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 the early weeks of the NBA 2K League, and some of the harsh realities that the venture is facing.
To say that the NBA 2K League has received an overwhelmingly cold reception is an understatement. Sure, there are people streaming the games, catching the highlight reels, and generally enjoying the League. However, a lot of people have had some harsh words for it, too. Posts about the League on the official NBA 2K social media accounts are often derisive and insulting. Similarly, when the NBA’s official accounts post about the League, the responses are often downright hostile. Although there is support for the NBA 2K League, the detractors are much, much louder.
Furthermore, while the NBA 2K League has found an audience, it’s not a particularly big one given the overall strength of the NBA 2K brand. Pastapadre has been keeping tabs on the viewership numbers, which have sunk as low as 2000 viewers on a night when there were no real NBA games to compete with. Although it’s still early days, and 2K likely anticipated some teething problems in the inaugural season, there are plenty of discouraging signs moving forward. The harsh reality of the situation is that no matter how successful NBA 2K may be, the NBA 2K League may simply have too many things stacked against it to succeed.
Let’s begin with the main problem: gaining and maintaining viewer interest. One of the main complaints about the NBA 2K League is that it’s not fun to watch. It’s not just the presentation, either; it’s the on-court product. A common gripe is that all the teams are playing 5 Out on offense, leading to a repetitive brand of basketball. The participants are also playing on settings that are tougher than Hall of Fame difficulty, which makes them look less skilled. The selection of Archetypes and animations not only makes the action seem repetitive, but actively disadvantages players by limiting the moves they can perform. None of this helps the game, or the League, look good.
The thing is that a lot of those problems could be fixed. Changing up the settings and the animations available to the players could help make the action more appealing. As the season continues, teams will likely change up their strategies and grow into more cohesive units. However, there are a few problems with the NBA 2K League that are more difficult to address. A major issue is the fact that the game is animation heavy. This means that success will often depend more on the appropriate animation being triggered, rather than the skill, reaction speed, and strategy apparent in other genres. A basketball game like NBA 2K isn’t necessarily an ideal choice for an eSports league.
It’s ironic that a game based on an actual sport – and the brand leader in that genre to boot – could be seen as unsuitable for eSports. It’s the nature of the genre however, in large part because of the inevitable comparisons to the real NBA. Most people would simply prefer to be watching real basketball, and that sentiment is very obvious from comments on posts about the League on the NBA’s social media. The stigma against gamers is also very apparent, with insulting remarks directed at League participants and the hobby in general. There are outdated clichés and stereotypes at play here, of course, but the bottom line is that it’s failing to connect with the intended audience.
That audience simply isn’t warming up to the NBA 2K League. Indeed, they’re flat out rejecting it as a concept. The NBA fans that have no interest in video games, or just aren’t interested in watching others play them, are not being won over. Not only that, but the hardcore NBA 2K gamers, who’d normally support the game and likely have more interest in watching, are tuning out and expressing their disdain. It’s inaccurate to say that no one is watching because people are joining the streams, but the numbers are well below what other eSports leagues are attracting. 2K may have anticipated a tough sell to the mainstream, but the core userbase seems to be against them, too.
A big factor in all this is the fact that NBA 2K18 hasn’t been well-received. Sure, it’s the best-selling NBA 2K game to date, and it’s made Visual Concepts a ton of what they’re calling “recurrent revenue” through Virtual Currency sales. However, it’s also suffered tremendous backlash, not only for its business practices but also the quality of the game itself. Even putting aside the controversy over microtransactions, NBA 2K18 arguably wasn’t the best game to tip off the NBA 2K League with. It has some key issues with its motion and physics systems, as well as a few problems with the balance. It’s tough for the League to impress when the game is a disappointment.
That brings us to what I feel is perhaps the biggest problem with the NBA 2K League. The blunt fact of the matter is that the League does nothing for NBA 2K gamers at all. Its partnership with the NBA allows Visual Concepts to flex their muscles as a brand, and for Ronnie 2K to feel important, but that doesn’t do anything for us. The average NBA 2K gamer is not benefitting from the League in any way, excepting the minority that are genuinely enjoying watching the games, and those simply tolerating them for a chance to get Locker Codes. Success or failure of the NBA 2K League generally has no tangible impact on those of us who are paying customers and long-time fans.
In fact, it could actually be argued that a focus on the eSports demographic and the NBA 2K League is actively having an adverse effect on the experience for most gamers. If most of the attention is going into building a game for a 5v5 co-op league, then that means less attention is being paid to the single player experience. If the game is being fine-tuned for elite competition, it also makes the online experience for newcomers and “social competition” gamers less appealing; even unwelcoming. You can’t design a game based on the needs of what will ultimately be less than 1% of the people playing it, nor make the core experience a lower priority.
If you do, then the hardcore fans – the staunchest supporters of NBA 2K and the people with the most interest in the brand – won’t be inclined to support the League. A loyal fanbase doesn’t appreciate being treated like ATMs, or being an afterthought compared to eSports players. It doesn’t make us feel good about the brand, or eager to get behind the venture. The last few NBA 2K18 patches have centred on content that is related to the NBA 2K League, or in the case of the latest update, added a pre-order link for NBA 2K19 (with a majority of the bonuses being exclusive to the expensive 20th Anniversary edition). That’s how you make a loyal fanbase feel unappreciated.
Does this mean the NBA 2K League is doomed? Not necessarily. I believe they are going to have to address the style of play somehow, whether it’s allowing for more animation variety for each player, tweaking the sliders, encouraging teams to play a more unique brand of basketball, or a combination of all three. If NBA 2K19 turns out to be a better game than NBA 2K18, then that would also bode well for the League. I would also suggest they need to find a way to appeal to the hardcore fans, and dial back their efforts to push the League on the crossover audience. It’s clear that NBA fans who don’t want to watch others play video games are adamant in their stance.
I would also suggest more transparency when it comes to selecting participants. From all accounts, a lot of the spots had already been filled, giving gamers false hope about their chances of making it to the League. I don’t think the word “rigged” is necessarily appropriate, but 2K could’ve handled the situation a lot better. Anything that makes the hardcore fanbase feel unappreciated, disrespected, or misled is not only going to turn them away from participating in tryouts, but also from supporting the League in general. If the NBA 2K League has no tangible benefit for the majority of us NBA 2K gamers, and we don’t feel positive about it, there’s less incentive to support it.
The harsh reality is that none of it may matter. 2K may make sensible changes to the NBA 2K League moving forward, and the core userbase still won’t be interested. The crossover audience they’re trying to build with NBA fans at large may never warm up to it. They could do everything right in terms of making changes, pump money into the League and promote it as hard as they can, and it’s never going to be as popular or successful as they envision. The harsh reality may be that the intended demographic just isn’t interested in the concept, and never will be. If so, the NBA 2K League may end up being a sobering message to 2K that they need to revaluate their priorities.