball games, and whether or not it’s fair to criticise it.
There are many maxims about appreciating generosity and accepting gifts with grace and gratitude that may seem well-worn and trite, but are nevertheless apt. Sayings such as “the price is right” in reference to something that’s free, or “never look a gift horse in the mouth” and “beggars can’t be choosers” in regards to something that is given generously, are a few that come to mind. They’re all relevant, of course. When something is free, we’re not only expected to be grateful, but also make allowances as far as quality, promptness of delivery, and so on.
However, does that still apply to free content in basketball games, such as the Locker Codes and login bonuses in NBA 2K’s MyTEAM? Criticism of disappointing rewards is often met with derision. It’s understandable, because we are rightfully conditioned to be gracious and appreciative of gifts, but it’s also myopic. I would suggest that there is still room to be critical of free content in NBA 2K and NBA Live, and to hold certain expectations as far as its overall quality. After all, it can be the difference between an empty gesture and a genuine act of goodwill. Unfortunately, some of the free content that we receive definitely trends towards being the former.
The free content that inspired this article is the recent Kobe Bryant card that was released in celebration of Mamba Day. The Pink Diamond Kobe boasts an Overall Rating of 96, but is underpowered in certain areas such as speed and dunking. Gamers have noted that it’s less effective on the perimeter than the Glitched Galaxy Opal Shaquille O’Neal card, which needless to say, is completely unrealistic. This points to a mounting problem with MyTEAM that I’ll discuss in detail at another time, but today I’m focusing on the criticism of the card; or more accurately, the criticism of the criticism. The backlash to the backlash, as Jim Sterling for one has often discussed.
Gamers shared their frustration with the quality of the Pink Diamond Kobe Bryant card on Twitter, and also grumbled about the lack of a Galaxy Opal version, or some other Kobe card to commemorate the occasion. This in turn drew sneering replies describing the complaints as “whining”, “crying”, and “adult tears”. These are all emotive terms that serve as the building blocks for many an ad hominem argument, and to that end, it’s “Arguing on the Internet 101”. File all criticism under the heading of unreasonable whinging, sprinkle on some snark so that the angry responses “prove your point”, and send out your fallacious scorn in 280 characters or less.
Now, there is a valid point to be made here. The Locker Code was free, and granted the Pink Diamond Kobe to everyone who entered it. It cost nothing but a couple of minutes of our time for what’s still a fairly high-rated card. At the same time, it’s fair to point out how the card underscores problems with MyTEAM, and how it falls short as a gesture. Consider that while Locker Codes may grant free content, NBA 2K is itself a fully-priced release. MyTEAM is also designed with the goal of recurrent user spending in mind, so you can forgive some cynicism and critique when it comes to the freebies the game doles out in a mode with microtransactions and loot boxes.
One might also be moved to note the spirit and sombre nature of the occasion, as Mamba Day was obviously also intended as a memorial for Kobe Bryant in the wake of his tragic passing. With that in mind, you could suggest that complaints about an inadequate in-game reward given away as free content pale in comparison to the loss of human life. It would be a fallacious appeal to worse problems though, suggesting that it’s impossible to both mourn Kobe and his daughter and sympathise with their family, while simultaneously making a constructive criticism regarding free content spotlighting him in a video game; in other words, the “starving children” argument.
Besides, not all free content has ties to tragic events. If we’re evaluating the level of goodwill that’s shown with free content, quality is worth noting. For example, Locker Codes that granted 200 MT or 100 VC in previous games felt more like we were being mocked. Some of the daily login rewards in NBA 2K20 MyTEAM, as well as the resulting wheel spin at the end of the week, are rather paltry. It’s easy to frame this as entitlement, but the complaint here isn’t that we’re owed some unreasonable amount of free content, but rather that lower tier rewards often feel pointless. Locker Codes have been handled better in NBA 2K19 and NBA 2K20, but it’s still kind of an issue.
Furthermore, it would be naive to suggest that free content isn’t in part designed to give gamers a taste, in the hopes that they’ll get invested and perhaps drop real money on premium content. Again, these mechanics are all by design, all intended to trigger dopamine rushes and yes, prey on impulse control. Only a fool, blind fanboy, or shameless content creator willing to shill for 2K in order to get “clout” (and possibly some other freebies of their own) would deny this, or for that matter the increasingly aggressive approach to these mechanics in recent NBA 2K games. As long as we’re pulling out tried and true maxims, let’s remember there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
At best, disappointing free content comes across as an empty gesture, which stings given that 2K has pushed their luck with their recurrent revenue mechanics. It’s hard not to let understandable cynicism erode our gratitude; a case of “sure, this is free and a nice gesture, but what about everything else?” It doesn’t help that communication is one of 2K’s biggest weaknesses. When a Kobe-related locker code leaked earlier in the year, and redeeming it granted four contracts plus a blank Ruby card, 2K didn’t address it. Yes, it was a leak and thus unfair to expect it to work properly, but the lack of an official clarification and explanation of the situation was still disappointing.
I’m reminded of the debacle with the Pink Diamond LeBron James card back in NBA 2K19’s MyTEAM. That was an instance of gamers getting free content due to a leak, and 2K understandably putting a stop to the unlimited usage of a Locker Code that wasn’t meant to be for everyone. However, it was the way they tried to handle the mix-up quietly, removing the cards from everyone’s accounts without announcing it, that turned the situation ugly. A follow-up code was issued granting everyone a free Pink Diamond – not necessarily the LeBron card – but it felt hollow given that they were trying to make amends for bad PR they garnered from mishandling the situation.
It stands as a prime example of how it’s fair to criticise free content, as circumstances and context are important. Giving everyone a Pink Diamond after all was nice, but it only came about because the handling of the leak was fumbled, and gamers weren’t happy. If there had been no complaints, we wouldn’t have received that code, and anyone who lost Diamond contracts and shoes would’ve been out of luck. So it goes with this new Kobe Bryant card. It’s not as good as it appears based on the Overall and gem level, and it highlights a pertinent gripe with MyTEAM this year. Being free doesn’t grant immunity from criticism when there’s still a legitimate problem.
In all fairness, the backlash to the backlash also deserves to be put in context. Some reactions to free content are extreme and ungrateful, even if there’s a kernel of truth to them. There’s disappointment and constructive criticism, and then there’s an angry and abusive rant that buries the point under a towering pile of insults and profanity. When that’s the case, by all means decry it as whining, adult tears, or whatever term makes you feel morally and intellectually superior. However, I’d suggest that “Just be happy you’re getting something for free” is a step too far, ceding the intellectual and moral high ground to defend a billion dollar company that isn’t above gouging its audience.
Considering that the price of modern Triple-A games is generally considered the base rate, and paying for extra content or to skip the grind an expected and encouraged part of the gaming experience nowadays, it’s fair to evaluate the quality and actual amount of goodwill in any free content. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s quite reasonable to expect that freebies are worthwhile rewards, and that underlying issues with a game are constructively criticised in the hope that they’re fixed. It’s true that we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but if said horse turned out to be a barrel with two-by-fours for legs and a broom for a head, we’d be entitled to gripe about broken promises.