LeBron James graces the cover of NBA 2K19‘s 20th Anniversary Edition, introduced with a sick spoken word commercial that includes 2 Chainz and Rapsody. With all of the pomp and circumstance around the announcement of NBA 2K19, it begs a few questions: What does NBA 2K19 need to return to form as the franchise we all know and love? Where did 2K go wrong? What can 2K do to rectify its mistakes? While two of those questions sound similar, when you consider the possible answers, they aren’t. However, to answer these questions, and however much more that show up, we need to look into the past year that was NBA 2K18, as well as two iterations back, NBA 2K16.
NBA 2K16 fully introduced the idea of a rookie-year storyline, Spike Lee’s “Livin’ da Dream,” a spiritual sequel to He Got Game, starring Denzel Washington and Jesus Shuttlesworth himself, NBA Hall of Famer Ray Allen. The MyCAREER story followed your MyPlayer, known as ‘Frequency Vibrations’ through high school in Harlem, his freshman year in college and a very limited amount of games in your rookie year, where you are forced into free agency based on the decisions of Freq’s best friend since childhood, Victor Van Lier. It was pretty limited in terms of how the game offered choices, and while this wasn’t the start of NBA 2K’s problems this year, another part of it was: MyPARK. MyPARK introduced streetball into the simulation world after years of not having dedicated titles like NBA Street or NBA Ballers (NBA Jam is kind of included, as well.) This introduced a lot of problems, possibly unforeseen, perhaps unavoidable: the quest to be the best. Virtual Currency became a hot commodity, as people bought into VC to quickly boost their stats so they could have a competitive edge on the courts, a problem that would extend into concurrent years.
Fast forward to NBA 2K18, where microtransactions became king of the court, with the “Road to 99” becoming quite prevalent. The biggest problem that I foresaw with this when it was initially announced was who it rewarded. It rewarded players who spent not only money through VC, but also time through playing 2K near exclusively, promising a highlight in NBA 2K19, as well as shout outs on NBA 2KTV throughout the season. This incentivized predatory marketing practices through almost monthly sales on VC, as well as frequent double XP days and weekends, where you can level up your character faster, breaking level caps at a quicker pace. Not only did this mean that players can and should take most of their time to get to that fabled 99 OVR, but that they should be ready, because the VC grind is exponentially lower than in previous games, where leveling up your character by the end of your rookie year to a serviceable 75-78 OVR was feasible. Add the variable of the Neighborhood, where you have to pay for EVERYTHING, including tattoos and haircuts, and you have what could largely be considered an extortion machine disguised as a video game.
Why should anyone have to pay the equivalent of $1 or $2 in real life to sample an in-game haircut? Who came up with such an asinine, asiten, aseleven and asitwelve (shoutouts to Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless for that one) proposition was that when the game was developed? That hurt public opinion of the game in a way that EVERYONE expected when DLC and loot boxes became a contentious piece of the conversation. It’s not like public opinion wasn’t affected before this, because in The Prelude, it was discovered that leveling up was altered as well, where you had no idea exactly where you would be at level-wise when you were upgrading your MyPLAYER. This was fixed before release, but it definitely hurt public opinion on the game. However, something laughable was brought to my attention when I decided against playing NBA 2K18 in the early stages of the game: their competitor actually one-upped them after not having a game out the previous year.
NBA Live 18 from Electronic Arts released after skipping the previous year, to work on refinements to the game. When I jumped into the single-player, two things struck me: 1) loot boxes are purely cosmetic, and 2) leveling up your player is easy like Sunday morning. It felt familiar. You didn’t need any virtual currency to level up your player, just ball out and do your thing. Get your stats up, and earn XP throughout gameplay, whether you’re playing Pro-Am, Live Run or League games, it’s a simple three step process: play, earn, upgrade. I ask myself this, to this day, even while playing through NBA 2K18 single player: Why couldn’t it be this simple in NBA 2K18? Is it because the developers got so bored at the top that they decided to look for ways to be greedy like mentioned in EGM’s review? Or is it that MyCareer fell flat with the introduction of ‘The Neighborhood’ where interaction is minimal at best, as referenced (but not quoted) by Kotaku? There are too many loaded questions in the search for where NBA 2K18 went wrong. However, I can attempt to provide my own theorem on this topic: complacency.
