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 some thoughts on the way that every new NBA 2K game finds itself in the shadow of its predecessors, and the cyclical nature of critique.
Not everyone has been entirely happy with NBA 2K21, but what else is new? While the NBA 2K series continues to be very successful, opinions of recent releases have been much less favourable than their predecessors. Legacy issues, practices that are lacking in goodwill, and product fatigue, have all led to an increasingly dissatisfied userbase. In turn, this dissatisfaction has inspired gamers to reminisce about titles from just a few years ago. To that end, the last few games have been unfavourably compared to the likes of NBA 2K15, NBA 2K16, and NBA 2K17.
A recent Twitter thread criticising NBA 2K21 drew an interesting reply about these comparisons. In response to the assertion that NBA 2K21 is the worst game in the series, the Tweet pointed out that it’s a title bestowed on just about every NBA 2K game when it’s new. It specifically noted similar remarks about NBA 2K17, a game that’s now being held up as a benchmark that newer games have failed to reach. While it’s a generalisation that deflects some valid criticism of NBA 2K21 and its immediate predecessors, it also raises a pertinent question: do we forget our own criticism, with revisionist history and nostalgia unfairly casting a shadow over every new game?
I would have to say yes, that does happen. The situation is more nuanced than that, but it is a real phenomenon with annual basketball titles and their predecessors. Every year, you can be sure that a contingent of gamers who are unhappy with the latest game will call it the worst of the series. Give it another couple of years, and at least some of those same people will be fondly recalling that game, while nominating the current release as the worst ever. Needless to say, indiscriminately calling every new game the worst ever when you made the same criticism of its predecessors- which you’re now holding in high regard, no less – is an approach lacking in credibility.
Of course, extreme opinions such as “best ever” and “worst ever” tend to be the loudest, and the loudest opinions aren’t necessarily the consensus. Just because there’s a contingent of basketball gamers calling an NBA 2K game the worst in the series, it doesn’t mean that everyone – or even a majority – shares that point of view. However, even focusing on more measured opinions, we can see that many gamers do come to look upon games more favourably than they did when they were new. This doesn’t automatically invalidate criticism of a new game, but it raises questions as to how opinion of its predecessors can change over time, sometimes quite drastically.
I’ve already touched on one of the reasons: nostalgia. As much as we’ve criticised the recent NBA 2K games, their general quality has allowed many of us to enjoy them to some extent. As such, we usually end up forming some positive memories despite our criticisms. If we dislike its sequel even more, we may stick with it for another year, creating more memories and coming to look upon it more fondly. Disappointment with subsequent games only builds upon and solidifies our nostalgia for a game we grumbled about, but still played and enjoyed. A brand new game is a clean slate, but that also means that there’s no nostalgic affection to temper any dissatisfaction with it.
On that note, when games are new, they carry the pressure of hype and expectations created by the preview season. We’re hoping a game will be an improvement on its predecessors, and that all the good things we’ve been hearing aren’t just marketing spin. The fact of the matter is that games do get overhyped, and even the best ones can be disappointing if they promised more than they could possibly deliver, or if recurring issues in its predecessors have compounded frustration with the brand. It’s also a rare game that doesn’t make at least one change that doesn’t pan out as well as intended, or doesn’t resonate with gamers who preferred the previous approach.
When a game is no longer current, it’s free of that pressure because there are no more expectations placed upon it. There’s no mystery about the quality of the experience we can reasonably expect, for better or worse. Any lingering disappointment isn’t going to be anywhere near as strong as it was when we were forming our first impressions. This lack of expectations is significant when we revisit a game, as it allows us to view it with fresher eyes. Now that we’re familiar with its positive and negative attributes alike, we notice aspects that we couldn’t when hopes were high and our focus was elsewhere. It’s how we come to realise that some games are better than we thought.
