Wayback Wednesday: NBA 2K13 Retrospective

Wayback Wednesday: NBA 2K13 Retrospective

This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! From retrospectives of basketball games and their interesting features, to republished articles and looking at NBA history through the lens of the virtual hardwood, Wednesdays at the NLSC are for going back in time. This week, I’m taking a look back at NBA 2K13.

As a 90s kid who grew up with NBA Live, that series has been the focus of several of my retrospectives. In addition to Wayback Wednesday features, I’ve also covered every NBA Live as part of our 25th Anniversary celebrations. I haven’t celebrated NBA 2K’s milestones in the same way, mostly because while I do consider myself a fan of the series now, I don’t have the same nostalgia for and experience with it going right back to the beginning of my basketball gaming. Games like NBA 2K14 and even NBA 2K11 have only become some of my all-time favourites in retrospect.

However, there are NBA 2K titles that I’ve played enthusiastically from launch, and am nostalgic for. Indeed, this year marks the tenth anniversary of the first 2K title that I was hooked on from day one: NBA 2K13. While the cancellation of NBA Live 13 was another blow for EA Sports, it opened up an opportunity for me to expand my basketball gaming horizons, and Visual Concepts didn’t disappoint. Even putting aside my personal affinity for NBA 2K13, I believe it’s one of the strongest releases in the NBA 2K series. Let’s take a look back…way back…

You may recall that NBA 2K13 was infamously executive produced by Jay-Z. The announcement during the preview season was initially met with some concern. He’s a popular artist, successful businessman, and ardent hoops fan, but surely he shouldn’t be making decisions regarding the premier sim basketball game? Fortunately, it was confirmed that Jay-Z’s executive producer credit was more of a marketing gimmick than a case of him being handed full control over designing the game. He curated the soundtrack and was also responsible for the aesthetic direction, but when it came to the on-court action, familiar names with a proven track record were calling the shots.

Michael Jordan on the Dream Team

Of course, even though Jay-Z’s involvement as an executive producer didn’t detract from the gameplay experience, not everyone was happy with his influence. Although the soundtrack was fairly well-received, and the musical motifs in menus and overlays were something that most gamers seemingly didn’t mind even if they didn’t love them, I have seen some people express harsh criticism of both. For my part, I’ve never been bothered by Jay-Z’s choices in either regard, though I understand why others do feel more strongly about it. The frontend presentation is unquestionably gaudy, and the music won’t be to everyone’s tastes. It’s quite telling that 2K never did that again.

There’s no denying that Jay-Z had a positive influence on NBA 2K13 however, as he was the driving force behind getting the Dream Team into the game. 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of that memorable squad, and Jay-Z was able to convince Charles Barkley to make an exception and appear in the game so that it could be complete. It did look as though Scottie Pippen would be a holdout instead, but 2K was able to come to terms with him, allowing the full Dream Team to be featured alongside Team USA 2012. There was some debate at the time as to which squad was better, and the ability to “settle” that argument on the virtual hardwood was a strong selling point.

Outside of the Dream Team, NBA 2K13 was mostly back to business as usual as far as its emphasis on historical content. Following the addition of the Jordan Challenge in NBA 2K11 and NBA’s Greatest in NBA 2K12, NBA 2K13 shifted focus back to the current NBA. Instead of Legends on the cover, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, and Blake Griffin were the faces of the game. While the classic teams remained in the rosters, there was no mode based around them. This was somewhat disappointing, as NBA 2K12 featured impressive retro presentation that wouldn’t be seen again until NBA 2K23. Still, keeping the retro teams in the rosters was certainly sufficient.

Derrick Rose in NBA 2K13

Besides, NBA 2K13 innovated where it mattered most: gameplay. That was the year that the series finally did away with the original Isomotion approach to dribbling, and adopted right analog stick controls. For someone who had grown up with the NBA Live series and experienced the right stick revolution with Freestyle Control, this broke down the final barrier to really getting into NBA 2K’s gameplay. While NBA 2K had surpassed NBA Live in most other areas by that point, EA’s game still had the superior dribbling controls. The new Control Stick in NBA 2K13 evened the playing field in that regard, and made it a far more accessible game for long-time Live heads.

It’s a rare new gameplay mechanic that works perfectly in its first iteration, and the Control Stick was no exception. EA Sports didn’t get everything right with its first take on Freestyle Control ten years earlier, and dribbling in NBA 2K13 had some similar teething problems. Notably, stick movement wasn’t 1-to-1 with the moves. To that point, moves like double crossovers had to be cued up, and thus didn’t always feel organic. A modifier button was also required so that Shot Stick moves could co-exist with the new dribbling controls. The flick/hold approach in NBA 2K14 onwards has been a better way of combining shooting and dribbling controls on the right stick.