Yes, EGM already touched on this, however, the problem stemmed from all the way back in NBA 2K16, where “Livin’ da Dream” was conceived. Spike Lee’s attempt at a He Got Game revival fell so flat (outside of Vic Van Lier’s character,) that it rubbed players the wrong way. While NBA 2K17 attempted a righting of the course, it seemingly wasn’t enough to players standards, despite being infinitely more complete than the previous year. However, I fail to see where NBA 2K decided to take a turn all the way left, and decide that the direction that this year went in was adequate enough for longtime fans of the franchise.
While I believe that the developmental cycle is effectively finished, there are a few things that I believe that they should be able to execute in order to right the ship – even if it is for NBA 2K20:
- Separate MyPARK and MyCAREER: Let’s be honest, some players don’t want to deal with MyPARK, and others don’t touch single player. MyPLAYER can be lateral between MyPARK and MyCAREER, but there is the possibility that you can divide the levels into two separate entities, one level for MyPARK and one for MyCAREER.
- MyCAREER = NO MICROTRANSACTIONS, PERIOD: Remove the VC component from the mode, and allow players to level up exclusively through gameplay. MyPARK can have VC transactions, however, there should be a limit cap based on your playstyle for both modes. Not every player should be a 99 OVR, and it should reflect that. MyPARK should be based on skill, not how much money you spend. That’s a scrub’s mentality.
- NBA 2K Pro-Am should be tied in with MyCAREER, not MyPARK: I’m a pure believer in the mentality of the streets is the streets, but the hardwood is where you really ball. MyPARK is good and all for some straight up fun times, but that’s for the players that want to show off. Pro-Am games are for the best of the best, those that understand basketball and that teamwork is what gets the W. Show off elsewhere, but not on the hardwood. This ain’t the damn All-Star weekend.
- Improve Shot Meter Visibility and Timing for Layups: Driving the lane is hard enough, but having to time your layups when you’re crowded by 2 defenders too? That’s a recipe for disaster, even for the best players. Make the shot meter bigger, and slow it down a bit. The shot meter shouldn’t be as fast as it is, when you’re trying to do a layup, period.
- Invest in the PC Community OR leave Steam and move to Xbox Play Anywhere: I remember the Black Hokage complaining about the PC and its lack of cheating enforcement. There are a significant amount of cheaters on the Steam platform, and it makes the game impossible to play. This gets alleviated in two ways (Denuvo is not one of them:) Actively enforce the online community on the PC side of things, as well as regular patches to the title OR move to the Universal Windows Platform and make NBA 2K a Windows 10 exclusive with Xbox Play Anywhere capabilities. While XPA is a walled garden, it prevents the biggest issue that plagues the Steam Community, cheating. With the Xbox Play Anywhere move, the title receives the patches at the same time as the Xbox One version of the game. The only real downside is the lack of mods, but there would be more people for the PC community to play with, which creates a net positive.
NBA 2K19, as we know it, is a largely unknown variable, as there isn’t any real information concerning the title. I do hope that they make changes that positively affect consumer confidence in the franchise after this year’s abysmal start, even though I’m not the most confident about it (and I doubt I’m the only one.) With the return of NBA Live in purest of confidence – despite EA Play 2018 – I hope NBA 2K19 and beyond changes the game enough to properly sustain its claim as the #1 simulation basketball franchise in the eyes of the public. Or perhaps Microsoft should revive XSN Sports and bring out a solid version of NBA Inside Drive to shake things up…
Okay…maybe not that.