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 the saga of DJ, as told by the MyCAREER story in NBA 2K18.
I know, I know. I’ve talked about the story in NBA 2K18’s MyCAREER a lot, from running jokes on the NLSC Podcast to discussing my issues with it as part of my article on the game’s legacy. However, there’s something really fascinating about it; if nothing else, it provides so many examples of what not to do with the story-driven approach to MyCAREER. Since I’ve already taken a look back at “Livin’ Da Dream” and the tale of Orange Juice, and will no doubt reflect on the stories of AI and Che at some point, it’s only fair to give DJ one more moment in the spotlight.
There’s another reason why it’s worth looking back at NBA 2K18’s MyCAREER story featuring DJ. With the servers being shut down earlier this year, it’s no longer possible to play a connected MyCAREER save, and unlike in previous games, that renders the story completely inaccessible. For better or worse – and spoiler alert, but I’d definitely say it was for the worse – the saga of DJ proved to be a turning point for the mode. Let’s take a look back…way back…
I’m not alone in ranking the saga of DJ in NBA 2K18 as the worst (or at least, one of the worst) stories that we’ve seen in MyCAREER. Even putting aside the controversy of charging for haircuts and other issues related to gameplay or player progression mechanics, and simply focusing on the narrative and characters, NBA 2K18’s tale is the weakest. The story begins with DJ walking through The Neighborhood, listening to music. He impresses onlookers by casually making a one-handed shot from the street, before continuing on to The Playground to compete in a streetball tournament. The character creation screens are then presented as him filling out registration forms.
It’s here that we first see one of the recurring problems with the integration of the story and various MyCAREER functions. Because we don’t get to select his height until after we first see him, DJ may appear taller or shorter during those introductory cutscenes. In fact, DJ’s height tends to be incorrect in most of the cutscenes after the introduction as well. We also have limited hairstyles to choose from and can’t select any facial hair; a sneaky way of hiding the fact that those customisation options were no longer going to be free. Once again putting aside those controversies and clunky aspects of the mode’s mechanics, our avatar’s back story rightfully drew a lot of scorn.
As it turns out, DJ was once was a highly touted prospect, but decided not to pursue basketball in favour of trying to make it as a DJ (hence his nickname). Not only was this an astonishingly silly back story, but it resulted in easily one of the least creative nicknames for a MyPLAYER to date. Considering the previous two games gave us Frequency Vibrations and The President of Basketball, it was a low bar to clear, and the writers still tripped over it. At the tournament, DJ meets Sheldon Middleton, aka “ATM”. It’s through the scenes with ATM – someone that does actually have a decent nickname – that we receive the back story exposition, and our first dialogue options.
Whether DJ is confrontational or friendly with ATM causes the story to branch off into some different cutscenes as he plays through three games in the tournament, and determines whether he teams up with ATM. Either way, DJ is always picked to take part in the championship game, gets handed a card by agent Bryan Lee, appears on NBA 2KTV, and for some reason, is excited to be acknowledged by Ronnie 2K. He also encounters Larry, head scout for the team chosen when beginning a new game, and is offered a tryout. Regardless of whether or not he’s truthful to Larry about having an agent, DJ ends up being represented by Bryan, and tries out for the team.
The tryout is successful, and DJ is signed. He’s introduced to Shammy Wells, who becomes his friend and mentor on the team. From there, the story plays out between games with occasional cutscenes during the pre-game, or when an NBA player drops by your MyCOURT. Conceptually, this actually wasn’t a bad idea. It kept The Prelude reasonably short (though it had to be played in every new MyCAREER game), and used the story and characters to flesh out the experience between the gameplay. Of course, all dialogue options and cutscenes ultimately led to the same results, and it was impossible to get a game over as in NBA 2K15, but they still added some variety.
I’ve always appreciated the way that the story facilitated a choice in teams. I’m sure that a lot of gamers enjoy the unpredictable nature of being drafted by a team that you wouldn’t normally choose, and that can be a lot of fun, but there’s definitely value in having some control over your destiny on the virtual hardwood. At the time it was something different – only NBA 2K15 had offered such a choice at the beginning of the story – and it’s one of the better ideas in NBA 2K18’s MyCAREER. The back story of DJ quitting basketball for years only to make it to the NBA after competing in a streetball tournament is still ridiculous, but it admittedly led to a fresh scenario.
