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Monday Tip-Off: The Haunting Atmosphere of Empty Servers

Monday Tip-Off: The Haunting Atmosphere of Empty Servers

We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Join me as I begin the week here at the NLSC with my opinions and commentary on basketball gaming topics, as well as tales of the fun I’ve been having on the virtual hardwood. This week, I’m tipping things off with some reflections on how haunting it feels to traverse empty servers in The City and The Neighborhood.

Last year, I bid vale to the NBA 2K20 servers and its online features. In that article, I mostly focused on the increasing amount of content that we lose when servers are shut down. That’s an important topic, and obviously it’s happened again in the wake of the NBA 2K21 servers being switched off. Although 27 months amounts to supporting an annual title through two and a half seasons, it always seems to go by so quickly. If you do have any unfinished business in MyCAREER or MyTEAM, you may spend the last days of December scrambling to complete it before it’s too late.

I’ve absolutely been in that boat myself. Furthermore, as a content creator, I’ve made it a point to get as many screenshots and clips as possible for potential future articles and video features. This means having at least one more session where I go through as much of the online content and connected modes as I can, adding to my media library. Indeed, after my New Year’s Eve plans fell through at the last minute, I spent the evening of December 31st 2022 taking one last look at MyTEAM and MyCAREER in NBA 2K21. With The City and The Neighborhood in MyCAREER in particular, it was impossible not to notice the haunting atmosphere that comes with empty servers.

When I loaded into my MyCAREER save in NBA 2K21 for PlayStation 5, I wasn’t surprised to find myself all alone in The City. The popularity of online play and the disposable nature of modern releases ensure that a majority of gamers move on when a new game is released. By the time online support is about to end for a game after 27 months, its servers are likely to be empty, or close enough to it. I wasn’t there to find a game, though; I was there to photograph and film. And so, I hopped on my skateboard and began visiting key locations around The City, taking some snaps and saving some clips of my MyPLAYER cruising along (and attempting to perform some sick tricks).

Rolling through the empty streets of The City evoked memories of trudging through the wasteland in various Fallout games. Granted, its buildings are more intact than the ones in the Fallout universe, and there’s far less radiation to contend with. Still, there was a familiar eeriness to how empty the world felt, even without the danger of some horribly mutated creature leaping out to attack me. Zooming my way through twisting turns deep in The City, not a person in sight apart from the vendor NPCs, Tigertown’s “Lonely Cities” entered my mind. We walk around, all we hear is, the sound of our lonely heartbeats. And when we dance, all we feel is, the beat of these lonely cities.

Arriving at a building with a deck overlooking part of The City below – as seen in the Tweet above – I felt a strange sense of melancholy. Considering how critical I’ve been of The Neighborhood and The City, I didn’t expect to lament the empty servers and impending apocalypse for NBA 2K21’s hub world. I suppose it’s the finality of the situation; the knowledge that whether or not I enjoyed The City, part of NBA 2K history was coming to an end. Additionally, while I have my quibbles with the impact that an open world approach has had on MyCAREER, I can appreciate the creativity and hard work that goes into developing The City and The Neighborhood every year.

Taking one last look around 2K Beach in the PC version of NBA 2K21 resulted in a similar melancholic vibe. In both cases there was a tinge of regret that I had some unfinished business that I knew I’d never complete, though I don’t rue the decision to spend so much time with NBA 2K14 MyCAREER. Of course, the opportunity to go back to NBA 2K21 was still there; tomorrow, it wouldn’t be. Once again though, the empty servers made for a haunting atmosphere that inspired mournful nostalgia for a game that I otherwise don’t have a great deal of affection for. If nothing else, the lack of company and activity made a colourful and friendly game world seem quite eerie.

And speaking of eerie, my last trip to 2K Beach included a rather ghostly sighting. As I showed in the above Tweet, after taking some final screenshots of the NBA Store’s wares and exiting the building, I caught a quick glimpse of a figure around the corner. Before I could approach them, they mysteriously disappeared. Was it another gamer taking one last look around as I was, abruptly quitting the mode? Or, was it an NPC who wasn’t supposed to be there? The lack of a MyPLAYER panel suggests it might have been the NBA Store clerk erroneously loading outside the building. Either way, this “ghost sighting” was fittingly haunting for a final sojourn through empty servers!

