Monday Tip-Off: Cynicism as a New Generation Looms

Monday Tip-Off: Cynicism as a New Generation Looms

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 a few thoughts on how previews of NBA 2K21 Next Gen have inspired cynicism for me, rather than excitement.

When the NBA 2K21 Next Gen trailer dropped, I was compelled to post a few Tweets outlining my initial impressions. As you can probably gather from that thread, as well as comments I’ve made in our Forum and on the NLSC Podcast, I wasn’t blown away by the trailer, or pumped up about the game. If you follow me on Twitter, take part in our Forum, read my articles, or listen to our Podcast, you’ll probably also know that I’m not the biggest fan of NBA 2K21 Current Gen, either. My disappointment with NBA 2K21 and other recent releases has set the table for some Next Gen cynicism.

Thinking back to the release of NBA 2K14 for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, I don’t remember feeling quite as cynical. It’s unfortunate, as I’d prefer not to feel that way. I don’t want my content to come across as jaded and overwhelmingly negative, but beyond that, as an avid basketball gamer, I want to enjoy my hobby and look forward to new games when they’re on the horizon. As NBA 2K21 Next Gen looms and we get our first glimpses and insights into the forthcoming game, my cynicism definitely outpaces my optimism in a way that it didn’t seven years ago. Today, I’m reflecting upon that, and how things have changed over the course of a generation.

Before I get into any specific issues with NBA 2K itself, I must acknowledge a couple of personal factors that affect my outlook. First of all, seven years have passed, and that means I’m seven years older; that’s how time works, after all. However, we have to consider what that means. That’s seven years of covering basketball games, with all the ups and downs that every preview season and subsequent release brings. As my expectations have changed, I’ve become more frustrated and critical of certain aspects of the games. I’ll admit to losing some of my youthful enthusiasm now that I’m in my thirties. I have seven more years’ worth of pet peeves and major complaints.

LeBron James in NBA 2K14

Secondly – and this is something I’m sure many of us can relate to at the moment – things are a bit gloomy right now, owing to the global pandemic. None of us can be blamed for occasional moments of misery and cynicism, given the state of the world. The shutdown and subsequent restart of the NBA has naturally affected the virtual hardwood as well. Outside of some big performances in the NBA Bubble, the usual excitement surrounding the Playoffs was missing. NBA 2K21 Current Gen obviously had to launch with outdated rosters, too. Simply put, the usual excitement and good vibes that accompany a new release simply aren’t there, and it’s not entirely 2K’s fault.

Thirdly, with the way pre-orders have been handled so far, there’s a good chance that I won’t have a Next Gen console on launch day. When I pre-ordered my PlayStation 4 in 2013, I knew that I’d be getting it at a midnight launch here in Australia, along with NBA Live 14 and NBA 2K14. I was getting in on the ground floor, and regardless of how those titles turned out, I was set for the generation. I intend to get a PlayStation 5, but it’s quite likely that won’t be happening for some time. As such, it’s very difficult to get hyped knowing that right now, it’s not so much about enjoying NBA 2K21 Next Gen when I play it, but actually being able to play it at some point in the near future.

It’s more than that, though. It isn’t just COVID-19, ennui, or the potential lack of a Next Gen console that’s given me a more cynical eye. The fact of the matter is that for all of NBA 2K’s success over the past decade, for all the good things it’s done and the fun that many of us have had with at least some of the releases, we’re not in a golden era of basketball gaming. In fact, I just touched on one of the main reasons why we’re not. While you’d be hard-pressed to find too many gamers who haven’t had any fun with NBA 2K in the past ten years, it’d be just as unlikely to discover a majority of people who have absolutely loved each and every NBA 2K game during that span.

