Is the Rise of NBA 2K a good thing?

By None
May. 08, 2020

Live sports are out, which means that fans and players have turned to sports games as an alternative. In the NBA’s case, this has meant the rise of the NBA 2K franchise and its latest release NBA 2K20 in particular.

In April, NBA players got together to play a tournament for charity which was hosted on ESPN and saw Devin Booker defeat teammate Deandre Ayton. But while that was a fun temporary measure, the real winner from all this has been the NBA 2K League, a professional esports league. The Verge reported that ESPN would begin broadcasting multiple matches throughout May, and that is part of a general rise in esports interest. NBA 2K league players only earn about $35,000 per year, but the top players can earn six figures through winning tournaments. Even that is small potatoes compared to what top esports players in other games like League of Legends and Counterstrike make.

But there is a bit of a strange phenomenon here. The fact that NBA 2K players can make big bucks implies that the sports series is becoming more popular than ever. But in fact, the latest NBA 2K games have been far more negatively reviewed compared to games earlier in the franchise.

It was not always like this. In the early 2010s, NBA 2K was the popular, well-reviewed game compared to the constantly panned NBA Live, which saw multiple game titles outright cancelled due to bugs and other failures. NBA 2K11, which allowed players to play as Michael Jordan and relive his greatest moments, was declared by Operation Sports to be the best sports video games of the 2010s.

But the recent NBA games have been universally panned by fans. On Steam, only 45% of reviewers gave NBA 2K20 a positive review, and that was an improvement compared to 2K19 and 2K18. On Metacritic, the game was review bombed and received a rating of just 1.0 out of 10.

Why are fans so upset with the past few iterations of NBA 2K? There are gameplay mechanics and graphics issues which have caused some anger, but the primary cause has been how 2K has wholeheartedly embraced microtransactions. The game’s MyCareer mode is filled with them, presenting players the options to buy gear, uniforms, better player statistics, and so on for more and more money to help them with their Express MRI scans. While one can play 2K without buying these things and constantly grinding, the social pressure is always there.

If microtransactions were not bad enough, NBA 2K has also embraced loot boxes, a particularly insidious form of microtransaction which is the equivalent and places no limit on how much players can actually spend. Players are tired of their once beloved sports game becoming nothing but a machine through which 2K attempts to milk them dry.

When NBA Live collapsed, some NBA fans mourned its loss not out of respect for the series but out of fear that its end would limit any incentive for NBA 2K to offer a better product. And while the NBA and ESPN are happy to sponsor NBA 2K League as they hope to recoup some of their losses from a potentially lost season, the angry fans serve as some evidence that 2K has made those fears come true.