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 candid thoughts about the preview season these days: it sucks, and nothing will change in that regard.
Yeah, I said it. I suppose I could’ve said it more eloquently. I could have said that the preview season has become a monumental annual disappointment. It would be more poetic to say that the preview season was once more like a succulent banquet that we couldn’t wait to feast upon, but is now an unappetising meal that leaves us wanting so much more. There’s a multitude of flowery adjectives and colourful similes that I could use to make my point here, but sometimes, blunter is better. And to be blunt, the preview season for basketball games now sucks.
It’s been that way for a while, but it feels as though it’s plumbing new depths. We’re less than a month away from the release of NBA 2K22, and there’s been barely any news, and seemingly even less excitement and hype. Granted, there are things in the world that are more important than a basketball video game, but that’s always been the case, and escapism is a prized commodity right now. Unfortunately, a combination of relative silence and growing frustration within the basketball gaming community has turned what was once an exciting part of the year into a dull march to the release date. I hate that many of us have become so cynical and unenthused, but it’s not our fault.
Since I’ve broached the subject, let’s address the current state of the world. Yes, the pandemic is affecting the world in a myriad of ways. As I’m writing this, we’re in another lockdown where I live in Australia, due to new outbreaks. The situation is somewhat better in the United States where NBA 2K22 is being developed, but it’s fair to say that the pandemic has caused challenges for video game publishers, just as it has so many other industries. On top of that, the situation has taken its toll on many of us mentally and emotionally. Weighed against the question of “When is this going to end?” the prospect of a new basketball video game doesn’t carry the usual thrill.
That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t account for the fact that this has been an issue long before March 2020. The preview season has been underwhelming for years, for familiar reasons. First and foremost, for the better part of the last decade or so, we’ve only had one NBA sim game to look forward to. A significant part of the excitement in preview seasons from many years ago was seeing what each company would come out with. Even when NBA Live was released, its recent struggles have caused us to be sceptical, and temper our expectations. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to look forward to two viable options that are genuinely competing with each other.
As such, the basketball gaming landscape has changed. NBA 2K no longer competes with another basketball game, but other genres. It’s tried to broaden its appeal and also shifted focus to the online arena. In doing so, it’s sacrificed some of the realism and charm that won over hardcore basketball gamers all those years ago. It’s naturally in a very comfortable position, being the only game in town. If a release is disappointing, there’s no alternative for us. That doesn’t mean that the development team isn’t putting in hard work, but it does mean that the company can push its luck with an aggressive approach to microtransactions, which are virtually ubiquitous in gaming these days.
At this point, we know that MyTEAM is a huge money-maker for 2K, and that will influence the way that it’s designed. The same goes for MyCAREER and its online modes. Sure, we don’t have to spend, but we’re certainly under pressure to do so. We also know that this isn’t going to change, because once again, we have no choice. I mean, we can play an older NBA 2K, a different sports game, or not play any games. If we want the latest NBA sim game with all the content updates and improvements however, we don’t have any alternatives as we once did. We also know that the games now cater to a wider audience, and won’t always improve or have desirable changes.
With that in mind, it’s incredibly difficult to get excited for the preview season. Not only that, but what once began around the NBA Finals or perhaps the NBA Draft in June, and then steadily continued through to the game’s release, now takes place over a few weeks, practically at the last minute. NBA 2K is available to pre-order weeks before we’ve even seen a glimpse of the game in action, or heard anything that doesn’t sound like the usual marketing spin. There’s arrogance to that, due to an unfortunately correct assumption that most of us will buy the game anyway because again, it’s the only option. Of course, over the years that’s come to rub many of us the wrong way.
When it comes to developer blogs, we’ve heard it all before. Not only that, but we have proof that some blogs have outright lied to us. On top of these admissions and contradictory statements every year, the proof is in the pudding; long-time NBA 2K gamers can recognise legacy issues that have persisted through years of releases and generations of consoles. We want to believe it this time, but we’ve been fooled before. A few “First Look” screenshots are no longer exciting to us. Even if they haven’t been manipulated in any way, there’s not much to glean from them. There are still some people who are impressed by sweat, but most of us desire more substantial previews.
