It used to be that when we wanted to play a game, we'd have to really work for it. We'd have to mow lawns and clean cars and I'd have to beat up my brothers until they agreed to pool their money with me, and then we'd go down to the local video store and pray they had the Master System
version of the game in because we were too poor to get a MegaDrive
. And if they did, we'd get it and go home and we'd have to do the washing up and clean our room and answer for our crimes against homework, and then wait for Home & Away to finish, and then we could play the game for a good 12 or so minutes before it was bedtime.
Kids these days don't know how good they've got it, am I right!? They don't even have to go down the shops any more — games are digitally delivered to their machines, and they can play other games while they wait. They don't earn it any more, or at least that's what NBA 2K23
reckons. That must be why they've buried the ability to simply play a game of basketball deep in 2K23's menus, off to one side, like a treasure for Indiana Jones to uncover while he dodges the loot box dart traps and predatory monetisation boulder.
Once you get to it, though, NBA 2K23 is the best basketball game around. It's the only basketball game around, sure, but it's the best at it. It has faults — the AI is still dumber than a bag of bricks, for example, but it looks great, it sounds great and it plays well.
I think the best thing they've done this year is they've made the stickiness of players feel less oppressive.
"Once you get to it, though, NBA 2K23 is the best basketball game around...”
If you're not aware, when you're on the court in NBA games, players have a bit of magnetisation to them. They have set animations that play out contextually based on your inputs, and because some of those animations involve other athletes, there's a tendency for players to be drawn to one another.
So let's say I'm running LeBron James
down the court because I've picked the Lakers
(as I always do (ever since LeBron joined the Lakers)) and you move Steph Curry
in my way (because you're a Warriors
fan, but somehow I'm
the bandwagoner). If there wasn't any magnetisation, LeBron would simply blitz past Curry and move on down the lane to execute a textbook mind-blowing dunk. Cue the applause.
You're probably thinking "but that's literally what happens in a game, what's wrong with that?". And you'd be right. But what if we replaced LeBron with me, right. What stats would I get in the NBA? Not my MyPlayer, but the real life me? Probably 20? I think I could swing 20. I've got pretty good stamina for my age and I've played a bit of Netball so I've got great fundamentals. Yeah, yeah, I hear it too, let's do me a big favour and say I have an Overall rating of 10.
In a real game Steph Curry would smile that infuriating smile he does when he already knows he's swished another three and then he'd slap the ball out of my hand so hard that I'd never write again.
"In a real game Steph Curry would smile that infuriating smile he does when he already knows he's swished another three...”
But in a videogame without any animatic attraction, I'd be able to get by Steph pretty easily by simply wiggling my character back and forth until I was between him and the hoop. I wouldn't score, I was a Wing Defence in Netball and never had much of a talent for shooting. But I'd get past him just fine.
You can actually see this in action in other sports games. Jonah Lomu Rugby
is the best sports game of all time, but you could easily exploit the absence of any magnetism to score at will. You could also just give the ball to Jonah Lomu
and score at will, but that was actually very realistic.
To avoid this, the NBA 2K series adds a stickiness to the collision detection which holds players together on the court. So in our first example, LeBron would run at Curry and sort of snap to him. The game has always been clever enough to represent the many tools at LeBron's disposal for getting by defenders, but in 2K23 it feels better than ever to simply have him disengage from the animation lock to move on by.
"We're in the small ball era, and it's hard to showcase the fast-paced high rotational basketball that's so popular these days if none of the players can move because they're stuck to one another...”
It's a huge improvement, in my opinion, and one that requires a very deft touch. Stray too far in either direction and either players can easily exploit it for free points, or the game devolves into big men backing down defenders in the post for high percentage shots under the rim. And that's just not NBA basketball in 2022-2023. Obviously Joel Embiid
and Nikola Jokic
and other big men can
, but we're in the small ball era, and it's hard to showcase the fast-paced high rotational basketball that's so popular these days if none of the players can move because they're stuck to one another.
