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 who’s to blame for The Rec being utter garbage in NBA 2K21, and how – or if – the problems can be fixed.
I have to blunt: The Rec is absolutely woeful this year. Walk-On play has always been a hit-and-miss alternative to team Pro-Am, owing to the all the issues that arise when you play with randoms. It’s been particularly toxic and unenjoyable in NBA 2K21, though. Admittedly, I can only speak to my experiences playing on the Australasian server, and I’ve yet to create a MyPLAYER on Next Gen and jump online. The scene may be a lot better on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, at least in North America. It’d be a low bar to clear, as the mode seems to have hit rock bottom.
While the issues are familiar, the continued decline of The Rec – and it’s felt like it’s grown even worse since NBA 2K21 Current Gen’s launch – raises a few questions. The two most pertinent are “who’s to blame”, and “how can it be fixed”. As you might imagine, the first issue has a significant impact on the second. The answer is quite complicated, and that naturally means the solution isn’t easy either. Still, I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent weeks. While I am taking a moment to grumble here, I want to turn that into something constructive. If we as a community can identify these issues and suggest solutions, perhaps we can help improve the scene.
Before I get into that, I should probably briefly discuss why I was still playing The Rec on PlayStation 4, given that I now have a PlayStation 5 and have often indicated my displeasure with the mode. As I mentioned, I’ve yet to create a MyPLAYER on PS5, though I expect I’ll do so soon. In the meantime, I’ve just been finishing up some business with MyCAREER in Current Gen, and building up some VC to carry over to Next Gen. The average length of a Rec game also means that it’s perfect for when I can’t get out for a walk or jog during the day for whatever reason, and jump on my exercise bike for half an hour of cardio. Otherwise, I’ve usually not touched The Rec.
At launch, this wasn’t too bad of an arrangement. The quality of games was hit-and-miss as usual, but outside of a couple of real stinkers, even the losses were generally competitive and minimally frustrating. However, the quality of play has nosedived in the weeks since, and I’ve rarely found myself on a squad that has any inkling to play like a team; or for that matter, decent knowledge of basketball. That brings us to the first question: who is to blame here? First and foremost, it’s on us, the community. We get out of the online scene what we put into it. If we go into The Rec with a selfish mindset and an unwillingness to play properly, the games are going to be sloppy.
That’s unfortunately become the norm, at least in my experience on the Australasian servers on PlayStation 4. The more disappointing games I’ve endured, the more I believe it’s largely due to Rec gamers skewing much younger now. I know this makes me sound like a snobby old head, but I’ve heard the voices on the open mic, and I’ve seen players with names like “F. Uckup”, “B. Oobies”, and so on. They’re the ones chucking shots when triple-teamed, hogging the ball and failing to hit the open man, making out of control drives where they miss badly or get blocked, and trying for highlights over smart plays. They don’t know strategy, and they don’t care to learn.
It may be that my fellow gamers who are a bit older and more interested in playing in a way that’s actually conducive to winning have, in large, part moved on. Either they are now on Next Gen, or they’ve simply given up on The Rec, like I recently have. Whatever the case may be, there’s far less skill and strategy, and significantly more selfishness, in the way Rec gamers are playing in NBA 2K21 Current Gen. Looking at other people’s comments and videos, I’ve seen hints that it’s not all rosy on Next Gen, either. The scene is dominated – that is to say in numbers, not in terms of wins – by younger gamers who don’t realise that you’re no longer Player One in online modes.
To that end, gamers themselves are making online gaming in NBA 2K miserable. It’s a tough situation to address, because you’ve got to change culture, human nature…for that matter, maturity. Because of the toxicity, it’s difficult to implement measures that might otherwise address the issue. Putting in a “vote to kick” option isn’t feasible, since I could see it being abused by squads of three or four that head to The Rec, to get rid of their unwanted teammates. The same goes for “report player” system; the trolls would use it to ruin everyone else’s good time. You’ve also got to be careful with the grading system, as it can’t differentiate between honest mistakes and griefing.
