NBA 2K20 Paints a Picture of Basketball in an Alternate World

Put it in the hoop like slam (slam), heard the crowd screamin' out jam (jam)

NBA 2K20 is a video game about basketball. The 21st game in the series, the picture that Visual Concepts paints using the game of basketball as its medium could be mistaken for a perfect simulacrum. The sights and sounds are nearly immaculate – the men and women are as sweaty as they should be; the sound of the ball bouncing on the hardwood harmonizes with the klang of a bricked three in a way that can only be described as symphonic. Shaq looks mostly like Shaq.

It is at the edges of the simulation, though, that the constructs of reality begin to flood into this perfect world, like Gatorade into the gob of an athlete. Brands, influencers, and capitalism begin to play with the bits and bytes in ways that begin to obscure the core tenets of the subject matter. NBA 2K20 is full of nooks and crannies that are begging to be explored, but I want to take a look at just one of them — the single-player mode, MyPlayer.

Livin’ Da Dream

Here is a list of things that are true about the MyPlayer mode in NBA 2K20, which is, again, a video game about basketball:

  • LaMorne Morris (New Girl, BRAINRU$H) plays a magical barber who opened his own shop after being released from prison.
  • There is an unbeatable, Final Fantasy-style boss fight early in the story wherein you play 1-on-1 with Kawhi Leonard. He dunks on you 7 times and then leaves without saying a word.
  • The game features Mario Party-style mini-games to determine how strong you are and how high you can jump.
  • There is a sequence wherein your player is invited to a movie set to appear in a film directed by Jaleel White (Family Matters, Sonic the Hedgehog) alongside Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball.
  • The main antagonist of the story is Idris Elba (Fast and the Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw, Zootopia).
  • Desus and Mero (Desus & Mero, Desus & Mero) are there.

NBA 2K’s MyPlayer mode is a single-player RPG where combat involves you dunking on Harrison Barnes a bunch of times instead of killing slimes or dragons. You open the game by creating your player in a robust character creator that gives you the opportunity to import your own face. As you work your way through the lower rungs of basketball on your way to the NBA, you learn about the “right way” to play. You receive a letter grade at the end of every game, which is determined by stats like assists and turnovers. Once you make it to the big leagues, the spoils of your hard work begin to pour in. You are paid for playing in games, you are paid for dunking on children in a park. That currency (VC) allows you to spec out your character so that you might become better at shooting a three pointer or dribbling. You can also spend this currency on clothes for your character, which you can see when you load into The Neighborhood, the game’s social space.

Yes, the social space.

Imagine the Tower from Destiny, except instead of Zavala, Banshee-44, and Hawthorne’s bird, you have a clothing store (Swags, which has a partnership with Express, the real world clothing brand), a shack that sells temporary attribute upgrades (Boosts), and the hoverboard store (Wheels). You can play pickup basketball here, sure, but why would you do that when you could be participating in X-Prize, 2K’s version of HQ, or buying chewable Gatorade cubes so you have more stamina in league games?

One of the things that makes social spaces work is that they are purpose built for pageantry. A player running around the Tower with a full set of raid gear makes that player feel special, and inspires the players who want that same gear to go down the same path.

In The Neighborhood, helmets are replaced by Beats™ headphones, the armor replaced by Express suits. If I wanted to purchase a complete suit, it would cost ~12,000 VC. Between my endorsements, performance bonuses, and salary, I make 1700 VC/game, which shakes out to just about four hours of real world time that I’d need to put in to get the digital suit, which is briefly visible in four or five non-gameplay situations. Considering that VC is also used to upgrade tangible attributes, it doesn’t make any sense to spend that currency on cosmetics.

The aforementioned endorsements further highlight this game’s fraught relationship with brands. There are multiple unskippable scripted cutscenes wherein a Gatorade, Nike, or Beats PR person will approach you after a game, give you a handful of talking points, and then the game quizzes you in a press conference afterwards. A poor performance will result in a loss of fans, which makes it more difficult to get more endorsements down the road.

The endorsement sequences are also just truly wild. Anytime your player signs a new deal with Beats, the company throws a party for you. With this party, 2K20 dares to answer the question: “What if dancing was a QTE?”

It’s In The Game

A few weeks ago, I explained the beginning of my time with NBA 2K20’s MyPlayer mode to my co-workers merritt and Steven on Fanwidth, A Fanbyte Podcast. During that conversation, we had a fun time riffing on the idea that the focus was slowly shifting away from the basketball, and onto creating wrestling-style entrances for players.

A few days later, the game presented me with this letter from “Lakers Management.”

This letter brought me immense amounts of joy, because the mid-game entertainment in 2K lives in the sweet spot between vaudeville and a lucid dream. There’s a gang of cloned, dancing children. A buck running around the court on stilts. A pelican operating a minigun that fires t-shirts.

Eager to take advantage of the new responsibilities bestowed upon me by Lakers Management, I chose “Back Up” by The Siege as my walkout music. When I hit a three, the sound of a laser bounces around Staples Center. When I dunk, the game should play a fun explosion noise. Well, I hope it will. I’ve played ~40 games but haven’t dunked yet because I didn’t do well in the Mario Party mini-games.

Your player’s core physical competencies — strength, vertical, stamina, etc — are all immutable. My poor performance in the standing vertical mini-game back at the combine means that my professional basketball player cannot jump. Basketball is the only game where you’re legally allowed to remove someone from this plane of existence. Look at this:

I will never know the thrill of sending an opposing player to the ethereal plane like Zion did this week.

Sports games, on a certain level, are about wish fulfillment. Whether it’s Madden, 2K, or FIFA, a sports video game gives players the opportunity to take the reins of their favorite team (or players) and play with them like action figures, putting them in scenarios that may never happen in real life. The Cleveland Browns will probably never win a Super Bowl, but Madden gives you a chance to guide them to the promised land every year. A good RPG does the same, opening up pathways for improvement that result in tangible skills and a character that is as unique as the player. 2K20, in an attempt to create a progression curve, places hurdles on the path to virtual NBA superstardom that are easier to clear by spending more money than they are by playing the game.

The basketball starts to feel like an afterthought as the cruft surrounding it gets more and more dense. My focus when playing slides from the moment to moment action (which is great!) to my teammate grade, because that informs a large chunk of my income. My player will never wear anything other than the default brown t-shirt, grey jeans, and busted 2K sneakers because the in-game economy actively de-incentivizes me from purchasing cosmetics by tying the same currency to mechanical and aesthetic growth.

I drop off of sports games pretty quickly every time I buy them, but I have never been able to identify exactly why. 2K20 helped me figure it out, though. If I want to experience basketball — a sport rife with action, excitement, drama, bad Gatorade advertisements, and a flourishing online community, I should turn off my Xbox and flip over to TNT. I should just watch basketball.