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 way basketball gaming has changed in recent years, and whether the traditional approach has become outmoded.
Basketball video games have obviously been around for a long time, bringing great enjoyment to people who love both the sport and gaming. Compared to other sports, basketball has proven to be a little harder to accurately represent in a video game, with so many variables affecting the level of realism. While arcade-oriented games often still hold up thanks to their casual approach, sim-oriented titles tend to show their age. Whether it’s the shot distribution, scores that are too high or too low, a lack of realistic strategy, or a shallow season mode experience, a lot of classic games do leave something to be desired, as much fun as we had with them when they were new.
Fortunately, basketball gaming has improved in leaps and bounds over the years. From deep and engaging modes to smarter AI and more realistic gameplay, we’ve been able to enjoy experiences on the virtual hardwood we could only dream of all those years ago. However, it feels as though basketball games have set a new course in recent years, shifting away from the experience that we’ve traditionally wanted. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s important that the games keep up with changing trends and demographics, but as we discussed in Episode #236 of the NLSC Podcast, it sometimes feels like traditional basketball gaming is coming to an end.
As it stands, it’s questionable as to how interested a lot of people in the basketball gaming community are in having a realistic NBA sim. That may seem like an absurd suggestion, considering some of the complaints that are lobbed at NBA Live and NBA 2K alike, but consider the most popular modes these days. The career and card collecting modes have become the biggest draws, pushing the once-beloved franchise experience into the background. Whereas gamers once desired an in-depth simulation of the NBA that offered a substantial amount of realism, there’s now a preference towards putting yourself in the game, or assembling fantasy squads.
It’s not that there was never any interest in doing that in years gone by, of course. As long as there has been roster editing and Create-a-Player, gamers have made their own avatars and shaken up the landscape of the NBA. Franchise modes themselves also obviously provide a certain amount of fantasy, with fictional trades and signings for user and AI controlled teams alike. The difference is that some of the more wacky and unrealistic approaches to playing the games were something a lot of people only did for a change of pace. There was still more appeal in playing with current NBA rosters, and seeking out an experience that mimicked what we saw on TV.
While I believe there is still a great deal of interest in that, the desire is juxtaposed with an increased interest in an experience that shuns realism, or indeed, the NBA licensing. Even before MyCAREER mode adopted its sometimes controversial story-driven approach, it allowed us to mess around with reality by placing ourselves in the game, taking the place of NBA players and becoming stars. The connected online experiences of 2K Pro-Am and The Playground, as well as NBA Live’s LIVE Events, LIVE Run, and Pro-Am Tour, are even further removed from the NBA aspect of today’s officially licensed basketball games.
The traditional, NBA-oriented experiences are still present, of course. NBA 2K has MyLEAGUE and MyGM, and while it desperately needs a bevy of enhancements, NBA Live still has Franchise mode. It’s not as though it’s impossible to play season and exhibition games with current NBA rosters (and in NBA 2K’s case, retro squads as well). However, the focus does seem to be on these new experiences that are based in fantasy: tuning the game for the player-locked modes, earning and purchasing gear to outfit our players, and collecting virtual trading cards to assemble our own super teams. Modes like 2K Pro-Am and The Playground don’t feature NBA players at all.
Speaking of The Playground, it seems as though there are gamers who play the mode almost exclusively. The same can be said for 2K Pro-Am, a mode that has received even more attention with the impending launch of the NBA 2K League. Ironically, there are probably a lot of NBA 2K gamers these days who have very little interest in the NBA content, and the experiences centred on replicating the real league; a shame, given the depth of MyLEAGUE. There’s no problem with this in theory – ideally, the game should cater to different tastes and provide a variety of ways to play – but in practice, focusing on those modes has had some negative side effects.
Tuning the game for competitive balance online hasn’t always had desirable results for the offline/single player experience. The AI in NBA 2K18 leaves something to be desired in terms of its sharpness and realism, with CPU teammates in MyCAREER making odd decisions and uncharacteristic plays. Those issues are less prevalent in the non player-locked modes, but even then, it feels as though NBA 2K18 took a step backwards in terms of its NBA gameplay, where it’s long been very impressive. As for NBA Live 18, while it has made some strides, it still lacks realism when it comes to representing the NBA game, and all the nuances of individual teams and players.