If I had to sum up the characters we meet during the saga of DJ in NBA 2K18, I’d have to say they alternate between being “weird but friendly”, and “annoying jerks”. Shammy has a huge ego for a journeyman, and ATM is likewise brash. Team security guard “Boo-Boo” Johnson is oddly standoffish at first, though it turns out to be a rib. As for real players making cameos, Joel Embiid drops by your MyCOURT to call it “trash”. Ironically, DJ is one of the more likeable MyCAREER protagonists to date, and yet he finds himself in a world of jerks! Other characters like Lil Juug and Aron Agrawal drop by to provide a mixture of wacky and awkward attempts at humour.
And that brings us to B-Fresh, who is – inexplicably – DJ’s best friend. At least when it came to Vic Van Lier, Freq felt indebted to him for taking the blame after an incident that could’ve derailed his entire future. DJ apparently enjoys B-Fresh’s company, at least some of the time. My main issue with the character (and her prominence in the saga of DJ) is that they were clearly aiming for cringe comedy and “annoying in a funny way”, but only succeeded in the “cringe” and “annoying” parts. I know there are people who enjoyed her, and more power to them, but to me she came to exemplify everything that was wrong with the writing and characters in NBA 2K18’s story.
There’s a fine line to walk in making a character like that work and have the right effect. As I said, I know that there are people who found her funny, but for me B-Fresh was a textbook example of what TV Tropes calls The Scrappy. If she’d been the butt of the joke in-universe more often, then I think she could’ve been funnier, though not by much. The problem is that every punchline with B-Fresh boils down to “isn’t she annoying?”, and that gets old very quickly. Once again, she features quite heavily, often appearing when you return to your MyCOURT and showing up at the arena or even in business meetings. It’s mystifying as to why DJ puts up with any of that stuff.
Honestly, aside from amusingly absurd moments such as Lil Juug teaching DJ and Shammy the mantis dance, the funniest parts for me tend to be coincidental and meta. There was the time that Aron Agrawal, the milquetoast stats guy who always talks up analytics, started shooting around on MyCOURT and immediately fired his first shot straight into the bottom of the rim (and not in a cutscene, so it happened at random). There’s the way that Shammy Wells’ character works as a parody of how many of us play MyCAREER. Fourth wall-breaking moments and references to other stories as being fictional invite theories about canon in the MyCAREER Cinematic Universe.
With all that in mind, it’s easy to look at the saga of DJ as a beautiful mess. It’s not a good story and some of the characters are extremely annoying, but I can also look back on it and laugh. What isn’t so funny is the way that it introduced the new hub for MyCAREER, The Neighborhood. As I mentioned, it’s no longer possible to play the story in NBA 2K18’s MyCAREER, because the lack of online support in the wake of the server shutdown means that there’s no Neighborhood. A stripped down offline version of MyCAREER is playable, and for all the issues with the online aspects of the mode these days, the bare bones offline version isn’t as good as it might sound.
NBA 2K18’s MyCAREER didn’t just bring us a sloppily-written story starring DJ, but also a more aggressive push for recurrent revenue and grindy mechanics. It added an online hub that has led to wasted time, and all the toxicity that comes from a lack of matchmaking and disproportionate focus on cosmetic items to identify “status”. It cut down on replay value; as tough of a grind as offline MyCAREER is in NBA 2K14-17 with Skill Points replacing VC, and as limited as it feels with VC-related purchases no longer available, it’s still a lot deeper than NBA 2K18’s offline MyCAREER; not to mention you can still at least play through the story and see all the cutscenes again.
At the end of the day, those changes to the mode and the lack of goodwill with the aggressive approach to microtransactions are the more damning part of the legacy NBA 2K18’s MyCAREER story has left. Yes, its back story was silly, it had a lot of weird and annoying characters, and B-Fresh has become a running joke. There’s a certain amount of charm to that though, and once you get past The Prelude, there’s a lot of gameplay where the story doesn’t get in the way. Unfortunately, that’s when you run into all of the other issues that give NBA 2K18 its dubious legacy. The saga of DJ, much like the game in general, had a few good ideas and a lot of bad decisions.
Putting all of that aside though, I can’t say that the story isn’t memorable. I remember B-Fresh, even if it’s to mostly make fun of her. I remember the weirdness of twin brothers Derick and Erick Merrick, the peculiar proprietors of the juice stand and newsstand. For a while there, I used an animated gif of the mantis dance as my avatar in the Forum. There’s a school of thought that it’s better to be bad and memorable than forgettable, and if so, DJ’s saga at least succeeded in being infamous. It’s probably the nicest thing I’ll ever say about it, and since I can’t play it anymore, my opinion is unlikely to change. In this instance though, I’m content to leave the memories alone.