NBA 2K19: How the best can get better

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. NBA 2K18 was in many ways the apex, representing a steady refinement of the fundamental mechanics of basketball which sets the series above all others in sports gaming. It also made that daring leap from a traditional menu-based game to something more akin to GTA San Andreas with energy drink ads. In a good way. Open-world sports gaming is a bold new horizon, and Visual Concepts executed it expertly.

But there was also a very strong sense that the community’s patience, which had been gradually tested more and more by 2K’s microtransaction model for years, reached its elastic limit and emphatically snapped. Virtual currency has been at the centre of the experience for almost a decade, but having to pay VC just to get a haircut and a shave at launch felt like a new low. That gave players a short fuse for other misdemeanours, too, like B-Fresh.

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The NBA 2K franchise is in quite a strange position then, all told. It’s the best example of its genre by a mile, but it also has plenty of areas it can make real, meaningful improvements within. Plus, EA’s veteran NBA Live series is breathing down its neck again, having rediscovered its form last year, so it’s no time to be freewheeling.

It’s a time to make improvements. Improvements like these.

NBA 2K19 Wishlist

A ground-up rebalancing of VC

This is the obvious one, isn’t it? The conversation about microtransactions has never been more heated than at this time during NBA 2K19’s development, and the last game took a lot of flak for its practices. Something’s got to give.

What was especially noticeable last year was how much the rate of progress seemed to have slowed down for VC accumulation if you didn’t pay. NBA 2K17’s glacial ‘Doin’ Stuff’ progress bar was at least overhauled by a quicker attribute cap increase system, but the overall journey from useless bench-dweller to MVP  felt slower than ever. Maybe it was because haircuts costs thousands of VC. 

It’d be unrealistic to expect that 2K19 will operate outside any kind of microtransaction model, but some microtransaction models are more predatory than others. Let’s just feel like we’re making progress without dropping real money, and keep cosmetic customisation items reasonably priced.

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Different body types in MyPlayer

LeBron James’ cannonball deltoids are present and correct. Kevin Durant’s otherworldly, willowy limbs are represented in all their glory. But when it comes to creating a MyPlayer build, you’re stuck with the exact same body type regardless of your weight. Your musculature remains constant regardless of your height, and there’s simply no way to create that ‘90s Shaq center or a lithe, stringy Nicolas Batum.

Bulking up to meet the demands of an 82-game schedule is something all rookie players have to go through, and since Visual Concepts went to all the trouble of creating a working gymnasium full of QTE bench presses and squats, this seems like the natural extension: gym work alters your body type. Squats for LeBron’s bod, treadmills for a Steph Curry physique. That, alongside a few body customisation sliders at the MyPlayer creation stage, would make the build process much more interesting, and each player more distinct in multiplayer.  

No more clipping

Clipping has a long and storied tradition in sports games, and although it’s become less severe with each passing year (except those years in which FIFA implements a new physics engine and Imgur is overrun by GIFs of players accidentally kissing each other) it still detracts from the experience whenever it appears.

Better collision detection would also make the dribbling and post game a lot easier, because you’d have a degree more certainty about where each player will end up after a given move. Driving to the basket has been imprecise for long enough.

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Better writing

Another obvious point after the B-Fresh disaster in 2K18 in which every cutscene became a cruel and unusual form of overacted torture: NBA 2K19 needs a completely different tone of voice. Either it’s a goofball comedy, or it’s a serious story about one player’s rise to the top. It can’t be both, especially not with the kind of tin-eared dialogue the last game served up.

This is a historical weakness which NBA Live capitalised on last year, offering a much more palatable story about a rookie on the verge of going first overall in the NBA draft, only for injury to derail his career. It was cheesy, and utterly predictable, and those things are absolutely fine for the purposes of a narrative-driven sports game. The cutscenes just have to make sense in the broader context of what you’re doing in the game, and to sell the idea that what you’re doing matters in a wider world of the sport. Look at FIFA 17 and 18’s The Journey for a good example of this. It’s not H.G. Wells, but it generates forward momentum to the gameplay and makes you feel like a superstar.

There’s a vocal subsection of the NBA 2K community who wants story to die altogether, and having endured Orange Juice, Frequency Vibrations and B-Fresh over the last few years I certainly see where they’re coming from. But I don’t agree – there’s something exciting about starring in a rags-to-riches, playable sports movie. It just needs the right execution.

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More before the draft

Here’s an area Visual Concepts have been experimenting with for the last few years: when should your player actually enter the NBA? Again, there’s a ‘right away, obviously’ school of thought here, but personally I like to build up to draft day, so that it feels like a huge achievement to make the NBA at all. 2K17’s college basketball entry was good fun, and to me the brief streetball prologue in 2K18 felt like a step back from that.

Those who want to get straight into the big league should have the option of skipping any prologue, naturally, but for those like me who want to work for my draft place over an extended period it’d be great to cut our teeth in high school and college basketball first.

Euro leagues in MyCareer

We’ve been able to sample the best and brightest teams from Spain, Turkey, France and elsewhere in Europe for a while now outside of MyCareer, but the likes of Real Madrid have been out of reach in MyCareer. Well, except the one phone call Pres got from his old college roommate who was now playing in Europe, but that’s not what I’m getting at.

Maybe you’re not guaranteed to be drafted at all in your first attempt, depending on your performances in high school/college. And maybe when that happens, you build up your reputation in Europe. It was a good enough proving ground for Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, and Paul Gasol. What, you’re better than them?

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FIFA put its best foot forward and implemented the women’s game in recent years, so the precedent has been set for all other sports games with significant women’s competitions to follow suit. In time, it’d be great to see not just exhibition or MyGM functionality, but a twofold MyCareer component with separate story arcs for both male and female MyPlayers.

Make the Neighborhood more meaningful

I know that sounds vague. This is why I’m not a game designer, but instead relegated to the indignity of merely passing comment on games. What I mean is this: the Neighborhood in 2K18 feels like a good idea that’s yet to realise its potential.

Having a space for players to share as they progress through their own personal NBA careers and challenge each other to multiplayer games on the fly feels like a vital innovation for sports gaming. Wandering around that particular Neighborhood and mostly ignoring everyone else because there wasn’t anything to do with them but emote or play streetball didn’t feel like the best use of that concept. Perhaps the answer is a deeper and broader palette of interactions, or perhaps its a more impressive and large-scale Neighborhood itself.

Better user content moderation

This might as well apply to every game that allows its users to upload their own content, but it’s especially pertinent when you check the t-shirt stand in 2K18 and find a plague of racist memes. Not much else needs to be said on this. It’s got to change.

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More historic modes

NBA 2K11’s intro was a landmark moment in sports gaming. There you were, plunged into Michael Jordan’s, um, Jordans and expected to recreate history. It felt wonderfully authentic, from the cut of the uniforms to the retro presentation. I want more of that.

Yeah, Michael Jordan was a pretty good place to start with a mode like this, but basketball isn’t short of heroes. Who wouldn’t want to emulate Kobe’s career? Or Wilt Chamberlin’s? Or LeBron’s? Allen Iverson? I mean, if it were presented with enough of an eye for historical detail, I’d play Latrell Sprewell’s career from start to finish.

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