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Monday Tip-Off: Ain’t No Love in the Heart of The City

We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Start your week here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games. This week, I’m tipping things off with my thoughts on how The City is perpetuating a troubling issue with MyCAREER and its connected modes.

Adding an open world environment to MyCAREER has, unsurprisingly, been a rather divisive decision since The Neighborhood debuted in NBA 2K18. Some gamers loved the idea, and were wowed from the very first reveal trailers. Others aren’t so keen on the concept, seeing it as a waste of time. Now that The City has taken its place in NBA 2K21 Next Gen, gamers who loved The Neighborhood have been delighted by an even larger hub world. Those who disliked The Neighborhood have no love for The City for many of the same reasons as before, only now on a much grander scale.

Of course, even if you love The City, the feeling isn’t mutual. There’s an aspect of The City that is, to quote a salient Reddit post, “downright contemptuous of players and hostile towards newer players”. Unlike The Neighborhood, The City isn’t welcoming to everyone; well, not immediately, anyway. This year, we have to prove that we’re worthy of taking part in the main hub world of MyCAREER, making use of all the familiar facilities that we’ve had at our disposal these past few years. To me, the title of Bobby Bland’s song – or for that matter, the Jay-Z song from the NBA 2K17 soundtrack, which sampled it – aptly describes The City’s cold, elitist heartlessness.

A word I’m going to use a lot in this article is “gatekeeping”. It’s a criticism I’ve made of other aspects in MyCAREER in recent games, as it’s a recurring problem. In this case, however, the concept is even more literal than usual. When you first arrive in The City, you’re at the Rookieville docks (we’ll return to that name momentarily). If you try to enter The City, your path is literally blocked by a locked gate. Not since placing ATMs in Ante-Up (or moving it into a back alley in NBA 2K21 Current Gen), has an NBA 2K game been so tone-deaf in its imagery. Or perhaps, it’s a sign of self-awareness: “Yes, it’s gatekeeping. And if there was ever any doubt, here’s a big gate!”

Gate Between Rookieville and The City (NBA 2K21)

Getting past that gate isn’t particularly complicated. You play games in Rookieville to increase your MyREP – winning naturally speeds this up – and you’re given the key to The City…well, the front gate, anyway. It doesn’t cost any VC, except what you’d spend anyway in order to upgrade your player to be competitive online. Nevertheless, it is gatekeeping. No matter how experienced you are playing NBA 2K online, you’re dumped into the Rookieville docks. It’s kind of insulting, so of course you want to get out of there as soon as possible. The entirety of MyCAREER’s connected experience is also behind that gate: the Daily Bonus, Gatorade Gym, shops, and online modes.

Unfortunately, NBA 2K knows that they can get away with this. The online scene has been fostering and catering to elitist attitudes for years. If 2K feeds us the idea that a gatekeeping measure is a good thing, that it separates the worthy from the unworthy – unworthy to play a video game and utilise facilities that have been freely available for years, mind you – they can be sure that a lot of people will happily gobble it up. It provides an opportunity to look down on other gamers, to thump your chest and say “Well, I’m worthy; I’m good enough. Those whiny cry-babies just need to get good!” Of course, the issue isn’t being able to get in. It’s that we have to in the first place.

Yes, if you’re an experienced online gamer – and even if you’re not – it won’t take you too long to get into The City. It’s a matter of necessity, not feasibility. Also, too bad if you do prefer the NBA side of MyCAREER, and just want to access features such as the Gym or Daily Bonus. You’ll have to play some online games to unlock content for single player, not unlike the broken MyREP rewards in Current Gen. Instead of opening up this expansive new hub world to everyone and curating online play with proper matchmaking, there’s a gatekeeping measure followed by the usual free-for-all. It’s no wonder that NBA 2K’s online scene lags far, far behind most other games.

South City Vipers in The City (NBA 2K21)

Again, I must stress that to me it isn’t about difficulty or feasibility – though that’s still a valid concern for newer gamers – but rather the principle. We already have to grind hard every year to upgrade from 60 Overall, or pay to speed up our progress. So many gamers have described this situation as having to work just to have fun, before the whole process starts anew when the next game comes out. Now, we have to unlock basic functionality; prove that we’re worthy of it. Once again, it’s not that we can’t, it’s that we shouldn’t have to. And look, I’m leery of the slippery slope fallacy, but it’s not as though NBA 2K doesn’t have a long history of moving the goalposts on us.