However, I’m not going to let 2K off the hook here. I believe that you end up with the community and scene that you cultivate, and certain design choices in NBA 2K have contributed to the toxicity in online play. With Overall Ratings, MyREP, and even clothes and other aspects of your MyPLAYER’s appearance, the online scene in NBA 2K has established three different status symbols. If you don’t have the right look, ratings, and rep, it’s difficult to get games. Even if you do get to play, chances are you’ll be frozen out, or your teammates will muck around and sabotage the match. Again, we have to take responsibility here, but 2K has cultivated an elitist scene.
I know I’ve mentioned it many times before, but the lack of matchmaking – which of course, is done in part to encourage people to buy VC to upgrade quicker – means that gamers can’t learn the game and improve at their own pace. The Rec is a mishmash of casual and hardcore Pro-Am gamers, with two vague matchmaking tiers according to Overall Ratings (and even then, it can be cheated). It’s better than The Playground, where matchmaking is completely self-governed, but not by much. A broken meta that harshly punishes gamers for making the wrong choice turns people off the online modes, and promotes a homogenised type of play that’s extremely unappealing.
This is the result of focusing on flash over substance, on cosmetic items over core features and mechanics. Instead of doing everything possible to create a welcoming online scene that caters to new and elite gamers alike – thus cultivating thriving casual and competitive scenes – 2K has focused on adding new clothing items to buy, and open worlds that have little to do with the on-court experience. Nothing has been done to curb selfish and toxic play, or to promote teamwork and basketball strategy. That stuff doesn’t look good in a trailer, nor does it generate recurrent revenue. As such, it’s overlooked. The experience is weaker, and the toxic gamers thrive and multiply.
It’s become a vicious cycle, and online modes such as The Rec continue to suffer for it. With that in mind, it’s going to be very difficult to improve the situation, but I do have a few ideas. These concepts actually come from NBA Live 19, and while there are definitely aspects of NBA Live that NBA 2K shouldn’t copy, it has brought some good ideas to the table. One of the NBA Live 19 patches repurposed a mechanic from the Court Battles mode, which nerfs shooting ability if you hog the ball too long. It was added to LIVE Run as a standard modifier, effectively punishing shooters for over-dribbling and letting the ball stick. Being a black hole has tangible drawbacks.
Naturally, it would have to be properly balanced, but introducing penalties to shot percentages – and possibly even dribbling fatigue for ball-hogging – might encourage gamers to play less selfishly. Of course, the current Hot/Cold system isn’t much of a deterrent to anyone willing to toss up threes out of a triple-team, but it’s a start. The other idea I’d bring across from The One in NBA Live is higher physical attributes. As it stands, it doesn’t make sense that 19 to 21 year old rookie MyPLAYERs have low athletic ratings, when their athleticism should be at its peak. Give us all the athleticism our build allows, and just have us grind to improve our skills to compete.
Matchmaking is also a must, and there needs to be separate casual and competitive settings. Team Pro-Am games need to allow a minimum of three users in 5v5 games, as in NBA 2K16-18. Additional settings can always cater to gamers who would prefer not to play games with AI players. Assemble Rec squads according to a combination of Overall Rating, experience/MyREP, Teammate Grade, position, win percentage, and perhaps a sportsmanship rating that’s affected by criteria such as quitting matches (including dashboarding, if possible). The Teammate Grade could be tougher on ball-hogging and bad shot selection, with increasing penalties for repetitive instances.
There also needs to be good gameplay balance, a fair meta game, no broken or OP builds, and solid mechanics. It’s telling that the NBA 2K League restricts the builds that its participants can choose from, in an effort to present more entertaining virtual basketball. Honestly, it still doesn’t result in a very good product, with a rather tame fight being one of the most entertaining things to come out of the League since its inception. The bottom line is that The Rec, The Playground, and team Pro-Am, all need to avoid cultivating toxic attitudes and styles of play. In short, they must aim to offer the best online basketball experience possible, for as many gamers as possible.
Of course the rest is up to us, because as a community, we share in the blame with 2K. Yes, there are things the game could be doing to make The Rec and online play much better, and they should be done. However, we also need to develop better attitudes towards online team play. It’ll help if the game rewards unselfish play and penalises toxic behaviour, but we also need to demonstrate an interest in having a better online scene. As it stands, the scene could still be better than it is right now, if only we were committed to it. It’s going to take a change in culture, on top of much-needed additions and fixes, to lift The Rec and online play from its sorrowful state.