NBA 2K21 Current Gen Inspires Cynicism

With NBA Live struggling to get to where it needs to be following the failure of NBA Elite 11, NBA 2K hasn’t had serious competition in over a decade. That’s been great for Take-Two, but as the years have gone by, it’s proven to be a far less favourable situation for basketball gamers. Without viable competition, NBA 2K has been free to press their luck with microtransactions and other questionable practices. It’s earned them some scorn and pushback, but it hasn’t really hurt their bottom line. If you want a new game for the new season, it’s still been the best option; and in several years, the only option. Boycotts are easier said than done, and 2K has weathered the backlash.

The situation is unlikely to change in the immediate future, which gives 2K free reign to forego goodwill, knowing that they can get away with it. It’s impossible not to feel at least a tad cynical with that in mind. It’s not just the controversies with the recurrent revenue mechanics, though they are unquestionably a major part of it. It’s also the focus on bells and whistles over the core experience. It’s the legacy issues that have been in the game for a couple of generations now, despite the introduction of new engines and motion systems. It’s the way that the game has catered to elites in the online scene, fostering gatekeeping and a toxic atmosphere that’s only gotten worse.

Most of all, it’s the way that so many gamers have begged and pleaded for certain issues to be fixed or functionality to be added, only for requests and constructive feedback to fall on deaf ears. It’s disheartening when valid criticism is waved off by the developers, dismissed as ungrateful whining or knee-jerk reactions from newbies who just need to “get good”; again, catering to the elitist gatekeepers, and promoting toxicity. The apparent disinterest in addressing certain issues has absolutely invited more cynicism as the years have gone by. When nothing changes, how can we believe that it’s worth pointing out problems, suggesting solutions, and requesting features?

Alley-Oop St in The Neighborhood (NBA 2K21)

And you know what? Cynicism taints the little things and nifty features that we should be able to enjoy. When I see the street names in 2K Beach in NBA 2K21 Current Gen, my inner child and basketball fan does smile a bit at the “Alley-Oop St.” sign, but then I see also the problems with The Neighborhood: padded engagement numbers from all the running around, blatant advertising, and shameless VC gouging. There are some great ideas for challenges in MyTEAM’s new Seasons approach, but they’re also clearly encouraging us to buy packs in order to be able to attempt them. Cynicism is only natural when you’ve seen how the sausage is made, so to speak.

We can’t be blamed for our cynicism, and some might even argue that it’s an effective way of tempering our expectations every year. At the same time, I do hate feeling so cynical about one of my favourite interests, because although it’s an understandable response to such a situation, I’m not a fan of cynicism. It can easily lead to close-mindedness, ruining our enjoyment with preconceived notions. Cynicism invites us to jump to conclusions and be dismissive of any possibility that we could be wrong. It can often be self-righteous, and when you’re a content creator, an unhealthy amount of cynicism will often lead to your work having a constantly miserable, off-putting tone.

Perhaps the folly of cynicism can best be summed up by a scene in the short-lived Dilbert animated series. Catbert, the Evil Director of Human Resources, remarks that cynicism is almost the same thing as experience: “just try thinking the worst about people, and you’ll usually be right”. I see that as an ironically cynical comment on cynicism, and not a philosophy to actually live by. I much prefer Conan O’Brien’s sentiments about cynicism that he made in his final monologue as host of the Tonight Show, following the whole debacle of early 2010. His comments about it being his least favourite quality really resonate with me, and I believe that it’s wonderful advice.

Zion Williamson dunks in NBA 2K21

Yet here I am, feeling cynical about NBA 2K21 Next Gen, and the next generation of basketball gaming. I don’t relish the feeling, but it’s only natural after years of games that have failed to deliver on some of their biggest promises. It’s unavoidable after years of increasingly pushy recurrent revenue mechanics, and a lack of improvement to server stability. When we see the same legacy issues year after year, when last year’s developer blogs are contradicted by a new blog that outs a previously touted improvement as a bandaid fix – essentially revealing a blatant lie – it’s hard to get hyped by previews, or enjoy games once they’re released, the same way that I used to.

