Let’s talk NBA 2K

Adam Reisinger is an editor at ESPN. He likes basketball video games. I like basketball video games. So we talked some.

David Vertsberger: Well Adam, we’re nearing the nadir of the NBA’s offseason, a scary place where headlines of Metta World Peace changing his name yet again have replaced the free agency drama of weeks prior. This is considered the lull of the NBA year, but the complete opposite of the NBA video games cycle. We’re about two months away from NBA 2K15, (and NBA Live 15) the latest from a series that I think we both would like to see more from. We both have strong opinions on a game we’ve played for years now, so let’s get into what changes we’d like to see in upcoming 2K titles. My first question for you is this, what was the biggest flaw in last year’s NBA 2K14 release?

Adam Reisinger: Wow, biggest flaw in NBA 2K14? That’s like asking “what was the biggest hole on the 2013-14 Philadlephia 76ers roster?” OK, that’s obviously an exaggeration, but 2K14 was reviewed like it was the Spurs when it was really more like the Warriors – fun to watch, but not really a championship contender. Putting the annual server debacles aside, the biggest flaw with 2K14 was the same as the biggest flaw in 2K13, 2K12 and so on: faulty gameplay. Specifics include passes going to the wrong player, AI defenders losing track of players with Bargnani-esque frequency, and point guards besides Brandon Jennings deciding that dribbling for 22 seconds before firing up a 28-footer was a good way of running an offense. Basically all the little things that make enjoying a good basketball playing experience difficult.

DV: Not to mention the abnormally high frequency of blocked jumpshots and poster dunks, unnatural running speeds between guards and big men, the list goes on for a quite a while. In their defense, 2K Sports hasn’t been ignoring gameplay. You can feel the changes between titles, and especially between 2K13 and 2K14. They added emphasis on help defense (though, forgetting the “help the helper” aspect of defense) and pace-and-space offense, things that are a BIT prevalent in today’s NBA. The thing is, it really is difficult to balance fun gameplay and realistic gameplay. If it was fully realistic, well, I’m sure you’ve tried to sit through a Bulls-Sixers game last season. Not very enjoyable. Have you seen a sports title walk that fine line perfectly before?

AR: I don’t think it’s possible for a video game to ever provide perfectly realistic gameplay, but improved gameplay doesn’t have to mean every game turns into Bulls-Bucks (man, people really don’t enjoy watching the Bulls, do they?). For example, try doing this in 2K14. If you do, the game actually forcibly ejects from your system and melts. It can’t come close to handling that level of passing – then again, neither could Miami – and that’s a “realism” improvement that would also make the game more fun to play. I’d just be happy if the game could just get to the level where it doesn’t have glaring gameplay AI errors that make you want to bash your controller into your coffee table (to choose a completely random totally not at all specific example that definitely isn’t based on personal experience). Also maybe don’t have goals in MyPlayer that make no sense with how basketball is actually played.

DV: I’m on your side with this, but for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, could 2K get away with the same success if they pool more of their resources into gameplay? I could be wrong as this is just speculation, but I’d say the vast majority of 2K fans want to see improved graphics and game modes above all else. I remember seeing people up in arms about last generation’s 2K14 looking so similar to 2K13, despite the big changes in gameplay. If 2K focused on making 2K16 about superb gameplay, and only touched up game modes and presentation, do you think it would have any major ramifications in the sales department?

AR: Game modes and presentation are definitely easier sells to fans, especially when you’re competing with yourself – which gets into the lack of competition 2K has had in this market for a few years now. For two years, there was no competing NBA Live product, and last year’s NBA Live fell short of being a real 2K competitor, so each annual installment of 2K has essentially been competing with the previous year’s game. And it’s certainly easier for a developer to point to new game modes or significant graphics improvements as an upgrade selling point than the nitty gritty of basketball gameplay. But when you’ve got a real head-to-head competitor? Then you might want to make sure you’re the best game to play.

