The stars are always out in Las Vegas. The strip is like if you stretched Times Square for four miles in the desert and added a lot of concerts. It’s the City of Sin nestled in the unincorporated towns of Paradise and Winchester, where people travel from all around the globe to shop, party, gamble, and relax at mega-resorts and casinos, an oasis in the desert full of themed architecture and attractions.
It’s also a place for conferences, special events, and the NBA Summer League, this year sponsored by NBA 2K23. On July 7th, 2K Sports hosted the House of Greatness at the Strip’s southern tip, at the Rivea lounge in the Delano tower at Mandalay Bay. In attendance for the event was NBA 2K’s promotional face, Ronnie 2K, who helped wrangle such stars as rapper Lil Durk, internet comedian Druski, a slew of influencers I couldn’t name or recognize, and English international footballer Jesse Lingard. Some of the young talent in town for the Summer League were also on hand, such as Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren and Josh Giddey, Houston Rocket Jalen Green, and Detroit Piston Cade Cunningham, as well as Phoenix Suns three-time All-Star shooting guard, Devin Booker.
Booker will feature as the cover athlete of the NBA 2K23 Standard Edition (individually for the PS4, PS5, Xbox One, or Xbox Series) and the Digital Deluxe Edition (including both PS4 and PS5 or Xbox One and Series). The first ever all-women cover of NBA 2K will be 2K23’s WNBA Edition, which will feature two athletes, four-time WNBA champion (and thirteen-time All-Star) Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm and three-time WNBA champion (and two-time WNBA Finals MVP) Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury. And, because it’s 2K23, Michael Jordan and his iconic #23 will be an NBA 2K cover athlete for the fourth time, on the Jordan Edition. There is also a special edition themed around music with details yet unannounced, though the official release date for the game is September 9.
After peaking in 2016 with a metascore average of 89.33 across three consoles, 2K’s critical reception has steadily declined—81.5 for 2017’s 2K18 (84 outside of the Switch version), 82.33 for 2K19, 72.6 for 2K21, and 72.5 for 2K22. Much like EA’s Madden and FIFA, the other two marquee sports videogame franchises, fans and critics have begun to take the kid gloves off with the ratings, aiming particular criticisms at players getting nickel-and-dimed for in-game progress or built-in gambling mechanics to increase the companies’ ability to capitalize on their audience while gameplay, modes, and features see little improvement.
Alfie Brody, the Vice President of Global Marketing for NBA 2K, said that the 2K team is “well aware of [the criticisms]. Our focus is not to commercialize the game and monetize the customer. Our goal is to provide an amazing experience.” He went on to add, “It’s about investing in developers. We take that money and put it right back into the game. Every single year, the community is very vocal about what they want in the game. A lot of the time the development team listens. It’s just very costly to make those changes to the game.”
Among those improvements are further expansion into the “My City” mode, but which Brody referred to as an opportunity to open the game up in a way that competes with games outside of the sports arena. He sees NBA 2K as “a lifestyle,” adding that “Our competitive set is well beyond gaming. We’re focusing on the Netflix’s of the world. Anybody that’s spending their time engaging with the content, we want to introduce to our game.”
And that experience will in turn introduce more people to the game of basketball. It’s cyclical that way, and goes beyond the men’s game. In addition to WNBA legends on the cover of the WNBA edition and including WNBA teams in the game, NBA 2K is partnering with Bird and Taurasi to donate $100,000 to Every Kid Sports, covering the registration fees “for over 550 girls from income-restricted families” to join youth basketball programs across the country.
Brody said, “From our perspective, there’s no difference, there’s no male and female. In our game, we have the WNBA, we have the NBA.” He went on to add, “We don’t have parity right now. It’s a focus for us; we want to do it, we’re going to do it. It just takes time and development, resources.”
Gameplay Director Mike Wang echoed the sentiment, adding, “It’s huge for us. We have teams dedicated to the WNBA. Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are on the cover, two of the most recognizable WNBA players ever. It’s something we really need to invest in because we know that a large part of our community loves WNBA and we do our best to reflect that as well. A good thing about 2K in general is there’s something for everyone. The difficulty ranges from little kids to prop layers. Anybody can find something that they love in 2K and WNBA is a big part for us.”
