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 quality of online play in NBA 2K; or, more accurately, the lack thereof.
Hey, remember when I wrote about the desire to balance positivity and negativity in my articles? I mentioned that I wanted to avoid writing an article about online play in NBA 2K that ended up being more of a rant than constructive criticism, cathartic as it may be. Well, I’m going to go ahead and vent a little. I was originally going to leave it at my Friday Five detailing my experiences with the Jordan Rec Center, but I need to expand upon that. As someone who was traditionally an offline gamer who has since been drawn into online in recent years, I’m now remembering why I avoided it.
When the NBA 2K League was announced, I noted the slight possibility that it would have some tangible benefit for the rest of us. Specifically, I suggested that in the best case scenario, it would encourage 2K to improve their servers and address some of the long-standing issues with online gameplay, in order to make the “home version” of the NBA 2K League more like the real thing. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. NBA 2K online has strayed further and further away from sim basketball, and the servers continue to be extremely unreliable. Combine this steady decline with a toxic part of the community, and honestly, I don’t see the situation getting any better.
Let’s begin with an obvious and perpetual problem: the servers. I know, it’s almost a cliché to rip on 2K for this, run into the ground by so many Tweets directed at the official account and Ronnie 2K alike, but the issue persists. NBA 2K’s servers are absolutely abysmal. As popular and profitable as the game has become, and even though online play now receives more focus than ever before, NBA 2K can’t deliver a stable experience. Admittedly I can only speak from experience with the Australasian servers (which are apparently located in Japan), but based on what gamers elsewhere are saying, it’s a worldwide problem for 2K. It’s an issue that’s gone on for too long.
Lag spikes are not uncommon, especially in the Pro-Am modes. Frustratingly, I often seem to be hit by them when I’ve got a wide open shot. Even worse are the times that I lose sync and have to wait for the connection to be re-established. Every time I hold my breath, hoping that I’ll get the connection back before the timer counts down to zero and I’m booted. Now, I know that hiccups do occur and the issue is sometimes at our end, but contrary to what the passive-aggressive error message suggests, the latter is rarely the case with NBA 2K online. I’m lucky to have a reliable connection, and haven’t had these issues with any other games but NBA 2K. It’s not us; it’s them.
That 2K proudly boasts about its eSports league while offering such a wretched and unreliable experience to its paying customers is disgraceful. With the launch of the NBA 2K League, the Pro-Am modes that the rest of us play should be top notch. It would let us get a taste of the competitive scene, and probably encourage more of us to check out the League as well. The problem is that we don’t experience anything like the NBA 2K League. Between gameplay issues, gatekeeping design choices, and terrible server performance, the modes that have inspired 2K’s official eSports league have only declined in quality the past two years.
However, it’s very apparent that there’s little interest in making the NBA 2K online experience welcoming. Once again, I have to go back to this Reddit thread, and note that the concerns the author had about elitism were spot on. Four years in, neither team Pro-Am, nor walk-on/Jordan Rec Center, have in-depth matchmaking. There’s manual matchmaking (of a kind) in The Playground, but no proper ranking system or balance. The snarky advice is to “get gud”, but that’s done through playing opponents of a similar skill level, and ranking up to tougher competition. This is a basic principle that games like Rocket League understand, but NBA 2K online somehow does not.
And of course, I have to mention the new restrictions in NBA 2K19’s team Pro-Am. Five users per side is now a requirement, with the old minimum of three per side now a thing of the past. I know this has been done to make it more like the real NBA 2K League, and there are people who don’t like the presence of AI players. I get it, but saying “Go play MyCAREER if you want to play against the CPU” is missing the point entirely. It’s not that we necessarily want to play with and against AI players, but it’s much better than not getting to play at all. We want it as a fallback option, not the ideal standard, so don’t give me that elitist, gatekeeping rhetoric.
If we’d all look past the “get gud” and “go play MyCAREER” nonsense, we’d see that proper matchmaking is the answer to these problems. Inexperienced gamers, as well as those who’d rather play more “socially” online, would be matched up against others of similar experience and skill level. That’s the way it should be; I mean, all you “get gud” virtual hoopers want to face real competition rather than just blowing out scrubs, right? As for the number of users, advanced matchmaking options could give us the choice of whether or not we want to take part in games with AI players, or even just only ever match up full squads against other full squads. Everyone benefits that way.
This brings us to an issue that isn’t entirely NBA 2K’s fault, but one that 2K shares responsibility in nevertheless. The NBA 2K online community has a lot of toxicity, and while that does fall on us, it’s an atmosphere that has been cultivated by certain design choices. Playground rank and rep is worn like a badge of honour or mark of shame. It leads to gatekeeping, ostracizing, petulant behaviour, and an overall lack of a sense of community. Granted, this problem isn’t exclusive to NBA 2K online and is a common knock on modern gaming culture, but it is prevalent with 2K in particular. Again, it’s not all 2K’s fault, but the game does encourage and cater to it somewhat.