Nevertheless, just as Freestyle Control was a success in NBA Live 2003, the Control Stick was a major improvement in NBA 2K13. It’s something that long-time NBA 2K gamers were able to adjust to, and again, a huge draw for anyone who’d mostly played NBA Live. It’s telling that while the developers have experimented with the controls in the ten years since, right stick dribbling has remained a constant. Although the Pro Stick’s integrated dribbling and shooting controls are a superior approach, the Control Stick worked fine in NBA 2K13. Even cuing up the moves made sense, as it allowed us to easily slide over to the shoot button and go into an attempt after making a move.

Signature Skills

To this day, NBA 2K13 feels great on the sticks. It shows its age in some respects, which is inevitable for a ten year-old game. The quality of the animations holds up, and the variety is impressive. Player movement looks good, and feels satisfying. The game has great bones as far as AI and strategy are concerned, underscoring how the focus was still very much on sim basketball over non-NBA gameplay and cosmetic items (though MyCLOSET did debut that year in MyCAREER). I’d always admired the authenticity that NBA 2K was striving for, and with the addition of right stick dribbling, I finally felt that I was in control of the action and could truly enjoy it.

No game to date has been perfect of course, as even the best titles have an odd quirk or two. The one that most gamers will remember from NBA 2K13 is the inability to block dunks. I say inability because I’ve never seen a dunk be rejected when playing NBA 2K13, with the only unsuccessful slams being rim stuffs. I’ve seen some people claim to have experienced them, albeit extraordinarily rarely. It speaks volumes that the developers made a point of promoting the fact that it would be possible to block dunks during the NBA 2K14 preview season! The bottom line is that dunks were an overpowered weapon in NBA 2K13, even for the highest percentage shot in hoops.

Signature Skills, the forerunner to Badges, also made their debut in NBA 2K13. As with concepts such as Freestyle Superstars in NBA Live, they were an attempt to expand upon the existing ratings, giving players additional boosts and abilities. They worked fine for the most part, and outside of the infamous Acrobat glitch that allowed players to make threes at will, they weren’t really exploitable. To that point though, the only fix for that exploit was to remove the Acrobat Skill from every player in the roster! As I’ve previously said, although they’ve morphed into something that places too much emphasis on meta gaming, Signature Skills were originally a good idea.

Acrobat Exploit with MyPLAYER

Just as NBA 2K13’s gameplay continued to shine, the game’s modes were deep and plentiful. If I do have any regrets when it comes to NBA 2K13, it’s that I didn’t spend any time with The Association. As a long-time franchise enthusiast, there’s so much I would’ve enjoyed sinking my teeth into; features that I’d wanted to see NBA Live add to Dynasty mode for years. They weren’t new or unique to NBA 2K13, but since it was the first year that I could really enjoy the gameplay, I would’ve loved to have played through the 2013 season in The Association with my beloved Chicago Bulls. Instead, another mode captured my attention, and kept me hooked for the entire year.

NBA 2K13 was where my fondness for MyCAREER began. As a franchise gamer, I was never really drawn to the idea of a single player career mode before they became a staple of basketball video games. I was intrigued by My Player when I played a few games of it in NBA 2K12 though, so the revamped MyCAREER was appealing. Now that I felt more at home on the sticks, I found myself really enjoying the journey from bench player to starter, and eventually star. I played the entire 2013 season on twelve minute quarters, having a breakout performance in the NBA Finals to lead the Denver Nuggets to the championship. It got me hooked on MyCAREER for years to come.

Back then, the appeal of MyCAREER was stepping into the shoes of an NBA player. I’m not going to say that the addition of the online team play modes has ruined the games, and of course the story-driven approach was only a year away in NBA 2K14 Next Gen. Still, as much fun as I’ve had playing with the NLSC crew online, there was something special about the original approach to MyCAREER: developing into an NBA legend, gaining endorsements without the need for off-court quests, and no reliance on online content and connectivity. Much like franchise modes, its depth and viability as an engaging single player experience is what drew me to MyCAREER.

LeBron James Dunks in NBA 2K13

At the same time, in hindsight, NBA 2K13 contained a few red flags. It was the first game to feature Virtual Currency, which was implemented in both MyCAREER and the brand new MyTEAM mode. Of course, although it was a sign of things to come, it wasn’t as expensive or intrusive as it would be in later games. You could upgrade your MyPLAYER for pocket change, but that was really only for the truly impatient, as it was a fun journey rather than a painful grind. Likewise, MyTEAM hadn’t yet turned into the recurrent revenue machine that it is today, making No Money Spent a feasible philosophy. Still, it’s worth noting that the seeds were planted in NBA 2K13.