While understandably cagey about changes and additions made to The City and Franchise modes, Mike Wang did laud the teams involved. “All I’ll say is the team is working on some really cool stuff. We took a lot of feedback from The City last year. We have a lot of things that people want to change or fix.” He said about the Franchise mode that, while he couldn’t give details, the team involved “did some stuff that I would never expect to see in a basketball game. I’ll leave it at that. Stuff that no other team is even trying.”
So, what could Wang tell us about? Well, as the team’s biggest Chicago Bulls fans and “one of the few devs that got to see MJ play in real life,” he’s excited about the revival of 2K11’s Jordan Challenge Mode. The NBA 2K team “brought back 10 of those challenges, adding five more—I think we went the extra mile with MJ this year to really let the GOAT shine.” The original Jordan Challenge Mode allowed players to play through iconic Michael Jordan memories from his storied career—such as scoring 63 points with 6 assists in a 1986 playoff game against the Celtics, or averaging 31+ points, 55%+ shot percentage, and 11 or more assists through the 1991 Finals against the Lakers. Maybe the 51 points scored Dec. 29 for the Wizards against the Hornets makes it in this time.
Besides the returning Jordan Mode, Wang also emphasized year-over-year improvement, saying, “The biggest goals for the gameplay side was more authenticity. We wanted to make the game feel and look more like real life basketball; [we] kind of got away from that a little bit, some of the older games […] That’s something we pride ourselves on. A big push for us was to make everything, all of the signature styles of players, make all the shots, all the moves feel way more authentic.” That’s something the up-and-coming NBA stars definitely had an appreciation for.
Entering his second year in the NBA and in NBA 2K, Houston Rocket Jalen Green was pleased that his rating went up from 79 to 83. “I think it’s lit. I think it’s awesome. Getting to see myself in the game, getting to play with my character, it’s just a good feeling. “
When asked how he felt the MyCareer experience of 2K simulates the real experience of being a professional basketball player, Green said “The last MyCareer I did, it was very similar. I think it started off in high school, just going through a whole bunch of stuff, outside family stuff happening, colleges coming out to you.” He said it was a relatable experience for every NBA player, while also pointing out that games, especially 2K, are an easy way to pass time on the road.
Cade Cunningham aims to be a 90 overall in-game by the end of the season’s progression updates. He’s impressed with visual and gameplay improvements in this year’s game, saying, “Some of the animations feel more realistic, some of the close-outs on defense, some of the moves feel better.” About the experience of being scanned into the game and seeing himself in it, Cunningham added, “It’s surreal to this day, getting to watch my friends play as me. It’s crazy. Dream come true, for sure.”
When it comes to videogames, Cunningham says he enjoys the competition. Besides 2K, he added, “I like UFC’s game. [Call of Duty] Warzone a little bit. I kind of got off of Warzone, though. Fornite I kind of got off of. I haven’t really been gaming like that, honestly. So, it’s really more like if I’m in the crib with one of my homeboys and we just feel like competing, I might throw 2K in, UFC.”
Cunningham is also a supporter of the pro 2K league, telling the media scrum, “There’s some guys that play 2K that’re amazing. I feel like they do need to be in their own setting to where they can play against each other. I think it’s a cool idea. I really like it.”
From my hands-on experience with the build of 2K23 they were showing at the House of Greatness last week, I can say the game moves very smoothly. The shot meter probably needs some loosening—Cade Cunningham said in his media scrum that he might need a week to get it down—but the 2K rep that absolutely cooked me and my Golden State Warriors with the Phoenix Suns (shoutout to Ahmad from Illinois Tech) wasn’t having any trouble at all.
In discussing challenges about year-over-year improvement, Alfie Brody mentioned the fact that COVID over the last two years has made things even more competitive—“people have limited money to spend.” The country is either approaching or within a recession. But we love our entertainment, and owners of next gen consoles are thirsty for something to play. With 2K still the dominant name in basketball gaming, and improvements alternating between intuitive and ominous, it’s hard to know how this game will fare in a year that’s had few marquee triple-A releases. It’ll grab the market share, but we’ll have to see if microtransactions are a hindrance to making an all-time great basketball game.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.