And so, what was once a steady stream of exciting information that got us hyped for new games – games that delivered on their promises, too – has become an abbreviated preview season, rushing through details that we struggle to believe. We’re also well aware that we’ll be dealing with grindy mechanics as part of a design that’s intended to maximise recurrent revenue profits. How are we supposed to get excited about a few pre-release snippets of dubious veracity, a cinematic trailer, and the prospect of anti-consumer practices? In short, there’s barely a preview season, and what we learn isn’t likely to delight and hype us up the way that it used to. And frankly, that sucks for us.
None of this will affect the success of NBA 2K22, though; not even the absence of a demo. I’m sure that the game is already hitting quotas with pre-orders, and hey, I’m part of the problem. I’m a collector and content creator, so I’m obviously going to buy NBA 2K22. Many NBA fans and basketball gamers will be inclined to buy it. There’s only so much that modding can achieve with an older title. If you play MyCAREER’s connected modes or MyTEAM, you won’t receive new content, or find people to play with, unless you have the latest release. I’m an advocate for retro basketball gaming, but it has its limits, and it’s not something that everyone is able to enjoy as I can.
I’ll admit that the current state of the preview season has affected the way that I cover it. It wasn’t that long ago that I was scouring social media every day, ensuring that I sourced all the news that was fit to post, and aggregating all the latest details on the upcoming release. When 2K revealed some of the artists on this year’s soundtrack – not the soundtrack itself, just some of the featured artists – I didn’t bother posting a bulletin. Indeed, I didn’t post a bulletin about a Russell Westbrook screenshot; instead, I’ve opted to wait until a few more screenshots are released. In the past, I’d be posting any screens ASAP, just as I would bigger stories such as developer blogs and trailers.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of all of this is that there’s still a good chance that NBA 2K22 will be a fine game. For all our complaints about legacy issues, recurrent revenue mechanics, and so on, NBA 2K could be in much worse shape. I’ve played and I own far worse basketball games, including some truly, laughably, terrible titles. Between PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5, I played NBA 2K21 for a few hundred hours. I had my gripes, but I also had fun with it, too. NBA 2K has maintained a level of quality these past few years that, even with our growing dissatisfaction, still makes it a reliably consistent experience to say the least. It hasn’t been utter garbage.
Indeed, outside the dismal reality of VC gouging and the annoyance of legacy issues, NBA 2K is still a game that we could feasibly get excited about. I’m sure that there are gamers who still get hyped, and while many of them may dismiss all of this as “whining”, I don’t wish to rain on their parade. I’ve wondered if it’s simply a matter of getting older and having covered many a preview season that’s left me too jaded to feel that excitement. That may be the case, but I’ve also noticed gamers much younger than me expressing similar sentiments. I’m confident that I’m not alone in feeling put off by the abbreviated preview season, and lack of news that is genuinely wowing.
Sadly, this won’t change as long as NBA 2K is the only sim game in the space. It’s in a position of unprecedented comfort in basketball gaming, perhaps comparable only to the Madden series. There’s no incentive for 2K to show their hand before opening up pre-orders. They can feel confident in selling millions of copies and making a mint in recurrent revenue, even if we don’t see any gameplay until just a couple of weeks before it releases. We won’t demand to try before we buy, as was the case with NBA Live on the past generation. We’ll either buy it or skip it, but the numbers suggest that many of us will pick it up. Again, what else can we do if we want a new hoops game?
The preview season sucks, because at this point, we’re going through the motions every year. 2K has no need to create hype months in advance, and no need to crush a competitor before either company can release their game. Look, I know that times change, industries change, and hobbies change. This is a culmination of everything that’s happened in basketball gaming and video games in general. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t tremendously unfortunate and disheartening. There’s a reason we don’t do the countdown game in the Forum anymore. Oh, we’re still getting the new games, but we don’t have the same eager anticipation. We would, but the preview season sucks.