NBA 2K23: The Kotaku Review

After I went down the river last year, I honestly didn’t think I’d be back here reviewing NBA 2K23. What could possibly be left to say, for a series whose relentless pursuit of player’s time and money “sucks the life out of the basketball itself”, and in 2022 just keeps on doing it?

For most of the year I’d resigned myself to simply not covering this game at all. If 2K were going to keep tossing out the same predatory shit year after year, as the main focus of the series became increasingly disinterested in the sport of basketball, why should I keep reviewing it at face value?

Having played 2K23 for a little while though — courtesy of the early release of its fancier Michael Jordan Edition — I realised there was still something to write about here. Not a review, though. A warning. A plea.

This is not a full and comprehensive review, then, of NBA 2K23. If you want to see how defence has changed, or how dribbling in traffic feels, or if any tweaks made to MyGM mode are improvements over last year, I’m not your guy. I instead want to take this year to review 2K23’s wider place in the world of video games. If you’d rather me review a basketball game then I’m sorry, but 2K aren’t really interested in making a basketball game either, so I guess we’re square.

Because NBA 2K, like most other major sports series, is so intent on serving up the same content year after year, here are some sections from my NBA 2K22 review that, while old, are going to use used today as though they were new:

The game’s hustling and nagging off the court is so unrelenting, and I’m so worn down by it after so many years, that it sucks the life out of the basketball itself. MyCareer is so ruined by its off-key branding and constant advertisements that I wasn’t even that fussed about how phoned in the story was. Multiplayer modes are so overrun with microtransactions, grinds and ad exposure that I didn’t want to spend any time there either.

And:

I think the fact you have to work so hard to ignore the shakedown in a full-priced retail game should be enough to wave some red flags in the face of even the most easy-going fans. 2K22’s monetisation follows you around incessantly, nipping at your heels in every menu, taunting you at every splash screen, driving you mad with observations like the fact every single cutscene in the game is instantly skippable except for the first five seconds of a heavily Gatorade-branded timeout.

I don’t want to have to work just to enjoy a game of basketball. I just…want to enjoy a game of basketball.

If you think I’m being lazy simply reposting those old takes instead of writing new ones, then maybe this game isn’t for you.

Let me get this out of the way up top: If you are someone who just wants to play an old-fashioned sports game, one where you can get through some seasons controlling an NBA team and maybe run one for a bit, have friends over and pass a controller around, that still exists here. You can, in theory, buy NBA 2K23 and play like this, just these game modes, like it was 2009, and go about your life. You might even have a lot of fun doing it, because as tired as it is, the straight-up, on-court product is still pretty good (though I’ll get to this in more detail in a minute).

The actual point of NBA 2K23 though, the stuff that’s in all the marketing and pre-release hype from over-excited content creators and which occupy the top spots on the game’s main menu, are a different story. MyCareer and MyTeam are 2K23’s flagship game modes, the ones where all the gimmicks and attention are lavished, because these are the modes specifically designed to extract money from you at every turn, even though you’ve already spent $US60 ($83) just getting the game in the first place. And as we all know, extracting money from you is the only thing NBA 2K23 is really interested in.

Screenshot: 2K / KotakuScreenshot: 2K / Kotaku

I have spent the last week playing NBA 2k23 on PC, and very little about this game has been meaningfully improved in the last 3-4 years. Indeed, some aspects have even managed to regress. MyCareer mode, which carries over not just last year’s bizarre cruise ship setting but even your character’s nickname, is a shell of its former self (turns out 2K19’s lovingly cornball storyline would be a high water mark for the series). 2K23’s broadcast tie-ins are a step below previous entries. The game’s economy has also been altered; it will cost you more VC (the game’s virtual currency, which can be earned in-game but which is most effectively bought with real money) and time to level up your MyCareer character than last year. For those unfamiliar with the mode, it’s a singleplayer campaign, in a game you already paid $US60 ($83) for.

The game on PC also appears to be frozen in time; while sports game developers will always crow about advancements to some technological buzz word, in reality the on-court experience in NBA 2K23 is eerily similar to not just 2K22, but 2K21, 2K20 and even 2K19. From the half-time t-shirt cannons to player animations, this is a series desperately in need of freshening up.

Which, to a small degree, it has received on the PS5 and Xbox Series X, whose versions apparently feature better lighting and slightly smoother animation. I wouldn’t know, though, because despite getting the full-price PC version of the game, and downloading 130GB of data, I have been playing the PS4/Xbox One edition of NBA 2K23, as for the third year running 2K have decided against bringing the next-gen version to PC. I know it’s not alone in this regard — Madden is doing likewise — but it’s still hugely frustrating (note that FIFA 23 will be next-gen on PC this year). One or two years I can understand, that’s about the normal pace for a generational change, but three years — while still charging full price — is taking the piss.

