A post hit the frontpage of Reddit yesterday claiming that Visual Concepts was scrubbing negative reviews of NBA 2K19 on Steam. Level heads quickly prevailed and pointed out that Steam was merely undergoing routine maintenance. Still, it served to highlight that NBA 2K user reviews are once again miserable: A paltry 5 out of 10 on Steam and an even worse 2.3 on Metacritic.
As usual, it all comes back to Virtual Currency—the online currency that defines NBA 2K's flagship My Career mode. While other developers back away from loot boxes and in-game microtransactions, Visual Concepts continues to hold fast. And fans are fed up.
A few small concessions aside, NBA 2K19's VC is problematic as ever. It imposes a punishing curve on the early hours of My Career, virtually guaranteeing that you either have to spend to get your stats up to a certain point, or suffer as you lumber down the court missing layup after layup. It forces you to choose between stats and cosmetic items. And worst of all, it ties My Career to online servers. My Career has an offline mode, but it's so simple as to be unrecognizable. All you get are normal games with virtually no frontend or presentation.
The result is a mode that sometimes resembles a heavily monetized mobile game. There's a Daily Spin wheel that gives you prizes. There are ads everywhere, with one of the main components of My Career being to earn sponsorships from Foot Locker and Gatorade. There's even a slot machine jackpot fueled by VC from buy-in games, which is flat-out gambling.
I've been playing a lot of My Career this month, mostly because it's a change of pace from FIFA, and while I've been enjoying the high-end presentation and excellent gameplay, the influence of VC is impossible to ignore. I've taken to wearing basic sweats simply because I don't want to waste valuable VC that could be going toward building up my character. Every time I finish a game, there's that characteristic pause as NBA 2K connects to the servers to register my VC earnings. There are even ATMs for me to "withdraw," i.e. buy, more currency.
I put up with it because there's a legitimately great mode buried underneath all of these microtransactions. NBA 2K19 is the only sports sim to really make you feel like you're part of a team, from the way that it shifts behind the scenes to the locker room, to the way that Anthony Davis will text you congrats after a spectacular alley-oop. It connects its story, which follows a journeyman player from China to the NBA G-League, to the main mode, which is something I wish FIFA's The Journey would do. And it has some shared world elements that are legitimately neat, such as walking around and seeing people playing pick-up basketball in the center of NBA 2K's Neighborhood communal area.
When people wonder why I gave NBA 2K19 a largely positive review, it's because of these elements. It's also because its suite of franchise modes, which are largely disconnected from microtransactions, are the best in the genre. From the presentation, to the commentary, to the franchise modes, NBA 2K19 does so much more than almost any other sports sim. It makes Madden, FIFA, and NHL feel almost painfully dated by comparison.
But all of these marvelous positives are getting lost amid the continued blowback against NBA 2K's microtransactions. It begs the question of how long an annualized series can sustain such negative feedback. NBA 2K18 enjoyed record sales and profits despite last year's VC controversy finally boiling over. How many more years can NBA 2K continue to expect these sorts of profits? Is there a breaking point in which fans will finally stay away?
Visual Concepts' actions suggest that it's banking on the answer to that question being "no." It's counting on a vast casual audience of basketball fans who will happily continue to buy in year after year, and have no problem whatsoever opening their wallet to spend a little extra on microtransactions. And as long as this remains the case, Visual Concepts will soldier onward. Because it can. Because Virtual Currency has made Visual Concepts richer than you can ever imagine.
You sort of get the sense that it's in too deep now—that even if Visual Concepts wanted to turn off the Virtual Currency tap, the hit to revenue would be too painful. Why do it if fans are just going to keep buying? It doesn't even matter if the support centers are being flooded with problems like VC disappearing from accounts. It's been like this for going on five years now, and NBA 2K is more popular than ever.
The only way things will ever change is if one of three things happen. One is that is that the online backlash gets so large that it reaches Star Wars Battlefront-like proportions. This is unlikely because Visual Concepts isn't EA, and because sports fans aren't quite as... uh... vocal... as Star Wars fans. Fans are angry, but not so angry that memes about it are reaching Reddit's frontpage every single day.
The second is that NBA Live actually becomes a viable competitor again. This is again, unlikely, but NBA Live at least has something of a foothold now, and even a little bit of positive word-of-mouth among basketball fans. It's still worlds behind NBA 2K in terms of modes, polish, and gameplay, but if it ever manages to make any kind of large leap, all of the ill will against NBA 2K will finally begin to tell. This is the biggest danger facing NBA 2K, unlikely as it is given how unwilling EA seems to be to invest real resources into it.
The third is that Europe decides to step in. Once more, unlikely, but FIFA is squarely in Belgium's crosshairs right now, and NBA 2K does enough to promote gambling that it could reasonably be next.
The most likely scenario is that Visual Concepts simply continues as it has with NBA 2K while enjoying record profits. It's a frustrating scenario, but a seemingly inevitable one.
You can see it in quotes like this one from senior producer Rob Jones. "Every game, at some point, in some way has currency and they're trying to get additional revenue from each player that plays the game. You know, the question has to be when does it feel like it's a straight money grab versus when does it feel like it’s value added, right? We know nowadays that most people don’t have the patience to work their way to the top. They just wanna be there right away. So, you know, we look at it as, ‘oh it’s an opportunity for us to allow you to skip the grind’, but then if the grind is too long, like some people felt last year, they’re gonna sit there and they’re gonna go ‘well, you knew the grind was too long to begin with."
Translation: Everyone else does it and we're not changing. It speaks to the arrogance with which Visual Concepts has approached microtransactions. The fact the fact of the matter is that no triple-A game is as overloaded with microtransactions and tacky sponsorships as NBA 2K. No, not even FIFA and Madden.
The best possible scenario is for NBA 2K to keep VC but decouple it from stat growth, making it cosmetics-only. NBA 2K should likewise develop an offline version of the mode that drops the Neighborhood but retains stat growth, the story, the presentation elements, and whatever clothing you buy online. While NBA 2K wouldn't be entirely freed from the grind inherent to collecting badges and building stats, it would at least be more balanced, and it would make the Switch version infinitely more appealing (I just want to play My Career on a plane, darn it).
But as it stands, Visual Concepts appears to be digging in its heels, putting its fingers in its ears, and yelling, "La la la la la I can't hear you." And while it does so, other sims are starting to catch up. NHL has a great franchise mode of its own, has dramatically improved the action on the ice, and has even introduced its own shared world in "World of Chel." And unlike NBA 2K, NHL is being praised for its shared world and cosmetics because it doesn't try to shoehorn in unwanted microtransactions. If EA has gotten anything right this year, it's this.
Meanwhile, NBA 2K continues to squander all the good will it built up a decade ago, when NBA Live self-immolated and Visual Concepts put Michael Jordan on the cover of NBA 2K. We're a long way from the those heady days, and so long as Visual Concepts continues to resist bowing to public pressure, they're unlikely to ever come again. It's too bad, because I really like NBA 2K for the most part. But more than ever, something has to give.