Although the servers are always predictably empty as a shutdown looms, it has been possible to take a haunting trip through an eerily desolate Neighborhood long before the end of online support. From the introduction of The Neighborhood in NBA 2K18 through to NBA 2K20, the Australasian servers for the PC version always seemed to be virtually empty compared to the activity I encountered on PlayStation 4. That isn’t surprising of course, given that a majority of the userbase worldwide is on console. Still, it meant that I couldn’t even try out the online scene in the PC version, as the few people I’d see on the servers appeared to be playing the NBA side of the mode.

It does seem as though that issue has been addressed, as the Cancha Del Mar and the GOAT Boat have been bustling in NBA 2K22 and NBA 2K23 PC. Although I haven’t been involved with the online scene – I’m just too weary of the grind to have a viable MyPLAYER to do so – it’s been refreshing to see other people whenever I load into MyCAREER! I have to imagine that it would be even more haunting to run around a deserted ship thanks to empty servers; no crew, no passengers, and nothing but ocean surrounding the MyCAREER hub. It brings to mind the infamous story of the Mary Celeste, found abandoned and adrift in the Atlantic Ocean on December 4th, 1872.

Empty Park in NBA 2K17

Of course, it’s those forlorn treks on console ahead of the server shutdown where the emptiness really stands out. I recall taking a last look around all of the parks in NBA 2K17 on PS4, having unlocked the ability to travel between them before putting the game aside. I’d revisited NBA 2K17’s parks a couple of times after NBA 2K18 was released, just to see how many people were still playing the previous title. It didn’t take long for activity to drop off, but there were sometimes a couple of games being played. By the time the shutdown was imminent, the servers were completely empty. Likewise, the first Neighborhood in NBA 2K18 became a ghost town by late 2019.

These empty servers bring to mind the common call to resume online support for older favourites. It remains a popular request for games like NBA 2K16 and NBA 2K17 several years later, and I understand the appeal. Indeed, I would support any initiatives to reactivate those servers, if only for a couple of weeks a year as a treat and opportunity to re-download missing updates. Realistically though, there’s little incentive for 2K to do that beyond goodwill. The eerie, haunting visage of empty servers in the final days before a shutdown stands as proof of how most gamers move on. The interest doesn’t justify the cost and effort of maintaining those old servers.

I do understand the desire, of course. Again, I’d absolutely support the reactivation of old servers, either temporarily or for an extended period of time, in order to facilitate some retro gaming. Nostalgia is a strong feeling, and those games do genuinely hold up today. There’s a tantalising lure to completing unfinished business, or just getting more fun out of an all-time favourite. At the very least, we relish having the ability to revisit those games, if we so choose. To put it another way, even if you didn’t have a strong desire to continue an NBA 2K17 MyCAREER, there was comfort in knowing that you could. It stings to lose the opportunity, even if you’re not actively pursuing it.

Beyond taking screenshots and capturing footage for potential content, that’s why I like taking one last look around The Neighborhood and The City. Sure, the addition of an online hub world has destroyed offline MyCAREER, and padded an experience I’d prefer to be far more streamlined. If I don’t explore those maps one last time though, I know I’ll be passing up some sense of closure. There’s also something enjoyable about the haunting atmosphere of The Neighborhood and The City when the servers are close to or completely empty. The serenity it provides makes it easier to appreciate the smaller details, including some of the jokes and funny Easter eggs scattered about.

For instance, the food trucks in 2K Beach have some amusing signage. One is called Eat Here Please, and advertises a “leftover special”. There’s the Mystery Meat Co. truck, proudly advertising that its product was voted the 29th Best Meat Substitute. The social distancing signs are certainly signs of the times! Graffiti turns Stop signs into instructions to never stop balling. Are they cheesy? Sure, but there’s charm in that. There aren’t as many gags in The City, but there’s cool artwork and architecture. While I’ll never shake the belief that game worlds like this belong in series such as Fallout and Grand Theft Auto rather than a basketball title, I do appreciate them.

Obviously, the haunting atmosphere of the empty NBA 2K21 servers reminded me of trekking through the Fallout series’ wastelands. However, spotting the benches near the courts in South City Vipers territory also brought to mind the ending of Return to Monkey Island. As you can see in the above Tweet, I was compelled to set up a more direct reference to that scene! That too felt only appropriate, as I bid farewell to The City and The Neighborhood in NBA 2K21. Despite their faults, and my disinterest in NBA 2K21 in general, there’s melancholy in seeing a big part of the game disappear forever. And so, later this year, I’ll be taking the same eerie trip in NBA 2K22.

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