Monday Tip-Off: Why We Won’t Get Another Retro Mode

Michael Jordan in NBA 2K11

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 why it’s unlikely that we’ll get another retro mode in future NBA 2K titles.

While I don’t want to downplay the quality of NBA 2K11, I believe one of the reasons it’s still held in such high regard is that it was a landmark release for the series. Not only was it the first NBA 2K game to top five million copies sold – a feat helped in part by the cancellation of NBA Elite 11 – but it brought us actual retro teams out of the box for the first time. The NBA Live series experienced a similar phenomenon with NBA Live 2000. It introduced Legends, and was similarly noted as still being the best game in the series when later releases had clearly improved on it in many ways.

No matter where you rank NBA Live 2000 and NBA 2K11 in their respective series or among basketball games overall, both were tremendous releases that delivered big surprises in terms of their retro content. The Jordan Challenge was a great mode that would’ve been a tremendous hook even if NBA 2K11 hadn’t been unopposed. NBA’s Greatest in NBA 2K12 was a great follow-up, and the roster of retro teams has only expanded since then. Outside of Historical Domination in MyTEAM however, we haven’t had a challenge mode that makes use of the retro teams since then. Sadly, it seems highly unlikely that we’ll get another retro mode anytime soon, if ever again.

There are a few reasons for this. The first is that everything that goes into NBA 2K takes time to develop, and sports games that come out annually already have a tight enough development cycle as it is. Developers have plenty of creative ideas for the games just the same as we do, but it simply isn’t feasible to get everything done in the space of a year (or indeed, slightly less than that). This means that everything needs to be prioritised according to importance, resources, time, and overall feasibility. If it isn’t a core feature that gamers spend the most time with – or yes, the most profitable in terms of recurrent revenue – it’s not going to be a priority.

The Jordan Challenge was the first Retro Mode (NBA 2K11)

Unfortunately for a retro mode such as The Jordan Challenge or NBA’s Greatest, they don’t rank highly by those metrics. They don’t generate any recurrent revenue, so from 2K’s point of view, they’re not a profitable investment of resources like MyCAREER or MyTEAM. They also don’t meet the needs of the gamers who are most interested in MyCAREER and its connected online modes, which is to say most of the userbase. The hours and resources required to develop a new retro mode can’t be justified by profits or interest. It’s similar to the reason modders stop working on older games. At some point, the size of the audience for that content simply doesn’t justify the efforts.

NBA 2K also has a very successful formula in place, which doesn’t give them a lot of incentive to expand on the game for the sake of art or experience rather than profit. In a way, 2K’s success has been its own worst enemy, as it’s stifled the creativity that led to the creation of The Jordan Challenge and NBA’s Greatest. Consider that the dunk contest and three-point shootout have barely been touched, despite being very poor representations of those events. EA were pushing the envelope with All-Star Weekend mode in NBA Live 2005, but 2K seems disinterested in matching those efforts. EA has also shied away from such creativity, but now 2K is going down the same path.

Of course, even if the developers could find the time and resources to add a retro mode in a future game, there’s the matter of providing adequate incentive to play it. This is something I hadn’t thought of until we were discussing the idea on the NLSC Podcast, and Kenny raised the question of what the purpose would be; what would gamers gain from playing through the challenges of a retro mode? Unlocking all of the teams was sufficient in NBA 2K12, but would it be enough today? Playing the mode would have to earn VC, MyTEAM cards, MyPLAYER boosts, and so on, if it was going to have any incentives that appealed to a majority of the current userbase.

A Retro Mode Needs Adequate Incentives (NBA 2K12 NBA's Greatest)

The question is: would it be appealing enough? I know that there are gamers who would be interested in a retro mode and find those incentives appealing, but loud voices don’t always indicate a majority. It seems that a lot of MyCAREER gamers don’t give much thought to the other modes, and online gamers tend to treat any kind of offline play with disdain. Say what you will about the suits and the company’s mandate to treat us like ATMs, but the developers do care. If the demand was there, I think they’d justify developing a retro mode from a creative standpoint. However, if the userbase can’t be bothered, then we can’t expect the developers to bother, either.

That brings us to what I feel is the biggest barrier to seeing another retro mode in any future NBA 2K games. I think the developers would be up for it if they could allocate the time and resources. The company could probably get on board with it, as long as it doesn’t take away any means of recurrent revenue. There are enough gamers who are interested in offline modes to expand that part of the game, especially if it grants some bonuses that can be used in other modes. When we ask if a new retro mode would be appealing enough, it hinges on whether the current userbase has enough interest in, and nostalgia for, the historical content. Unfortunately, I suspect the answer is no.

When NBA 2K11 and NBA 2K12 came out, a larger percentage of the core audience had grown up watching the NBA spotlighted in The Jordan Challenge and NBA’s Greatest. At the time, the big names from the past were still revered, and we were excited to play with them in modern basketball games with all their advances. These days, the respect and interest isn’t there. We’ve got talking heads indulging in hot take culture, talking about past eras being weak. We have the moronic rhetoric about MJ playing against “plumbers and dentists” that surely started out as trolling, but it’s now been adopted as a serious argument. Is a retro mode going to appeal to those people?

Magic Johnson & Larry Bird in NBA 2K12

Not likely. There’s been a big backlash against nostalgia and the idea that anything old could be as good as or better than what’s current. That’s a whole other topic altogether, but the bottom line is that a retro mode celebrating the past no longer has the same appeal it once did. The userbase has grown bigger, and younger. Online play is the rage, and the past is seen as something that “bitter old heads” reminisce about, rather than something to respect and learn about. The feasibility, the formula, the lack of recurrent revenue a retro mode would generate; they’re all factors, but ultimately moot if the userbase simply doesn’t want one. My belief is that by and large, they don’t.

Look, I’d love to be wrong about that. I’d love to be wrong about all of this, and see the announcement that NBA 2K20 is going to make full use of its historical teams by introducing a brand new retro challenge mode. I believe they could do a fantastic job with it, especially if they can bring back some of the presentation elements they had in NBA’s Greatest. Using the mode to earn extra VC and unlock content in MyTEAM and MyCAREER would be a great way of tying it into other modes, and an incentive to play through it. I’m all for it happening, but I fear that retro modes themselves have now become things of the past, even though the historical content thankfully remains.

It’s a shame, because a retro mode would not only be fun, but could also potentially serve as an educational tool, demonstrating the merits of past eras to younger NBA fans. When I was growing up, it was the historical segments on NBA VHS tapes that taught me about the stars of yesteryear, and gave me an appreciation of their greatness and achievements. These days, NBA 2K could be the medium to impart those lessons to a younger generation of basketballs fans and gamers, with the added benefit of being an interactive experience. Unfortunately, it seems that there are just too many factors working against the possibility, and not enough interest to overcome them.

Share Button
Support The NLSC on Patreon!
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments