This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at NBA 2K18, and the legacy that it has created.
The NBA 2K18 servers are no more. Well, I imagine they’re still physically around. It’s highly unlikely that 2K instructed someone to take a sledgehammer and go all Triple H on them, rather than just switching them off. The point is that online support has ended, which means MyTEAM, the first version of The Neighborhood, and all other connected content is gone. With this infamous release being officially put out to pasture, I believe it’s an apt time to offer up a final take on the game, and reflect on its legacy.
I know that it’s fairly recent by Wayback Wednesday standards, but it was released going on three years ago, which is about how old the All-Time College Teams DLC for NBA 2K17 was when I covered it. Besides, NBA 2K18 came out last decade, and that makes it sound old, right? Hey, it’s my feature, and I’ll bend the rules if need be! In any event, a retrospective of this controversial game feels quite timely, so let’s take a look back…not too far but still wayback…
If I had to sum up the legacy of NBA 2K18, I’d say it was the game where 2K really tried to push their luck, while also making a bunch of wrong decisions in general. Whenever I’ve picked up NBA 2K18 again after putting it aside early on in 2018, I’m struck by how many aspects of the game – particularly new tech and features – were implemented in the worst way possible. It’s a game that feels rushed, unfinished, and poorly planned. It’s felt that way from the first time I booted it up and discovered that it didn’t have the usual intro video. At first I thought it might’ve been scrapped after cover player Kyrie Irving was traded pre-release, but it’s since become the norm.
NBA 2K18 introduced a new motion system, and man, did it have its share of teething problems! The tech still has its issues as of NBA 2K20, but if you want to see how much it’s improved, fire up NBA 2K18. Players move at unrealistic speeds, making for a frenetic, almost arcade-like pace. Clipping and ball warping is about as bad as it’s ever been in the series, and there’s more awkwardness to the animations. They’re not as stiff or awkward as NBA Live, but the game looked and felt like a downgrade after NBA 2K17. Blow-bys stand out as one of the major issues, as it was way too easy for anyone to get by even the toughest defenders using the hip-riding animations.
The new motion system caused other problems, too. A bug with collision detection was detected very late in development, and several multi-actor animations were removed. This led to layup success being nerfed to artificially counter the ease of scoring inside. However, the developer blogs told a very different story. The removal of multi-actor animations was touted as an intentional improvement, not a by-product of the new motion system. It wasn’t until the NBA 2K19 developer blogs came out that the admission was made that missed layups were a bandaid fix, and that there were serious problems with the tech that was being talked up in the NBA 2K18 blogs.
Shooting mechanics were another area of concern. NBA2KLab discovered that a “Good” release was essentially a nerfed Green or “Excellent” release that only had a 5% chance of going in. This meant that releases that were either “Slightly Early” or “Slightly Late” had better odds on the dice roll than a release with near-perfect timing. It was done to balance the game and make Greens harder to achieve, but conceptually, it didn’t make sense that a “Good” release had such bad odds. Some gamers tried to defend it and explain it as though the aim wasn’t understood, but that wasn’t the issue. It was simply a wrong decision, and it speaks volumes that it was quickly scrapped.
Speaking of wrong decisions, it’s time to address the controversy of NBA 2K18: the pushy approach to VC and microtransactions, and a lot of the choices in general when it comes to MyCAREER. Let’s tackle the VC first. VC has been around since NBA 2K13, and the games had been steadily getting more – shall we say – assertive about encouraging microtransactions. However, NBA 2K18 marked the moment when 2K really tried to push their luck. Most egregiously, they tried charging for haircuts; a MyPLAYER customisation feature that was always free. Not only that, but some of the styles cost the equivalent of several games’ salary, which was truly ridiculous.
Attribute upgrades were also slightly more expensive while the initial ratings cap was dropped to 85 Overall. This meant that we had to spend more VC to hit a lower level than in NBA 2K17. Prices of clothing items were also disproportionate to in-game VC earnings. These blatant attempts to encourage microtransactions blew up in 2K’s face, as NBA 2K18 was heavily criticised and review-bombed. A patch would lower the prices of haircuts to 100 VC across the board, but even there 2K made the wrong call, as they clearly could’ve (and should’ve) just made them free again. It didn’t help that they were slow to fix issues with earning VC, but were very quick to resolve exploits.
On the subject of reviews, the negative reactions clearly stung 2K, as they went so far as to try to pressure a site to remove their 3/10 grade on the basis that it was a “protest score”. Although the site’s editor was also criticised for originally acquiescing to 2K’s demands, 2K naturally (and rightfully) absorbed most of the scorn for their bullying tactics. The situation also exposed which media outlets and influencers couldn’t be trusted to review the game honestly, which is to say many of them. If you go back and look at those reviews by people clearly under 2K’s thumb, you’ll see generous scores and no mention of glaring issues that veteran basketball gamers noticed immediately.
