I can’t do it anymore. This is the year that NBA 2K has turned me into the Joker.
To be clear, the vulgarities of this year’s game are nothing new. There’s nothing here that will make long-time fans of the series take do a double-take with bulging cartoon eyes, or that marks NBA 2K22 as something that—highlighted in a vacuum—is uniquely guilty of. That’s the thing about straws breaking a camel’s back, though. The one that finally manages it doesn’t look too different to the straws that came before.
I’ve been reviewing this game, or at least parts of this game, for almost a decade now, and with each passing year have grown more disillusioned with the direction it has taken. It has been inching further and further away from, “Great basketball game with a broken but interesting single-player mode,” toward, “Exploitative psychological and economic trap.”
Each year my reviews have grown a little more frustrated, a little more exasperated, and a lot less tolerant of this money-driven shift away from the whole point of the series. 2k22 doesn’t constitute a huge additional step in this direction, but after eight years of subjecting myself to it on an annual basis, it’s enough to do me in. To help illustrate where I’m at, we can track my descent into madness as told through my last few reviews from the series:
2K18: Perhaps explaining this tone (or at least the process that led to it) is the amount of Branding™ in this game. From the sponsored shopfronts to the sponsored powerups to the sponsors lining up to sponsor your career, it’s overwhelming. There’s literally a “thank you” message to Jordan brand said aloud during the intro without an ounce of self-awareness. This level of advertising would be out of place at the best of times, but when you marry this with the push for microtransactions the entire MyCareer experience just starts to feel gross.
2K19: To play 2K19 is to be in a constant state of denial and refusal, always aware that in every aspect of the game, from the gyms to the stores to the action on the court itself, you can either spend VC or be told that you’re missing out on something.
2K20: That’s the extent of how NBA 2K20 views an act of personal sacrifice, one that barely scratches the surface of some of the more pressing issues affecting college sports and how it compensates the athletes that drive its profits... As a marketing stunt. An opportunity to sign some contracts. Like they looked at Colin Kaepernick’s struggles with the NFL and all they got out of it was his Nike deal.
2K21: NBA 2K21 is the contemporary 2K experience, as viewed through the eyes of an exhausted fanbase, taken to its logical conclusion. It’s a sports game thought exercise, an experiment in a publisher seeing just how little they can offer players while still maximising their profits. This game is the barest of upgrades, in some cases a downgrade from what’s come before, and yet at every step you’re still being hustled to spend real money on trinkets and upgrades, even in single-player game modes, despite this already being a full-price retail game.
2k22: *screaming into a void*
NBA 2K22 is simply not a basketball game. There is basketball in it, but that’s not the point. It is instead one enormous shakedown, an ornate palace built of never-ending attempts to coax more and more money out of the player despite the full-price cost of admission, some of them crafty and subtle, most of them obnoxiously obvious and disgusting in their persistence.
It is exhausting being around this game. If it’s not asking you to spend real money it’s asking you to relentlessly grind the most basic and joyless tasks, like the worst aspects of MMO and mobile game design found each other and thought, “Let’s launch an exciting new startup venture in the AAA gaming space.” Firing it up every day felt like work, like I was grabbing a helmet and lamp and putting in a shift in a virtual currency mine, chipping away at inert slabs of menus and advertisements, the prospect of this simply being a fun game about basketball being little more than a distant memory.
Not helping 2K22 is that when you do manage to get a ball on the court and just play, the entire experience is so stale. The series’ gameplay, like most sports games out there, is creaking with old age. In going back to old reviews for this year I watched some gameplay from 2K15, then gameplay from 2K22 and while there’s an expected increase in fidelity, as a whole the entire way the game is structured, controlled and played just feels tired.
(Note that I played the game on PC, which is saddled with last-gen tech, while the PS5 and Xbox Series X versions have nicer graphics, smoother animations and some extra features, like a bigger hub world area and a WNBA career mode; that said the bones of the game, and its economy, are the same across both generations)
I’m never the type to jump on the “sports games are just roster updates hurnh hurnh” crowd, because that’s always unfair. But then I’m never the type to just buy these games every year, survey a handful of bullet point upgrades, and think all is right with the world, either. For me there’s an elasticity at play here: I’m willing to give these series some room, because making a game every year is hard work, but there’s also a point where you have to say, OK, this is just getting old, things need to change. You may have picked up on where I’m at with the NBA2K series by now.
This is now the part of these reviews where I normally move on from my economic and grind-related complaints and say, you know what, it’s OK, because the basketball is still good. Then I spend a few paragraphs saying that the shooting meter is easier to understand (it is much better this year), or transition buckets are easier this year, or the AI is a little better at protecting the paint. Objectively that’s always fair, because this is a pretty good game of basketball, even if our standards for what that could and should be are rendered meaningless since this game has no competition.
But this year I’m tired, and 2k22 doesn’t deserve the absolution. 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.
I’m sure there will be fans who read this and consider abusively tweeting at me, saying how I’m placing too much importance on things off the court, and how they’re able to withstand 2K’s pressures just fine. They’ll tell me they get on with enjoying the basketball and certain game modes (MyGM is probably the least distasteful) as they are.
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. In 2K22 the only place I can do that in peace is the meaningless collection of one-off “play now” modes.
What drives me maddest about this is that it doesn’t have to be this way! 2K isn’t operating in some kind of sports game vacuum. Rival EA has made billions in digital sales through some of the most disgusting means imaginable, to the point where national governments have taken legal action, but at the same time those modes are reasonably firewalled. You can buy FIFA or Madden, play multiple career modes and, the odd cosmetic purchase aside, enjoy them in relative comfort if you don’t specifically want to jump in the money pit.
You can’t do that with 2K. Here, the hustle is everywhere. It’s not a modern sports game problem, it’s an NBA 2K problem, entirely of its own selfish doing and a decade in the making.