DV: You bring up a good point with the lack of competition. 2K basically had a monopoly on the basketball game market for a good stretch there. It’d be nice to see NBA Live come back to once again challenge 2K. Have you played Live 14 at all? I played a good amount of the demo, and I guess the only way I can describe it is… It’s very raw. It’s like, Walter Tavares raw. It has the potential to be a helluva product, but boy does it have some rigorous work to do first. Your thoughts?

AR: When I first played Live 14, I thought it was draft night Bruno Caboclo – two years away from being two years away. But that was really more a first impression on graphics that were beyond underwhelming for a game exclusive to next gen systems. Really it was more like summer league Bruno Caboclo: not ready for primetime, but not as far off as everyone was saying. It just wasn’t 2K14, which was never going to be a fair comparison to make. 2K14 was the result of years of development momentum. Live 14 was the product of an 11-month cycle that was a last ditch attempt to save a dying product. And in that – and the fact that EA is releasing Live 15 – it succeeded.

DV: Well put. You mentioned MyPlayer, which set the basketball gaming world ablaze back in 2K10 with the ability to create your own player, get drafted and play in the NBA. It was huge, and it always brought some neat new features every year, such as playing key games only, making the Hall of Fame and giving your player a custom jumper. 2K tried to get really ambitious with MyPla- er, MyCareer, this past iteration and it… didn’t go so well. In fact, a lot of the headlining game modes like The Park and MyGM disappointed. Gameplay may be our biggest issue with the game, but it isn’t the only problem, wouldn’t you agree?

AR: I’m not gonna lie, I loved what they tried to do with MyCareer in 2K14 on the next gen systems, adding RPG elements and making you more invested in your player as a character. But the finished product just wasn’t quite there. Jackson Ellis is basically a cartoon character mash-up of Lance Stephenson, Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson and far too often the result of one of your choices – particularly in postgame press conferences — wildly differed from what it seemed like the choice would lead to. As much as I love playing RPGs, maybe that’s best left for BioWare, rather than 2K. As for The Park, every time I tried to get into it, it seemed like the servers were down, or no one was on. Which was a bummer, since that mode seemed like it had some potential.

DV: The RPG elements were TONS of fun – because of how ridiculous they were. It was almost parodic of the real NBA. No decision felt like it truly had significant effects on my career, which is something I dislike about games that advertise on the premise that your story can sway a ton of different ways. The whole thing was just cheesy as hell. The conversations could have been written by a casual 10-year-old NBA fan. As for The Park, when the mode actually worked it contained way too much sitting around and waiting for my liking. Sort of like an actual park, especially when nobody wants to play with the unathletic short kid. Not that it happens to me. I guess we’ll finish with this: what do you want to see out of 2K15’s game modes? Any modes in your head that have yet to appear in an NBA game?

AR: Bringing this full circle back to gameplay, I’d like to see a practice mode that actually helps you improve as a 2K14 player, not just one that runs you through a couple combos to earn VC (and we didn’t even in touch on the insanity that was VC in 2K14). (Ed. note: VC is the worst.) Yes, you can obviously use exhibition games for this, but it’d be cool if in an exhibition game, you could stop the play and say “wait, let’s try that again” like a coach would in a real NBA practice. Just to use a specific example: I suck at alley-oops, both throwing them and calling for them. I can play a bunch of exhibitions and only get a handful of alley-oop opportunities. But what if when one came along, I could pause the game and choose “practice this scenario” and get a bunch of reps with it until I felt comfortable doing it? I feel like that would help me enjoy the game more and make for “playing the game” improvements without needing a major “gameplay” overhaul.

DV: I want the ability to reassign one of my assistant coaches to daily report duty in MyGM.

David Vertsberger

David Vertsberger cares a little too much about basketball topics that few others discuss and basketball in general, probably. He also runs Brooklyn's Finest of ESPN's Truehoop Network and can be followed on Twitter at @_Verts.