I firmly believe that The Neighborhood has exacerbated this. As I noted, our rank and rep is prominently displayed, along with our Overall Rating and win-loss record. This has led to superficial judgements, and a phenomenon where users would rather stand around in The Neighborhood and not play than risk possibly losing a game. It’s very common to see users running up to join in a Playground game, only to back out after seeing their teammates’ rank or whipping out their phone to look at their records and stats. Speaking of Got Next, I still say that it’s gotta go. Not only does it contribute to these issues, it literally simulates the most boring part of any activity: waiting in line.
2K may not be able to control how the more toxic portions of the userbase behave, but it can wield influence as far as providing suitable matchmaking mechanics. Another aspect that they obviously have control over is the gameplay itself. There was a time when NBA 2K prided itself on being a premiere sim experience, but take one look at NBA 2K online and you won’t see that. It seems like every year, a pledge is made to address zigzagging, yet the tactic worms its way back into the next release. Success in NBA 2K online is more about mastering exploitable tactics than basketball strategy. I know that many gamers like it that way, but for others – me included – it’s a deterrent.
To put it bluntly, online gameplay is an unbalanced mess as of NBA 2K19. The new Takeover mechanic has made builds that are already OP even more ridiculous. The fact that not every build is viable for online play, or equally enjoyable to play with in both MyCAREER and the connected modes, is a major problem. The importance of min-maxing and choosing the right animations leads to a sterile style of gameplay that prizes meta-gaming and the aforementioned exploits over everything else. There are so many legacy issues that haven’t been addressed for several games now, which have only contributed to the continued backwards slide that NBA 2K online has taken.
Look, say what you will about NBA Live’s gameplay – there are definitely criticisms that can be made there – but the developers are actively interested in improving it, as evident by the tweaks that were still coming through as of July. Conversely, it feels as though NBA 2K’s developers are disinterested in implementing any improvements until the next game comes out, and even then, legacy issues often remain. Complaints about unbalanced Archetypes, flopping to take charges at midcourt, forcing too many easy turnovers by spamming steal, Takeover effectiveness, zigzag cheese, and several other gameplay exploits and issues, seemingly continue to fall on deaf ears.
In theory, NBA 2K online offers several fun and enticing experiences. In practice, they aren’t nearly as enjoyable as they should be. The lack of matchmaking serves to shoo away anyone who isn’t “elite”. The lack of realism is off-putting to those who desire a sim experience, as are a myriad of legacy issues. Modes that were accessible and inviting in previous games are cordoned off behind elitist gatekeeping measures, and the alternative is generally undesirable due to the toxic behaviours it cultivates. Even if you can get past all that and try to enjoy NBA 2K online for what it is, you’re bound to fall victim to shoddy servers that 2K should be utterly embarrassed about.
Unfortunately, I don’t see the situation improving. NBA 2K is too successful, and too popular. There are too many gamers who will shout down reasonable suggestions for making the modes more accessible, the playing field more balanced, the gameplay more sim, because they’re happy with how things are. If it’s not my problem, then it’s not a real problem, right? Well, these are real problems, and they’re holding NBA 2K online back from being as good as it can be, and thoroughly enjoyed by gamers of all levels of skill and experience. Oh, and by the way, the fact that NBA Live has issues of its own doesn’t excuse problems with NBA 2K, so don’t even go there.
Proper matchmaking must be implemented. Gameplay needs to be optimised for a true competitive experience. The servers should be reliable, and the userbase mustn’t be blamed for their shoddiness. NBA 2K is big enough to provide a better experience, and if it wants to be taken seriously as a game that can be played competitively online – to say nothing of being the core of an eSports league – then it must do better. As I said though, I have my doubts that anything will change. NBA 2K online has been in decline for a few years now, yet being in terrible shape hasn’t affected the bottom line. If we keep making excuses for these issues, then we deserve the experience we get.
As for toxicity in the NBA 2K online community, that is admittedly a harder problem to fix. Frankly there are a lot of people who need to grow up, and that takes time, by which point a fresh batch of immature brats have taken their place. Circle of life, you might say. We can break that cycle by holding ourselves to a higher standard, and we absolutely should do that, but we need help from 2K as well. As long as the game itself has mechanics that encourage elitism and cultivate a toxic atmosphere, it’s hard to change hearts and minds. Look at Rocket League: its approach to online play has resulted in a nicer community, quality experiences, and a successful eSports league.
I believe that my time with NBA 2K online has come to an end. I had a fun game in the Jordan Rec Center the other night, and it felt like a good note to end on. It was a refreshing change of pace from the usual mixture of being frozen out, screeched and snarled at by snarky, snotty brats, lag and disconnection errors, unbalanced gameplay, and everything else that has NBA 2K online in terrible shape. Those issues are sadly the norm however, and as I said, I don’t see the situation getting any better. To those who enjoy NBA 2K online how it is, by all means have a blast with it. For me, the occasional glimmer of enjoyment isn’t worth trudging through the inevitable muck.