And so, we walk back on knee-jerk reactions and declarations of a certain game being the worst of the worst. The problem is that conversations about a game’s quality may long be over, so even if we publicly amend our opinion, it might not be noticed. After all, negative opinions draw more attention than positive ones. More to the point, we do forget about how our opinions on previous games have changed after giving them a second chance. As such, it’s very easy to repeat the process by denouncing the latest release with the same sweeping declarations we made about its predecessors, even though deep down we know that we should let the dust settle before we rate and rank.
Because this phenomenon is cyclical, and because some new games are inferior to at least some of their predecessors, we can find ourselves re-evaluating older games as well as more recent titles, or the current release. It doesn’t always result in a drastic shift in our opinion, but we may notice some positive aspects that were overshadowed by our general disappointment when it was new. For example, when I revisited NBA Live 07 on Xbox 360 for the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live, lower expectations and the subsequent roughness of NBA Live 14 led me to reconsider whether the former is still the worst game in the series. It’s one of the worst, but may no longer be the worst.
I’d definitely recommend going back and revisiting older games with fresher eyes and the benefit of newer releases to compare them to, and without the expectations that come with a new game. It’s interesting to see which games hold up and which games do not; which feel better than you remembered, and which seem worse. It can be a way of tempering nostalgia as you evaluate a new game, or otherwise provide a point of reference as far as how a series has developed and changed over time. Our opinions can change as time passes and we grant games another chance. It’s neither immoral nor hypocritical to change our stance, as long as our view is honest and well-reasoned.
Referring again to the example of NBA 2K17, it should also be noted that while some gamers did call it the worst game in the series when it came out, not everyone felt that way. Plenty of others felt reasonably positive about it, or even called it the best. With that in mind, it isn’t accurate to say “People said NBA 2K17 was the worst but now they say it’s great; therefore, they’re wrong when they say it about NBA 2K21, too.” We may come to look upon NBA 2K21 differently as the years go by and we revisit it without the same expectations as when it was new. However, it’s fallacious to say we definitely will, and it doesn’t address the criticisms that gamers have of NBA 2K21.
We need to be mindful of a few realities here. High expectations and a desire to see continued improvement will inevitably place all new games in the shadow of their predecessors. That doesn’t always lead to a fair assessment, and knee-jerk reactions do make us forget that we haven’t always appreciated games at first glance. We can be prone to hyperbole when a game fails to live up to the hype. However, not all games demonstrate improvement, and some releases take a step backwards. Additionally, basketball gamers have many voices. The “worst ever” crowd may not represent the consensus, in which case there’s no widespread hypocrisy or change of heart.
Nevertheless, nostalgia, acceptance, and the removal of expectations, can contribute to us looking upon previous games more fondly than the newest release. Good or bad, games will always start out in the shadow of their predecessors, so if nothing else, we can resolve to keep an open mind and give the latest title a chance to bask in the light. History demonstrates that a second or third look may change our opinion, or that we’ll settle into having fun with a game once we’re past any initial disappointment. And yes, sometimes our opinion of older games doesn’t change or changes for the worse, but we usually don’t consider those titles benchmarks for new games to aim for.
Whether games are well-received from day one or opinion of them changes over time, some of them will become the standard by which their successors are judged. There’s never been – and never will be – complete agreement among all basketball gamers as to the best and worst releases. With so many differing opinions, pointing out that someone or people said that a specific game was the worst is hardly a “gotcha“. Harsh criticism doesn’t have to be someone’s final word on a game, while others may have never felt that way in the first place. Of course, there are some people who just hate every new game, and so retroactively like their predecessors better only by default.
To the point that was being made in the Tweet responding to criticism of NBA 2K21, yes, we can contradict ourselves by being too quick to throw around the word “worst”. It definitely bears remembering that games we’ve come to like and feel nostalgic for had predecessors that made them stand in the shadows that they themselves now cast. It’s a cyclical phenomenon. While keeping that in mind however, we shouldn’t let it become a thought-terminating cliché; a means of shutting down any and all criticism of the latest game. If need be, leave the ranking until later, but predecessors do set the benchmark. Should a game be good enough, it will eventually escape their shadow.