That said, there's room for improvement still. The AI hasn't kept up with the times. It's weird hearing the commentary team talk about how switching on defence is so common in the modern NBA when the AI still refuses to actually do it — or when they decide they want to, it's late and on the wrong player.
Speaking of switching and AI, 2K23 still has a huge problem with changing control to the defender closest to the ball. It's most evident in game modes with less than five players per side — in three vs three games, it almost feels like a coin is flipped when it's picking who you wanted to defend with.
A conspiratorial part of me wonders if it's on purpose. After all, you spend a lot of time playing 3 v 3 basketball in MyTeam, NBA 2K23's collectible card game/gambling simulator — if changing players were random, it would be easy to lean on the scales a little to close the gap in a blowout game right?
"Oh, Giannis Antetekoumpo just happened to leave Anthony Davis wide open so he could jack up the three that would cost me 1 MyTeam Buck...”
That's the thing about these sorts of games — because I know they're built on a foundation of psychological trickery, I read into every goof as if it's on purpose. Oh, Giannis Antetekoumpo
to leave Anthony Davis
wide open so he could jack up the three that would cost me 1 MyTeam Buck because it lowered the win margin one extra point? How convenient
. My green light three that would seal the game just happened to clang off the rim and into their hands despite having Joel Embiid camped out around the basket like he's Yogi Bear? Sure thing.
Why wouldn't I delegate away any mistakes when the mode itself is built from the ground up around the idea of compartmentalising losses?
We all understand this, right? MyTeam is built on three pillars. There's the gambling aspect which seems self-evident — card packs are just loot boxes, there's an actual wheel you spin for prizes, unlocking a vault implies a degree of value that doesn't exist, et cetera. You open a card pack and 'win' a card, say Giannis, and you might as well play a game with him just to see how that goes. He's Giannis, after all.
Then there's the sunk cost fallacy which tricks us into believing we will suffer poor return on investment if we don't keep playing, except that playing is an investment of time itself, so even as we attempt to extract sufficient ROI we are still investing.
"Your opponent only won because they have better players. They spent money on upgrading them...”
The third pillar is loss compartmentalisation, where we are able to handwave away our failures by attributing them to factors beyond our control. Your opponent only won because they have better players. They spent money on upgrading them, or on more card packs, or on shoe boosts or whatever.
Lots of games do the third thing, but it's critical in MyTeam because where in other games the takeaway is to 'git gud' as they say, in MyTeam the obvious solution is to spend more money. And that's what MyTeam is all about.
On the face of it, I actually appreciate how much 2K23's MyTeam simply hands right to the player. The decision to add a battle pass style objective tracker means players can get their hands on some very good cards very quickly, which lowers the initial burden of entry. It must have cost them some money, just giving away players like that.
That's a trend I've noticed throughout 2K23, actually — compared to other years, it seems the least… money-grubbing. The internal economy appears to be player-favoured — at least compared to previous games.
"If there is an economy to be analysed, is it not already a lost cause?”
But on what fucking planet should a review be analysing the economy of a basketball game? How does that make sense? If there is an economy to be analysed, is it not already a lost cause? Has it not strayed too far towards the other
meaning of "Gaming" — the one that's so keen to shake the idea of bad luck since it dropped the "bl"?
Do people analyse the economies of pokies? Has anyone ever written a review of a casino that said 'wow, the odds are tipped in the favour of the house, but not as much as they were last year'?
MyTeam is a scam. If you play it, you're being scammed. You're being conditioned. It's a shame that it is front and centre when you boot up NBA 2K23, but it's there because it makes so much fucking money that it could buy a real life NBA Franchise. Take Two posted yearly earnings of $3.5 Billion USD and they attributed that success to two games -- Grand Theft Auto
and NBA 2K
. NBA 2K22 sold 8 million copies at $60 USD a piece, which accounts for not even 15% of those earnings. That money is coming from somewhere, and yeah a lot of it is Shark Cards, but a lot of it is VC.
