Wayback Wednesday: When The Lights Are Brightest in NBA 2K20

Wayback Wednesday: When The Lights Are Brightest in NBA 2K20

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 the MyCAREER story in NBA 2K20, titled “When The Lights Are Brightest”.

Following NBA 2K18’s ridiculous MyCAREER tale starring a prospect who quit basketball to be a DJ, finally makes it to the NBA following a streetball tournament, and is flanked by his annoying best friend/roommate B-Fresh, NBA 2K19 featured a much better written story. “The Way Back” not only boasted impressive production values from a cinematic standpoint, but also attempted to spice up the journey with mini-games and other interactive elements. It wasn’t perfect, but it stood out as one of the better MyCAREER stories, and a tough act to follow.

To that end, Visual Concepts collaborated with Maverick Carter and LeBron James on the story for NBA 2K20’s MyCAREER, “When The Lights Are Brightest”. Indeed, Carter, LeBron, and their production company, Springhill Entertainment, are credited on the cover as executive producers for MyCAREER. The story has been shelved for good following the shutdown of the NBA 2K20 servers, since MyCAREER is no longer playable. With that being said, what was the story, was it any good, and are we missing out since we’re now unable to revisit it? Let’s take a look back…way back…

The star of “When The Lights Are Brightest” is Che, which once again saddled our MyPLAYER avatars with a nickname most of us wouldn’t choose. Even if it wasn’t as silly as Frequency Vibrations or The President of Basketball, it was too specific and likely ill-fitting for the names of most of our players. Mockery of monikers aside, the story begins in familiar fashion, with Che playing college basketball for the fictional Bay City University Flames. During a game, Che’s teammate Porter Rose suffers a career-threatening knee injury, which leads to him losing his scholarship. Following a confrontation with Coach Ernie Ames – played by Idris Elba – Che sits out a big game.

Meeting Anthony Davis in NBA 2K20 MyCAREER

Ultimately, Che’s stand does little to help the situation. The Flames lose the game, Che takes heat for his protest, and Rose doesn’t get his scholarship back. After venting his frustration to his advisor Isa Ellington (Rosario Dawson), Che drops out of Bay City University and goes home. At this point, we’re able to choose where home is: New York, Chicago, St Louis, or Los Angeles. Whichever city we choose, the story picks up with Che shooting around on a street court, where he encounters one of four NBA players: Kemba Walker, Anthony Davis, Jayson Tatum, and Kawhi Leonard respectively. They express their support, and offer to hook Che up with their agent.

Well, Walker, Davis, and Tatum verbally express their support. Amusingly, Kawhi is completely silent if you choose to go home to LA, poking fun at his reputation for being quiet and serious. In any case, after meeting with agent Zachary Beighley – played by Thomas Middleditch – Che prepares to embark on the road to the NBA Draft. Although Zachary takes him on as a client, he emphasises that making it to the league will be a challenge. While Che believes experience is on his side, his new agent warns him that potential often overshadows a proven commodity. Zachary also advises Che to distance himself from Isa, so that he isn’t competing with her advice.

Mind you, at this point there have only been a couple of scenes with Isa, and it’s never been suggested that she was manipulating Che. With that in mind, you may think that it’s setting up a scenario where she or Zachary turns out to be the villain, but neither does. Really, the only purpose of the scene – aside from adding a hint of drama – is for Isa to deliver a line about how Che isn’t just a basketball player, but someone with principles and a message. Obviously this was set up from the very beginning, and it ties into the final scene that is somewhat ham-fisted in its commentary. We’ll get to that, though. In the meantime, Che still has a long road to the NBA ahead of him.

Scottie Pippen Cameo in When The Lights Are Brightest

The Portsmouth Invitational is the first step in Che raising his Draft stock, much like the Rookie Showcase in previous iterations of MyCAREER. It also sets up a cameo from Scottie Pippen, who tells the story of how he went to Central Arkansas as an equipment manager, and a growth spurt helped forge an unlikely path to the NBA. Since “When The Lights Are Brightest” predates Pip’s self-serving memoir in which he burns a bunch of bridges, thankfully there’s no unhinged rant disrespecting Michael Jordan. Anyway, he shows off one of the championship rings that MJ led the Bulls to, inspiring Che and the other prospects who are trying to make a positive impression.