I don’t know who this game was made for. Like, yes, there’s a basketball game in here somewhere, which in theory should appeal to basketball fans, but it’s not to be found in the game’s main multiplayer mode, MyTeam, which is actually just gambling (and resale) with a veneer of basketball plastered over the top.

And it’s definitely not in MyCareer mode, which exists in a brand-addled, cross-promotional hellscape:

I simply cannot imagine who suggested this. Greenlit it, wrote it. This and the rest of MyCareer feels like it was written by an AI trained on a marketing intern’s Tik-Tok account. It thinks the most important things in this game are brand, attitude, more brands, sass, Forbes’ idea of what streetwear is, then a couple more brands disguised as cutscene characters.

I just want to play basketball. I want the story to be about basketball. That’s…why I’m here. Presumably that’s why anyone is here. But to play 2K23’s MyCareer mode is to suffer, as it’s possibly the worst instalment in series history, even more than that time you played as a DJ walking in off the street to land an NBA contract. At the core of this year’s excruciating story is…beef between the 18th and 19th picks in the draft, which would be like basing a whole storyline on the fued between Tre Mann and Kai Jones. If you’ve never heard of either of those guys, that’s my point.

It’s so bad, featuring so many physically painful performances and instances of terrible writing and character design, that it’s almost indistinguishable from parody. If someone told me the video below was part of a Hard Drive article called “2K23 MyCareer Really Speaks To The Youth Of 2K5″, I would 100% believe you:

This game is a hustle. And the hustle is everywhere, from the moment you try to improve your player to big splash screens advertising card packs right down to every time I try and leave the game, where the next menu item down after “QUIT” is “BUY VC”. None of this is new, of course. VC made its debut all the way back in NBA 2K13, so for a decade 2K have been grabbing players by the shorts, flipping them upside down on the court and shaking them until all their lunch money falls out, and players just keep on coming back, year after year.

NBA fans are trapped. This game sucks, and gets worse every year, but it’s the only game in town. 2K have them, the NBA has them, and so long as they do, this game will keep offering as little as it can get away with, while trying to extract the most money it can get away with. With no competition to worry about, and a fanbase dulled by a decade of shakedown, the system in which the 2K series is operating was designed just for this moment.

I want to blame someone. I want to grab players and ask them why they keep putting up with this. I want to ask 2K why they can’t spend a little more of their profits on genuinely improving the game, not just fine-tuning its exploitative economy. I want to scream at one-time rivals EA, who haven’t managed to release a competing basketball game since 2018, and ask why they can’t mobilise some of their own billions to release something that lights a fire under both series.

But I can’t blame anyone. Like I said, the system is working exactly as intended. This game isn’t even about video games anymore. It’s operating outside of those narrow confines. This is modern sports, this is broadcast money, this is brands, this is content, this is raw, naked greed. For 2K23 the basketball is just the vessel, the excuse. There is no more refined example of the dysfunctional excess of modern life and its broken markets than this tired old video game. There are few other AAA series so defined by their starring role in financial earnings calls.

All I can do instead then is sigh and urge you, if you’re a long-suffering fan of the series, to try simply not buying it for a year. Or two. And maybe see if your friends will do the same. Just play the old games you already own and mess with the rosters. Because as I’ve found after years of railing against this series, there’s no amount of exasperated reviews on video game websites, or frustrated Reddit comments, or pissy tweets at Ronnie 2K that will move the needle on this. The 2K machine, from content creators to slick TV ads, doesn’t give a shit about critical feedback.

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NBA 2K23

When basketball meets money like this, the only thing that moves the needle is when that money is threatened. We’re seeing it in the actual NBA right now, in Phoenix, where the team’s owner Robert Sarver was severely under-punished by the league for a decade of fostering harassment and bigotry. In response, people didn’t leave negative Steam reviews, they — and when I say “they” I’m under-selling it, as everyone from Lebron James to one of the team’s minority owners has chimed in — mobilised and have now got sponsors threatening to ditch the team.

If you’re happy with the shakedown, or are happy paying full price for the half a game that’s unaffected, then by all means keep buying it. But if you’re tired of this game’s preoccupation with hustling you, and you want something to change, you’re going to need to stop buying it, and you’re going to need lots of other people to stop buying it along with you.

That’s naïve, overly-simplistic advice, maybe, but we’re a decade into this series’ slide straight into hell and nothing else seems to be working, so it’s worth a shot.

Image: Disney / KotakuImage: Disney / Kotaku

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