The NBA is a Lost Cause in Video Games

NBA 2K used to be a gem in the video gaming space. According to Steam, 2K12 is my third most-played game of all time (behind Fallout New Vegas and Fallout 4), with game after game of my MyPlayer career accounting for over a thousand hours of time spent since the game came out way back in 2011.

I have found little compelling reason to buy an NBA 2K game more recently and have given up not only on the franchise but on the hope that a licensed NBA game will ever be good again.

We can of course start with the microtransaction model, an absolutely grody cash grab that would be an embarrassment in the free-to-play mobile space and is a crime in a game that 2K Games wants us to pay 60 bucks for before even beginning to go into the loot-box-gambling mechanics that underlie the particularly egregious MyTeam (just Google “nba 2k myteam ripoff” and enjoy) system.

Then we can go into a MyCareer mode that is at best broken and at worst so wrapped up in the “lifestyle” element with its trading in stereotypes and artificial constraints on the player’s effort to just create themselves and enjoy a career mode that used to be good almost a decade ago that started with “A Spike Lee Joint” infecting 2K16…ahem, lost the plot there but you get the point.

So disillusioned am I with NBA 2K as a franchise and with the effort of video game developers to put out something other than a competent simulation of the world’s most popular basketball league unencumbered by a bunch of garbage that even when 2K20 went on sale for $9 on Steam a couple of weeks ago, I had no interest in picking it up.

Put simply, what I’m looking for as a gamer and what NBA-licensed gaming offers are two different things.

I realized this coming at the problem from another sport. Because I don’t own a PlayStation 4, I don’t have access to MLB The Show, the only officially licensed Major League Baseball game. There hasn’t been an MLB 2K game since 2K lost the license after (the rather lousy, it should be noted) MLB 2K12.

But I am not starved for great baseball games. On mobile, I have Baseball 9 for Android, the best thing that ever happened to an over-an-hour-long bus commute from the suburbs into the city. The game has no MLB license but it doesn’t need one, since it offers a remarkably competent simulation of the sport of baseball that’s plenty of fun on its own with the players I’ve used to build my team (with minimal microtransactions that I’ve bought only to throw a few bucks the developer’s way and get a few nice perks to my key players in the process but which you can totally have fun without.)

Likewise, I’ve recently become borderline obsessed with Super Mega Baseball 3 on the full-size PC (it’s also available for console and the Nintendo Switch and you should totally play it if you like baseball), playing over a hundred games since buying the game last month. I created a custom team (go Beavers!) and even created all the players using the names from my Baseball 9 team on my phone. It’s a nice little continuity nod for the virtual hardball world my games inhabit.

My point is that you can get great baseball without needing an MLB license.

This is something I want to see done for basketball. Whether it’s Metalhead Software (the guys behind Super Mega Baseball) developing it or some other company with a love of the hardwood and the ability to deliver a rock-solid gameplay experience, the key to great basketball is to decouple it from the league that 2K has on lockdown putting out a garbage product that people buy because it’s the only game in town.

The same problem exists in American football, with Madden NFL choking out folks who want to run a gridiron franchise (#FixMaddenFranchise, anyone?) and who would be willing to put up with “fake teams” (never mind that to come back to Super Mega Baseball again, if you create an interesting, compelling game universe, that takes on a life of its own) or custom-created teams in order to just get a great football game with great front-office mechanics.

Because I love NBA 2K12, but that game is absolutely showing its age as a PC port of an Xbox 360 game.

I want to be able to sit back, pick up my USB controller, fire up my computer, and just play great basketball, with the right combination of realism and set-it-apart character to while away the hours outside of work de-stressing and having fun.

And 2K just doesn’t offer that anymore.

C’mon, Metalhead. Super Mega Basketball. You know you want to. I’ll be first in line to buy.