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.
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.
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?
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.
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.