And so we arrive at the other
main revenue stream
primary game mode in NBA 2K23 — MyCareer. This is the other area where people spend too much VC, the virtual currency used in NBA 2K23 to purchase everything from card packs to dumb hats.
As I said earlier, NBA 2K23 has probably the least aggressive monetisation in recent history, and that is definitely true of MyCareer. If you're not familiar, MyCareer is the mode where you create a basketball player, name them something and then you get to play out an NBA career. Join a team, win the MVP, be pals with NBA stars — MyCareer ostensibly offers up the NBA player fantasy short of hanging in strip clubs with James Harden
"You can spend real money to improve your in-game performance…”
And it's entirely powered by VC. Everything from clothes to signature moves to go karts is available to be purchased with VC, which you can buy for real money. But more than that, you upgrade your player character's stats with VC — you can spend real money to improve your in-game performance.
You also earn VC by playing the game, and that's important. If you divorce yourself from the way VC permeates the rest of the 2K23 experience (in MyTeam for example), paying real money for VC better resembles the concept of simply paying to speed up your XP gain. After all, MyCareer is really just a basketball RPG — I'm sure some people would happily pay real money to boost their stats a little faster in Skyrim if they could. Can you begrudge them that? I can, but everyone has different values.
Things get trickier, however, when you play MyCareer's streetball games. While the immediate focus in the mode is on your NBA career, a lot of people instead focus on playing multiplayer games against real opponents. You head to a court, you join a game and you play games against others. The only thing holding you back is your mechanical skill and the stats of your MyPlayer against the stats of your opponent.
"You can viably build a Hall of Famer MyPlayer without ever opening your wallet, and that's a good thing. With the right build and enough skill, you can take on any other player there is…”
Does this sound familiar? Does it sound like loss compartmentalisation might be on the cards here? Could players become trapped in a loop of chasing an always out-of-reach ROI here? Hell, MyPlayer even has the gambling pillar — though they have smartly done away with the actual casino
that used to exist in previous versions of the game.
But you don't need to spend money to succeed in MyCareer. You can viably build a Hall of Famer MyPlayer without ever opening your wallet, and that's a good thing. With the right build and enough skill, you can take on any other player there is — you'll just have to earn your VC the old fashioned way, by playing in the NBA.
That's where more problems arise, because NBA 2K23's MyCareer mode hates basketball.
Every year NBA 2K insists on crafting a complex storyline for their MyCareer mode, and 2K23 is no different. This year you're a College basketball star who wowed everyone in the Summer League before getting picked by whatever team you choose.
I wanted to be on a bad team so I could get a lot of minutes (more minutes means more VC earnings), so I chose to join the Knicks
. The Magic
probably would have been an even better fit, but I have my pride.
That's when things started to go downhill.
"The City was not happy that the Knicks picked Joab "MP" Gilroy instead of Shep Owens, the arrogant Vlogger/highlight reel rookie…”
The City is the name NBA 2K23 assigns to its overdeveloped metaverse style UI replacement, and The City was not happy that the Knicks picked Joab "MP" Gilroy
instead of Shep Owens
, the arrogant Vlogger/highlight reel rookie who is positioned as MP's rival.
MP was saddled with a challenge — win over The City by winning over the three key pillars of this consumerist hellhole — the music, corporate and fashion sectors. And naturally, you wouldn't be doing this on the court. The City was mad because Shep Owens was a way more exciting player than MP, not because Shep was a better
player. Putting up 28/8/6 in 12 minutes in his debut game was not enough to get The City to like MP, unfortunately. The game after he put up 48/15/13, MP was bounced from the Starting Lineup for the Knicks because The City didn't love him.
To be fair though, if you don't love that decision you don't love Knicks basketball.
No, the best defence is not playing well in 2K23. For that, you must pursue a rap career, you must wear a hot dog hat to hand out flyers, and you need to do TikTok dances to sell shirts dyed using only mushrooms.
