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 look at how career modes ended up surpassing franchise modes in popularity.
As a long-time basketball gamer, it’s been interesting to not only see how the games have evolved, but also how trends and attitudes have changed. A noteworthy example of changing trends is the popularity of franchise modes. There was a time when they were considered the pinnacle of modes in basketball games, a dream come true for those of us who remember playing the basic single season modes of early titles. These days, they’re seen as passé; something for “old heads”, despite the fact younger hoops gamers enjoy them too. If nothing else, they’re no longer the flagship mode.
That distinction now belongs to career modes, and their connected online experiences. In some respects, it’s not surprising. It took longer for fully-formed career modes to make their way into NBA 2K and NBA Live, and there had been an interest in seeing them for quite some time. Indeed, the franchise modes were often used to simulate a single player career mode, so gamers clearly wanted that type of experience. The shift towards career modes is still interesting however, especially as they’ve drawn in gamers who have traditionally been all about franchise play. How did this happen? Well, I have a few theories as to how career modes gained and maintained popularity.
Let’s begin with a theory I’ve mentioned on the NLSC Podcast. I believe that one of the most appealing aspects of career modes is that the experience plays out more like your average video game. You assume control over one player that you’ve moulded according to your preferred play style. There’s a singular focus on your player, and the experience is curated to some extent through stories and the performance of your AI-controlled teammates. You don’t have to worry about controlling every aspect of the team, though you can also level up to a point where you can influence what happens. In many respects, it’s a very straightforward and familiar gameplay experience.
Contrast that with franchise modes, which tend to be more complex and require us to assume multiple roles: GM, coach, and every player on the team, unless we happen to play with player lock on. That’s not a bad thing, of course. That depth and variety is a big part of the appeal of franchise modes, after all. Not everyone wants the experience to extend that far beyond the virtual hardwood though, and career modes are far more focused on the on-court action. You don’t have to worry about salary caps, roster and lineup management, and so forth. From a gameplay standpoint, you only need to learn your own animations, and how to effectively play with your own avatar.
This approach likely has greater appeal to more casual gamers, as well as hoops fans who are more interested in playing out the fantasy of being an NBA player rather than making decisions for their favourite team and controlling real players. I’d suggest that as basketball games have become more popular and mainstream, those gamers have also grown in number, and it’s contributed to the rise in popularity of career modes. As I mentioned though, career modes have also drawn in the hardcore fans, including people like me who have been staunch franchise gamers. Even though I’d resolved to put aside MyCAREER this year, I’ve still dabbled with it in NBA 2K20.
There are a few reasons why franchise gamers might gravitate towards the career modes over the past decade. First and foremost, it’s a change of pace, and a fun one at that. As much fun as franchise modes can be, it is liberating to only be responsible for one player. There’s also the sense of novelty that had arguably worn off after a decade or more of playing the traditional season and franchise modes. However, I’ve come to realise that modes like MyCAREER and The One offer more tangible progress with every game. Every game that you play contributes towards the goal of improving your player and turning them into a superstar, even if that progress can be rather gradual.
Completing games in MyCAREER and The One allows us to accumulate a balance of usable rewards including Virtual Currency, Skill Points, Reward Points, MyPOINTS, XP, and so on. We can use these in-game currencies to purchase ratings upgrades and new clothes, or work towards unlocking important gameplay mechanics like Badges and Traits. This in turn provides us with an incentive to play every game. In franchise modes, there’s an incentive to simulate games to get through seasons quicker so that we can experience the offseason, and avoid the drudgery that comes with an 82-game campaign, plus postseason. Simulating is a function that can be advantageous.
Not so in career modes, where simulating games throws away opportunities to earn vital upgrades. There comes a point where you’ll probably want to simulate games in MyCAREER or The One, but it won’t be until you’ve put in the work to grind up your player. Even though that grind can be a chore, there’s a sense of satisfaction in it, and once again, that satisfaction is there with every game; every small bit of progress that you make. You can see your in-game currency balance and XP meters fill up, win or lose. It makes every game feel like an important step, with immediate gratification that isn’t always there in franchise modes. It’s effective in getting you hooked.