In all fairness, focusing on the career modes along with the connected experiences is both understandable and smart business. It’s catering to the current basketball gaming trends, and evolving with the demographic. Of course, it’s also a way to make extra revenue. While EA has yet to explore microtransactions and pay-to-win with Rising Star and now The One, 2K have seen a big increase in what they’re calling “recurrent revenue” thanks to VC’s prevalence in MyCAREER. VC has gradually become more and more intrusive, with increasing pressure to shell out real money for in-game coin in order to upgrade your player, especially if you want to be competitive online.
The backlash to the aggressive approach in NBA 2K18 has been well-documented, but it’s yet to affect the success of the game. Indeed, NBA 2K18 is on track to be the most successful game in the series, already selling over eight million copies. Daily activity is up, as is revenue from VC sales. Despite the backlash, and for all the negative user reviews, it seems as though the basketball gaming community at large is not too bothered by the current approach. It’s possible that gamers are simply trying to make the most out of their investment, shelling out some extra money and spending the time grinding out of necessity, but there seems to be some degree of acceptance.
I find that concerning. I don’t like invoking the slippery slope fallacy, but we’ve already seen 2K press their luck with a greedier approach in NBA 2K18. If the basketball gaming community continues to indulge this approach and shout down any and all complaints, I don’t see 2K having any incentive to demonstrate more goodwill. It’s fashionable to categorise those complaints as “whining” by “butthurt cry-babies”, but just wait until VC gouging gets even greedier, content is stripped out to be a pre-order bonus, or offline modes and play are neglected entirely. You’ll realise how “not my problem, therefore not a real problem” is a childish and myopic point of view.
It already feels as though the traditional basketball gaming experience is now on the backburner. NBA 2K18’s last two official patches have been centred on the NBA 2K League. The Road to 99 and The Neighborhood emphasise the focus on MyCAREER and its connected modes. As I mentioned, NBA Live 18’s Franchise mode – while it did receive a couple of new features – is a stripped down, streamlined afterthought. The tweaks and polish to the NBA experience are lacking, compared to previous games. I don’t think we’ll lose those modes, and the NBA will always be a part of NBA Live and NBA 2K, but it’s now secondary to the fantasy-based modes.
As I mentioned in Episode #236 of the NLSC Podcast, I think that bringing some focus back to the traditional basketball gaming experience would potentially be a great hook for NBA Live. With NBA 2K gravitating towards MyCAREER, 2K Pro-Am and the NBA 2K League, and of course The Playground, perhaps NBA Live could work to appeal to the hardcore sim fans who just want to play with real NBA teams and players, while indulging their fantasies through being a virtual GM in Franchise mode. That’s not to say they shouldn’t keep developing The One, but they could seek to offer a traditional NBA experience that NBA 2K is arguably neglecting.
For NBA 2K’s part, I hope the developers can find a way to enhance the traditional experiences and offline gameplay, while continuing to innovate with MyCAREER, 2K Pro-Am, and The Playground. As it stands, I don’t think the traditional experience has become completely outmoded and irrelevant, but I do believe it’s fair to say that it’s been neglected. Of course, I’m not about to advocate spinning the career and online team play modes off into separate titles, nor ignoring them. They are fun, and too popular not to invest in. I’d just like to see a bit more focus on the NBA side of NBA Live and NBA 2K, in order to have the best all around basketball sims possible.
I also hope that both companies will tread lightly, and treat us fairly, when it comes to microtransactions and pay-to-win mechanics. I’m not so naive to expect that they’ll be removed from future games – that is the nature of the gaming industry, these days – but as we’ve seen with Battlefront II and other controversies, gamers are getting fed up with being treated like ATMs. It’s not about halting progress, or clinging to a bygone era and refusing to innovate. It’s about keeping what has made basketball gaming so much fun for so many years, and not allowing new innovations and business models to trample on goodwill, good memories, and desirable experiences.