I wish I could recapture that excitement. There’s value in being cautiously optimistic and keeping your expectations realistic, but I wish I could feel more hyped, while still taking everything with a grain of salt and not unreasonably expecting perfection. At this point, I’m not sure that I can recapture that feeling, at least until a game proves me wrong and blows me away. Perhaps that will be NBA 2K21 Next Gen; I’d certainly like that. However, right now, I don’t feel the trust and satisfaction with the brand to be overly optimistic. I’ve seen what a lack of competition has led to and the direction that NBA 2K has taken. Is that likely to change, just because of new tech?

Call me cynical, but I don’t think so. Look, I’m not ruling out the possibility that NBA 2K21 Next Gen will be a great game that we’ll really enjoy; well, those who will be able to get their hands on a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X/S, anyway. The past decade has taught me to temper my expectations though, and mounting frustration along with questionable practices has inspired cynicism, not hope or enthusiasm. I don’t enjoy feeling this way and hope to feel more optimistic, but it’s tough. At this point, cynicism is a shield for me; insulation against disappointment that sadly feels inevitable. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong, but until then, my guard will be up.

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October 13, 2020 4:09 am

I used to buy NHL every year. Without reading a single review. I mean, in the years from 98-02 when we actually had about 3 solid options per sport and then on top of that even a couple of garbage ones, in those years I had to explore a bit before choosing one to buy. But every year since then NHL was an instant purchase. And then (as we spoke about before) despite this clearly being only my opinion — and that of a literal handful of the same people I spend time on various sports game forums interacting with because we’re on all of them — as the games got more and more fixated with an online experience, all sports games got worse and worse at what had made them good in the first place. So around 2015, with the first NHL game on PS4, I had to stop buying NHL because, well, to put it frankly, it sucked. NHL Legacy was and remains the last good EA NHL experience. Another series, by the way, like NBA2K, that we can now say has produced more weak than strong efforts. But again, it is my opinion that that decline coincides precisely with the implementation and saturation of online features, social media, and our constantly connected society.

The fact is this is not only NBA2K, but the way they’ve plugged their particular next gen title is infuriating. And how it’s made people crap on current gen is incredible. I wrote about this over on OS and got some positive feedback so I’m clearly not alone. But that hype makes them money whether we like it or not. I thought we went through all this already on the release of the 360/PS3, that it wasn’t cool to show non-game-footage. I thought we had already outed the developers that used to do that 10 years ago. And here we are again, no not really using non game footage but using game footage in a way that is the developer cinematically playing with replay mode to create shots you’ll never see.

In my opinion, of all the sports games out there today, NBA and PES make the only solid games out of the box. All the others are not only weak, but pale shadows of their former selves. Yes, The Show too all you The Show Fanboys. I don’t care how many scars and flowing dreadlocks you can see, if the game is full of canned animations and nonsensical physics it is no good. Ok? I don’t have the experience with NBA2K that many people here have, I’ve played it very off and on over the past 5 years and I came to NBA games more from NBA Live. I still prefer NCAA 10 to College Hoops 2K8.

There is a feeling with all sports games now that I’m watching only the bad episodes of a program that is known overall for being a great program. But I’m only getting the lesser episodes. I don’t think this gets better with time, I think it gets worse. Because social media, hyper connectivity, online presence, is a permanent part of our lives. And worst of all, it makes them money. The people making the sports games today are not the people that grew up with us during earlier phases of the sports gaming industry. And the top people at the studios are told to reach bottom line targets. And they’re doing what they have to do to reach them. I’ve worked for internet startups and have several friends in several departments of major gaming studios. They all say the same thing. No conversations about what’s best for the games are ever had. It’s all about reaching the three goals they have for any title and making sure it sells. Period.

So to go back to my NHL story. I stopped buying it 5 years ago. Never thought that would happen. But I still have the old games and people making rosters for them. And plus, NBA 2K20 isn’t so bad. You can still play it fine. But sometimes you have to ask whether you’re forcing a game to be something it’s not.

Just some thoughts.

October 14, 2020 12:07 am

Great! 🙂