Accomplishments also feel more personal, especially in MyCAREER which tracks NBA records and sets the ultimate goal of being inducted into the Hall of Fame. That personal connection to your avatar and their virtual accomplishments adds to the immersion and level of investment. I can attest to that, as well as the convenience of a streamlined experience where I don’t have to play every minute of a full game, as my player is on the bench for some of it. Again, it can be liberating to not have to control every aspect of the game – though I do still enjoy that as well – and instead just play virtual basketball, making decisions for my player as they’re presented to me.
The increased feasibility and popularity of online play is also a factor here. There is MyLEAGUE Online in NBA 2K, but it has its share of technical problems, and it requires a significant commitment from everyone involved. Conversely, if you’re levelling up a career mode avatar, you can theoretically jump on at any time and play games as a squad or with random teammates. It’s an extension of the single player experience as far as only having to worry about controlling one player, and you can continue to earn XP and in-game currency in the online arena. There’s a simplicity and novelty to online team play that you can’t find in an online or offline franchise.
On top of that, grinding up a player for maximum effectiveness in online play does require a significant commitment. Even accounting for pre-order bonus VC in NBA 2K or the comparatively more generous starting ratings in NBA Live, you’ll have to grind for about half a season’s worth of offline games – or endure some tough times in a large number of online contests – in order to get your player to the level they need to be at. That simply doesn’t leave a lot of time for other modes. If you want to partake in online team play, you need to make some fast progress on upgrading your player, and that won’t happen if you’re playing the franchise and card collecting modes.
A shared interest in online team play can make MyCAREER and The One much more appealing as well. If the rest of the NLSC squad hadn’t been interested in Pro-Am and I hadn’t enjoyed jumping on to play with them, I likely wouldn’t have spent nearly as much time in MyCAREER. Although burnout is also factor here – as it probably was with franchise modes after many years – the ease I’ve had putting MyCAREER on the backburner when my friends aren’t playing NBA 2K20 online speaks for itself. Being hooked on the online co-op experience, as well as the goal of making it to the Hall of Fame, has been incentive to skip other modes and undertake a new grind every year.
To that end, adding online play to the career modes in NBA 2K and NBA Live has also brought variety to the on-court experience that’s harder to achieve in franchise modes. This is particularly true in NBA 2K, where gamers have the choice of playing through NBA seasons, heading to The Playground to hoop it up with some streetball, or squadding up in a more organised environment via Pro-Am and The Rec, all within the one game mode. There are also mini-games, daily incentives like the prize wheel, and flavour content such as endorsements, cutscenes, and yes, dressing up your player in weird and wacky ways. In short, there’s a wide appeal in what’s on offer.
I don’t mean to disparage franchise modes, or suggest that they no longer have value. MyLEAGUE in particular is fantastic and is still respectably popular, and to that end, it’s imperative that NBA Live’s Franchise mode sees some significant improvements. However, franchise modes are unquestionably aimed at more hardcore basketball gamers and NBA fans, whereas career modes appeal to hardcore and casual fans alike. With the influx of the latter as basketball video games have become more popular and mainstream, career modes are where the userbase has gravitated. It’s arguably better equipped to cater to the varied tastes of the current audience.
Franchise modes haven’t been made redundant, but they’ve unquestionably ceded popularity to career modes. That can be attributed to changing times and interests, but MyCAREER and The One have also been able to appeal to gamers in ways that MyLEAGUE and Dynasty/Franchise cannot. The immediate gratification of tangible rewards beyond picking up a win, streamlined experience and curated narrative, and connected modes, have all drawn gamers’ attention. They’re still not for everyone though, and that’s why it’s vital that both NBA Live and NBA 2K feature robust franchise and card collecting modes in addition to the popular career experience.