Take bicycles in The Neighborhood. In NBA 2K18, they were free for all to use, once you levelled up your Overall Rating. The following year, they were 100,000 VC to purchase – even more if you wanted the accessories that made them go faster – on top of the cost of reaching the requisite level. MyCOURT customisation was also once unlocked at reasonable levels on the Road to 99. Under the MyREP system, absurdly high levels are required to attain all of the options. Let’s not forget haircuts costing VC in NBA 2K18. Some people tried to justify that, too. “Are haircuts free in real life?” No, but they don’t cost double an NBA player’s single game salary, either.

I saw a comment on Reddit defending this approach, basically suggesting that online play should only be for good players anyway. Entertaining that elitist, gatekeeping rhetoric for a moment, if people can’t play online, how can they “get good” enough to be worthy of playing online? It’s a Catch-22 that so many people overlook. Similarly, not enough reviewers or content creators call out what’s happening in The City. No one wants to lose their perks and access, after all. Too many wouldn’t ever dream of advocating for their fellow gamers, yet they’ll expect them to consume their content, smash that “Like” button, and hit “Subscribe”! And so, NBA 2K gets away with it.

NPC in The City (NBA 2K21)

The irony of elitist attitudes towards gatekeeping in The City is that when it comes down to it, it isn’t a great situation for elite gamers, either. Think about it: your reward for being an elite player is…unlocking the hub world that everyone is going to get to eventually, with content that’s very similar to what we all had on Current Gen, only bigger. The gatekeeping isn’t a test of your mettle. It’s pointless busywork to make the game a little longer; to make you think you’re better than everyone in Rookieville, only they’ll be through the gates soon enough, too. It’s the same as MyREP punishing gamers with lower rep, while failing to adequately reward those at the elite tiers.

Lest this be mistaken for the whiny complaints of someone who isn’t good enough to get past the gate and is blaming it on the game, please note the screenshots of my MyPLAYER roaming The City in this article. This isn’t intended to brag; again, the point isn’t that accessing The City is a difficult task. It’s that it’s an unnecessary one: pointless gatekeeping that’s even more pointless when you get into the meat of the online experience and it still has all of the same problems as Current Gen, including a lack of in-depth matchmaking. Besides, when you and a friend can 1v1 each other to level up, Rookieville hasn’t exactly succeeded in being any sort of proving ground.

To that end, there’s the matter of practicality. It doesn’t really matter how good you are if you rock up to Rookieville ready to level up and kick down that gate, only to find the docks are empty. This is an issue with The Neighborhood on PC as well. If you’re on a server with barely any people – as is often the case in certain regions – then those MyREP rewards are probably never getting unlocked. You can say that those are the breaks; that it’s an American game about an American basketball league, and it’s not 2K’s problem if those of us in other countries have issues with the online modes. Sorry, but no. It’s a flaw in design and concept, and very much 2K’s problem.

Skateboarding in The City (NBA 2K21)

It took me three games to get into The City: a win in 3v3, followed by one win and one loss in 1v1. Again, it’s neither a lengthy nor extremely difficult process, but the gatekeeping aspect still rubs me the wrong way. As I noted, it’s also reliant on others being available to play with in Rookieville. I did have to wait around a little while until enough people showed up for the 3v3 game, and for the queue to clear at the Got Next spots for 1v1. At a certain point, gamers are going to get stuck in Rookieville because there won’t be enough fellow newcomers to play with. It’s frustrating that 2K doesn’t think – or care – about this. It’s a half-baked, myopic, gatekeeping concept.

Honestly, 2K’s approach to its online modes and content is puzzling. They have some fantastic concepts with the connected experiences in MyCAREER, yet they make us jump through hoops to play them. It’s unwelcoming to newcomers and experienced online gamers alike, but especially the former. You’d think they’d want everyone playing and enjoying those modes. You can still separate the newbies from the elite, and properly reward top tier players without punishing those at lower levels. In fact, that’s what NBA 2K should be doing with MyCAREER and its online component. Instead, they’re putting up gates, now in a more literal sense than ever before.

As I mentioned, I’m also concerned about what happens in the future. We’ve seen free items placed behind paywalls as the years go by, and basic functionality made more arduous to unlock. Rookieville isn’t too bad this year, but next year’s gatekeeping could be worse. This year, we were given a complimentary skateboard to speed up travel. Next year? Who knows? With MyCOURT gone, we already have to pay VC to play private games at the Gatorade Gym, and buy a basketball to play Garage Hoops. Do you think 2K places ads and expensive items in MyCAREER to make it more fun, or because they love us? Trust me: there ain’t no love in the heart of The City.

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