After the invitational, Che is introduced to another of Zachary’s clients: Axel Warden, aka “A.W.”. A promising prospect out of France, A.W. exemplifies the “Experience vs Potential” debate that has become one of the story’s main themes. The meeting is somewhat antagonistic, until Zachary insists that they will be roommates and workout partners on their respective journeys to the NBA. Over time, they end up developing a mutual respect and friendship. Maverick Carter also makes a cameo, discussing the possibility of bringing Che into the fold. During the meeting, a neon sign displaying the words “I Am More Than An Athlete” is prominently visible in the background.

Once again, this is one of the major underlying themes of “When The Lights Are Brightest”: athletes being advocates, and controlling their own destiny. I realise that not everyone is a fan of political and social commentary delivered through the stories in video games, but I personally don’t find it to be inappropriate. It’s ultimately a good message, and quite relevant as it hadn’t been that long since players like LeBron and Kevin Durant were bluntly being told to “shut up and dribble”. It’s an understandable response to those sentiments, but unfortunately the commentary is delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It’s important and valid, but as I noted before, ham-fisted.

I Am More Than An Athlete (NBA 2K20 MyCAREER)

This serious commentary is also almost immediately undercut by a Karl-Anthony Towns cameo that essentially amounts to a Gatorade commercial. It’s comical in how it lacks self-awareness, as I don’t believe it was intended to be ironic! Getting back to basketball, Che and A.W. are invited to the Draft Combine in Chicago. Before that, there’s an opportunity to cameo in a movie with some NBA players, including Lonzo Ball. Deciding to skip a workout to appear in the film leads to an appearance from Steve Urkel himself, Jaleel White, who happens to be the film’s director. Skipping the film instead sets up a scrimmage that includes Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

Much as NBA 2K19’s story attempted to change things up with interactive scenes that went beyond the usual 5v5 gameplay, participating in the Draft Combine was a new spin on the pre-NBA portion of MyCAREER. Of course, different isn’t always better, and I don’t entirely disagree with anyone who disliked it for deviating too much from normal gameplay. If nothing else, it’s an indication of the direction that MyCAREER was moving in as far as working out and completing side quests. After the Combine, Che has further opportunities to improve his Draft stock, and continues to meet with notable names making cameos – including Mark Cuban – as he pursues a shoe deal.

At the Draft, there’s an admittedly funny scene where Isa returns and banters around with Zachary. The concept of shopping in The Neighborhood is also promoted with a trip to Swag’s to buy a new suit, though thankfully you’re not forced to spend VC on this occasion. Regardless of which team drafts Che, he reconnects with Porter Rose and takes him to Las Vegas for the Summer League, also hooking him up with Stacy Gibralto; the trainer who helped him prepare for the Draft Combine. While Stacy helps Porter rehab his knee, Che experiences yet another reunion. Coach Ames has left Bay City University to be the assistant coach of whichever team drafted Che.

Summer League Champions in When The Lights Are Brightest

It’s fair to call it a slightly contrived and clichéd twist to the tale, but it’s not a bad one. The early stages of the story do paint Ernie Ames as an uncaring villain, in contrast to Che’s righteous stand. However, as Che’s Summer League teammate Mike Ashley points out, coaches are often in a tough spot as they fight for their own jobs as well. His speech is as heavy-handed as most other dramatic scenes, but it suggests that despite butting heads, Coach Ames isn’t really the bad guy here; even as he keeps Che coming off the bench. They finally reconcile as Ames gives Che the starting nod in the Summer League championship game, and compliments him on his principles.

Upon winning the Summer League championship, the pre-NBA story ends with Che meeting LeBron James aboard a private jet. LeBron gives a speech about proving himself on the court, but also being an advocate and a voice for others, and paying it forward through creating opportunities for younger players. He charges Che to do the same. Again, it’s not a bad message, and there was value in putting it out there at a time when LeBron and others were being told to “shut up and dribble” instead of engaging in freedom of speech like the rest of us. The “more than an athlete” mantra may sound corny or even egotistical, but there was a valid point being made there.