Here's the thing. I don't need to be reminded of my age, NBA 2K23. If I wasn't old as shit I might be out there playing basketball. Or at least netball. But you don't have to throw it in my face with quests where MP meekly follows behind a TikTok influencer while she regales him with the key info about her months old superstardom.
"All I could think was "wow, riding a bike on Sydney roads is way more dangerous than I thought it was, I must have died…”
Walking from one location to another so I could help Madison Sea weave a story about the past, present and future of TikTok dancing, all I could think was "wow, riding a bike on Sydney roads is way more dangerous than I thought it was, I must have died. I wonder what I did to wind up in hell? If it was eating prawns, it was worth it".
And while the TikTok dance questline (what a sentence fragment for a basketball game review) is by far the worst of it, it's kind of indicative of everything wrong with the MyCareer storyline.
MP is a passive protagonist. Things happen to him, and even when he angrily objects to an assertion, he still meekly goes along with it once it's explained to him. "I should hit back at Shep for the things he's said!" MP might growl, only to hear his publicist tell him "That's not a good idea right now," and he will nod and not do anything.
He's a two-metre-tall doormat.
And so instead of playing basketball, which he is explicitly great at, MP spends almost all his time doing busywork. He's a $1500 an hour intern, doing stuff completely divorced from the basketball he should be focusing on.
There is, for example, more than one questline which sees you grind railings on your skateboard. And if NBA 2K23 had a serviceable skateboarding model I'd still find it objectionable, but it doesn't
. Skateboarding in 2K23 is bad. It's clunky and awkward, and grinding rails is even worse.
"And if NBA 2K23 had a serviceable skateboarding model I'd still find it objectionable, but it doesn't…”
MP has to answer music trivia to get the details of an underground rap producer, and then he raps. And the rapping is bad — it's awkwardly written and performed and the system used for picking the next line in a verse is frustrating. Later, he has to answer Fashion trivia. The only Hermes I know is an accountant for Planet Express Inc.
And it's all so barely relevant to basketball. It's also embarrassed that you have to play the sport sometimes.
"Play your next NBA game while you wait for Yolanda and Sabine to drop off your shoes," reads one quest journal entry.
I don't know who at Visual Concepts needs to hear this, but NBA 2K23 is actually a basketball game. I'm not playing basketball while I wait for shit to happen, shit is happening and it is making it harder for me to enjoy playing basketball.
If you're still awake this deep into the review, you will have noticed that I talked about MP in the third-person. MP does things in NBA 2K23. There's no link between the player and player-character. There's no agency, no real tangible decision making, so you just watch as things happen to MP. And hell, because he's a passive protagonist, you're watching MP as he watches things happen to him.
"At some point your NBA career will halt because you haven't engaged with this nonsense enough…”
This is the burden NBA 2K23 places on the player who chooses to opt out of paying for stats. If you want to play games around The City against other real life players, you need to struggle through these quests to earn VC and boost your stats. At some point your NBA career will halt because you haven't engaged with this nonsense enough.
And the most charitable read on the situation is that Visual Concepts is trying to get players to engage with The City. The quests take you all over the playspace, filled as it is with non-stop gaudy advertising and overt monetisation opportunities. How else do you explain a city that has no cars but does have a State Farm branch for you to vertically integrate with?
But The City isn't good. Every time I run from one location to another to accomplish something that should have been two to three button presses, I find myself mentally crying "JESUS WEPT
" like I'm an ironic Dean Pelton from Community.
The more cynical take on the weirdly out-of-place MyCareer mode is that it's designed to frustrate people into spending money. That the tedious back-and-forth and cringe-inducing questlines are carefully honed to convince players that maybe dropping a bit of cash to get a few levels wouldn't be so bad.
And sadly, that's where I land in the end. On the cynical side of things. NBA 2K is a billion dollar enterprise, it doesn't do things by accident. It chose to put MyCareer front and centre, to put MyTeam right below it, to bury the ability to simply play a game of basketball in layers of menus.
The shame of it is that I genuinely think it's the best representation of basketball ever. But they make you work so hard to see that, and I just don't know if it's worth the effort.