Mind you, that didn’t affect me at all, since I was playing on PC. At the time, the PC version still had a disc release, and wasn’t tied to a specific digital platform. As such, it couldn’t facilitate microtransactions, resulting in the complete absence of VC. Skill Points were the only virtual currency available in MyCAREER, and MyTEAM wasn’t included in the PC version at all. MyCLOSET was also unavailable in MyCAREER on PC, as its cosmetic items were purchased with VC. Once again, in hindsight these are some clear red flags regarding the future of microtransactions and cosmetics. We could easily overlook them on PC, but it wasn’t long before VC came to the platform.

Speaking of the PC version though, our modding community enthusiastically took to the game and produced a ton of great mods. It’s a testament to the game’s moddability and appeal on the sticks that we still have people creating and downloading mods for NBA 2K13 to this day. The development of RED MC has facilitated massive roster projects, such as U R Basketball. Compatibility with NBA 2K14’s files is also a major factor in the game’s continued popularity, much as similarities in file formats between NBA Live 2005-08 allowed us to keep modding those four games for several years afterwards. It’s easily one of the most popular NBA 2K games in our community.

The Jay-Z Influence on Presentation

Moddability alone doesn’t make a game popular though, nor does it allow a game to retain that popularity for a decade and counting. NBA 2K13 is still worth playing and modding because it does hold up so well. I recently saw a comment on the official NBA 2K subreddit about NBA 2K13 and games of its generation, opining that it’s no longer playable, and the only reason to think it’s better than any of its successors is nostalgia. While I’ll never deny that nostalgia goggles don’t always provide 20/20 vision, that assertion is incredibly misguided. There certainly are aspects of NBA 2K13 that show their age, but there are also ways that it stands up to NBA 2K23.

The focus on being a realistic basketball sim, and the best virtual hoops experience possible, wasn’t being compromised by pushy recurrent revenue mechanics. It wasn’t trying to compete with other genres with features, tasks, and mechanics that don’t belong in a basketball game. It isn’t riddled with augmentations that undermine any semblance of a supposed skill gap, with an online scene that encourages gamers to chase a homogenised meta. There are no fashion shows, and it didn’t promote toxic behaviour in competitive play. There were signs of things to come, but for the most part, NBA 2K13 was about being the best NBA sim game that it possibly could be.

Furthermore, it’s simply a lot of fun to pick and play to this day. If you’re the kind of gamer that can’t stomach graphics that are no longer cutting edge, or if you prefer the online team play scene, I can understand NBA 2K13 having limited appeal in 2022. I do think you’re missing out on a game that stands the test of time though, especially on PC where we have mods that bring it up to date as best as possible. It hasn’t been a regular in my rotation for a while, but only because I’ve been hooked on other games. I always enjoy playing NBA 2K13 when I do fire it up again, and it reminds me of the hundreds of hours I enthusiastically spent playing MyCAREER when it came out.

Blake Griffin in NBA 2K13

Once again, the quality and accessibility of NBA 2K13 softened the blow of NBA Live 13 being cancelled, and the NBA Live series remaining in limbo. Obviously I’d prefer that we have at least two viable options in the sim space, but the changes to the controls in NBA 2K13 – and its overall depth and quality – made the NBA 2K series far more appealing to me moving forward. Considering that long-time NBA 2K fans also received it warmly, I’d suggest that it set up the series for further improvements and innovations over the next few years. It also demonstrated the developers’ ability to take a concept from NBA Live, and make it work with what they were doing.

Just to share a few more stray observations about NBA 2K13, there’s a hilarious line from Steve Kerr on commentary about players starting to become too reliant on the three-point shot. Considering how the Golden State Warriors have played since Kerr took over on the sidelines, it’s rather ironic now! It’s also the final game in the series to feature a Celebrity team and Developers squad. Throw in the minimal focus on microtransactions and lack of Park play and an online meta, and NBA 2K13 really stands out as one of the last 2K titles with a traditional/old school design approach. Along with modding on PC, that’s how it’s maintained its appeal through to today.

NBA 2K13 will always be a personal favourite of mine. It’s the game that allowed me to truly warm up to and become a fan of the NBA 2K series. On top of all the fun hours I spent with it, it also introduced me to a mode that I’ve had a blast with in subsequent titles. Beyond my own fondness for NBA 2K13, the general response from the community, and the fact that it’s still held in high regard, speaks to it being a standout release. The series had been building momentum for years, and was on fire by the time NBA 2K13 came along. Even with the downfall and continued struggles of NBA Live, NBA 2K13 proved it didn’t need a competitor to strive for excellence.

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