Nevertheless, while I don’t disagree with the message or deny the right for LeBron, Carter, and Springhill Entertainment to tell such a story, there was something about it that rubbed me the wrong way. Perhaps it was the commentary on the college system, which LeBron himself never went through. Maybe it’s the coaches that he’s gotten fired, or in Erik Spoelstra’s case, tried to get fired. It could be how the whole notion of “player empowerment” really only applies to star players that makes his words ring hollow. Or, it might just be that turning the MyCAREER story into a soapbox for LeBron feels self-indulgent. Was Che the hero of the tale, or was it really LeBron?

LeBron James Cutscene in NBA 2K20 MyCAREER

At the end of the day, you could argue that the importance of the message is what matters. It was still a decently written and well-acted story, with fun cameos and a sufficient amount of gameplay. There were even a couple of branching options that allowed us to alter the journey slightly, even though the destination did remain the same. Avoiding being heavy-handed with social commentary is easier said than done, and the way other characters express their admiration for Che does violate the “show, don’t tell” rule of good storytelling. Still, there is complexity, and I appreciate the moral of the tale. Che is easily one of the most admirable MyCAREER protagonists.

I also admire that they didn’t create any unnecessary villains, with neither Isa nor Zachary turning out to be manipulative. The reveal that Coach Ames isn’t actually the antagonist he appeared to be was a decent character arc. While his final speech to Che somewhat undermines the point Mike Ashley made about the difficulty of a coach’s job, it does underscore the theme of taking a stand having its own risks, and being easier said than done. Even if it does feel self-indulgent in a way, “When The Lights Are Brightest” is a far better tale than the utter garbage that we’ve been presented with in the MyCAREER stories of NBA 2K22 and NBA 2K23. That’s a low bar, I know!

On top of that, it didn’t have a negative impact on the gameplay experience compared to the most recent games, or the cutscene-heavy “Livin’ Da Dream” in NBA 2K16. It did draw out the pre-NBA portion of MyCAREER, which was becoming overdone by that point, but the story and interactive moments did make it worth playing through at least once. To that point, as with “The Way Back” in NBA 2K19, it was possible to skip “When The Lights Are Brightest” in its entirety if you just wanted to get straight to the NBA. Unfortunately that’s no longer possible now that the story and NBA side of MyCAREER is tied up with the quests and other open world aspects of The City.

Porter Rose Gets Injured (NBA 2K20 MyCAREER)

Despite my quibbles with aspects of “When The Lights Are Brightest” and some of the snarky remarks I’ve made in this retrospective, I would say that it’s one of the best MyCAREER stories we’ve had. Again, the message may have been delivered in a heavy-handed manner, and it does feel like it was an excuse to give LeBron James an opportunity to present himself as the voice of a generation, but the commentary wasn’t inappropriate or inaccurate. Furthermore, no one is annoying or unlikeable, and even the more antagonistic characters are three dimensional and ultimately sympathetic. It helps that Che is a strong protagonist who will stand up for himself as well as others.

I’d recommend playing through the story if it were still possible, but the continued decline of MyCAREER offline sadly culminated in its complete removal come NBA 2K20. Now that the servers are shut down, we haven’t just lost “When The Lights Are Brightest”, but the entire MyCAREER experience altogether. Since it can no longer be played, if you’d like to run through it again (or for the first time), I’d recommend Chris Smoove’s videos documenting his playthrough of MyCAREER in NBA 2K20. I must also credit his videos for helping to jog my memory on a few plot points for this retrospective, as it’s been a while since I played through the tale from start to finish!

Playing through multiple seasons in NBA 2K14 MyCAREER has reinforced my desire to see the mode return to its roots, with a simpler story that has more focus on the NBA and less drama. However, I do appreciate the effort that has gone into more cinematic fare such as “When The Lights Are Brightest”. Again, I’d describe it as one of the stronger stories despite its commentary generally lacking in subtlety. It was a worthwhile message and stood out from previous stories, changing up the journey to the same inevitable destination. Most importantly, it didn’t impede on the traditional gameplay, retaining the fun of the MyCAREER experience with some added flair.

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