Beyond issues with VC, MyCAREER was a mess. After a well-written story in NBA 2K17, NBA 2K18 followed it up with a ridiculous tale as your player was a former standout prospect who quit basketball to be a DJ, only to make it to the NBA after competing in a streetball tournament. Its characters were annoying, most of all B-Fresh who had way too big of a role. The cutscenes couldn’t be skipped, making for a lengthy slog if you wanted to start over with a new MyPLAYER. On the bright side, we were given the choice of which team we wanted to start our career with, which I believe is most welcome given how much of the experience is otherwise on rails.
MyCAREER also saw the debut of The Neighborhood, which made simple tasks cumbersome. What used to be done quickly through menus now required running around a virtual world to visit shops, or travel to specific locations to play in the connected online modes. It didn’t help that the points of interest were spread too far apart, meaning a lot of time was wasted going back and forth in an unchanging game world. Additionally, the only way to change clothes was to return to your MyCOURT and use the closet. NBA accessories could only be assigned in the locker room before games, and it had to be a home or away game to change the corresponding gear.
The new interface for The Neighborhood carried over into shootaround modes, such as team practice and the Pro-Am arena (though thankfully not MyCOURT). Because the rebound button brought up the MyCAREER menu instead, it was impossible to jump for rebounds during a shootaround. To get a fourth drill in team training, you had to leave the gym, go to the Freshly Squeezed stand to get a drink, and then return to the gym; all the loading hardly made it worth it. Worse yet, while the new approach to grinding Badges was a good idea in theory, most of them didn’t have a specialised drill in training that guaranteed progress. It was all too easy to get zero Badge XP.
Hybrid MyPLAYER Archetypes was another promising concept that wasn’t very well implemented. In theory we had far more choices, but not all of them were viable for online play, and those that were viable weren’t always fun to play with offline. There was an issue with the dunking tendencies of various point guard Archetypes that I believe was resolved for new players, but existing players were stuck with the bugged tendencies. Subsequent games have experimented with the build system and there have been some better results in some respects, but the lack of balance and true variety has hurt the online scene, and made offline play far less appealing as well.
Rounding out the list of questionable new features in NBA 2K18 is the sprint boost acquired by working out in the Gatorade Gym. It’s technically optional, but required to be competitive online. The boost drained by 20% with every game – offline and online – meaning you needed to interrupt online sessions to work out again to remain effective. Alternatively, you can buy boosts with VC; another example of the gentle nudge towards microtransactions becoming a hand placed firmly in the small of our backs. NBA 2K19 changed it to a 100% boost for five games, and then NBA 2K20 extended it to a week in real time; better than in NBA 2K18, but still far from great.
MyTEAM also forced gamers to unlock the Auction House. The requirements for doing so included playing a mode that not everyone was interested in, which felt like gatekeeping. NBA 2K19 was actually worse in that regard (even after a patch made the requirements slightly fairer), before NBA 2K20 finally made it an easier task. As I understand it, these measures have been put in place to make it more difficult for people to crash the market and abuse the Auction House’s facilities. I can understand that, but I’m not a fan of forcing gamers to unlock basic functionality, especially via some of the tasks that were chosen for doing so. It was another ill-advised decision.
All of these issues made NBA 2K18 an extremely sloppy product. The game had some good ideas, but most were executed terribly. On top of the new motion tech clearly not being ready yet, many of the concepts weren’t properly planned or tested. Everywhere you look, there’s a key mistake in just about every new or updated feature in the game. Some of those features have been done much better in NBA 2K19 and NBA 2K20, demonstrating that the ideas behind them did have merit. However, it really feels as though the wrong decision was made at every turn in NBA 2K18. Even with the motion system’s issues, the game could’ve felt significantly more polished.
It’s the greed and lack of goodwill that stands out the most, though. There had been some grumbling and dissatisfaction with the way VC had wormed its way into the game, but NBA 2K18 was the year 2K crossed the line and permanently sullied their reputation. Long-time NBA 2K fans who had given the franchise the benefit of the doubt, supporting the game and even defending the presence of microtransactions, were irate. A small contingent of gamers continued to defend NBA 2K18 amidst the controversy, but their arguments paled in comparison to the legitimate criticisms. 2K18 didn’t destroy the series, but it severely damaged its reputation and goodwill.
With that in mind, I believe it’s fair to say that NBA 2K18 is the worst game of the generation, and arguably the worst game in the series. It’s technically superior to its predecessors from earlier generations, but for how good it could and should have been given when it came out, it’s certainly more disappointing. Furthermore, while earlier games may have had their issues, they at least didn’t have pushy and greedy recurrent revenue mechanics. It wasn’t as though quality and attention to detail were secondary to milking gamers for more money. Developer blogs are now very difficult to trust, and attempts to bully reviewers for negative scores have shown 2K’s true colours.
At the end of the day, NBA 2K18 is a game that was disappointingly sloppy and seemingly unfinished. It proved to be a turning point for the series: the moment where 2K pushed their luck, damaging their reputation and losing our trust. Yes, the series continues to have record sales and recurrent revenue profits, but the goodwill is gone, and there’s a stark disconnect between the professional and user reviews. It’s left us feeling more cynical, yet hopeful that EA Sports can properly resurrect NBA Live. It introduced some good ideas and brought us All-Time teams, but the bad outweighs the good, marking a definite low point in the series. That is the legacy of NBA 2K18.