When the COVID-19 pandemic began, ESPN launched a ten-part documentary in association with Netflix called “The Last Dance.” The series chronicled the 1998 championship season of the Chicago Bulls, particularly highlighting the contributions of Michael Jordan and his journey through the NBA. With the NBA playoffs delayed indefinitely and nothing else for sports fans to discuss except Korean Baseball, it quickly became the sports event of the year. It’s the kind of series that recontextualizes sports, reminding fans that while we’ve been enamored with names like LeBron, Kobe, Giannis, and Curry – their imprint on the game doesn’t compare to that of Jordan, whose Bulls dominated not only sports but pop culture at-large through the 90s. It’s the kind of series that talks about championships – with an “s” at the end. It tells its story through years, reverberating through time. When you juxtapose that with NBA 2K – especially the latest iteration, you begin to realize how painfully the game is focused on the day-to-day. The grind of being a player or GM. How the game paces itself glacially, refusing to let you witness or create that feeling of timelessness. It feels like a short-sighted game – that’s because the best thing about NBA 2K21 is also its biggest weakness.
NBA 2K21 has finally done away with the aggressive micro-transactions – kind of. They’re still there, lingering in the background like a wallflower at a house party, but they’re not as aggressively in your face. I had to dig a little bit to find the in-game currency this year instead of being able to just hit a button and immediately get taken to the PlayStation Store. I appreciate 2K and the developer studio, Visual Concepts, listening to these complaints. There’s only one problem – the gameplay is still built around getting you to spend money to make the game bearable. This really comes out when playing MyPlayer mode. Your starting character is so rigid, stiff, and ineffective that it doesn’t feel fun to play through the story and the early stages of the career. For years, 2K has had the problem of cutscenes where the supporting character tell you about how good you played and how you demonstrated heart on the floor, while you wonder what game they watched and how they didn’t notice your four turnovers or your missed free-throws. Madden actually has this figured out in their Longshot mode, where they make the game easy when you’re in high school to demonstrate your early career dominance. How am I supposed to make it to the NBA when I can’t even beat high schoolers?
I said last year that NBA 2K20 had the best story of any MyPlayer mode thus far. So I found it kind of embarrassing that this year I could hardly remember what it was even about. And that’s become the problem with these MyPlayer modes – they’ve all started to run together in a sea of underdog stories that I can’t tell apart anymore. And the reason they all follow this “lucky to be in the league” trajectory is that NBA 2K is built around you being a bad player, because in order to be a good player you have to cough up major money. This year is no exception. You play as the son of a storied player who is now trying to work their way into the league and after denying their basketball skills attempting to pursue football. It has all the beats that the rest of these stories have had – playing the games through high school and college in an attempt to make it to the pros. It’s so rote and overdone at this point, I could barely stay engaged and it’s so frustrating to play that I didn’t enjoy much of my time with it.
What’s worse is what Visual Concepts have done with MyGM mode. Most of the tools in the game are stripped away and you have to earn the ability to set prices, control the roster, and change the team branding (including moving the team) by building trust with the coaches, players, and owners. Building these relationships can take multiple seasons, so you’re left playing the mode for hours and hours before getting a chance to do some of the most enjoyable things. The most reliable way to build trust and morale to have “chit-chats” with players and staff. These are scripted scenes with no player agency often repeating themselves as you discuss Fraiser, Taco Bell, and sneaker culture with whoever you’re trying to build trust with. The whole mode hinges on this mechanic – a mechanic where you don’t actually do anything.
I desperately wanted to move a team to Seattle and start my own basketball dynasty but after playing for a full day I had barely made it out of my first season and wasn’t even allowed to set my own ticket prices. Frustratingly, I couldn’t find a way to start simulating games and jumping in at crucial points, something that had allowed me to more speedily playthrough seasons in previous years. I could hardly find a way to simulate a game at all (I finally found the option outside of the main menu.) The focus has suddenly changed into micro-managing your team’s day-to-day operations, but this becomes tedious if you’re trying to rebuild a team, which is more fun than just taking over a powerhouse. MyGM mode has become one of the worst dynasty modes in all sports games – a real slog and not much fun.
There are a bunch of season modes to play this year. In fact, MyGM is buried amongst them. You can also play a custom season, though your customization options are limited. There’s no way to replace NBA teams with custom teams, you can only edit existing teams or add expansion teams. It’s unintuitive and makes me wonder what the point of playing a custom season is when your options are limited. The WNBA also makes a return, but their league still feels tacked on. If you want to keep the leagues separate, that’s fine, but without any of the key options (no MyPlayer, MyGM, or creation options) I don’t know that these additions provide much value.
Gameplay-wise, the simulation is starting to feel a little over-stuffed. This happens with sports games as they layer on mechanic after mechanic, it can start to feel like there’s just too much to keep track of. A new shot system allows you to target the hoop instead of using the meter. I found this a little unintuitive, and so I went back to using buttons to shoot, but that can be difficult when you’re trying to drive to the basket. Everything just felt a little more stiff and rigid this year. Basketball is a fluid game, where you want to move quickly to take advantage of openings in the defense and that felt difficult when I was trying to play the point guard position. There have also been changes to the dribbling mechanics, but I didn’t find the analog stick dribbling to be as effective this year. There’s a tutorial mode called 2K University for new players, but existing fans might also find themselves using it to try and remember all the intricacies of the game.
Like last year, most attention seems to have been paid to the MyTeam mode. MyTeam has been designed to carry your progress over the next-gen version of NBA 2K21 – which will likely launch with the new consoles. It also now has seasons which are designed to break up the ebb and flow of MyTeam, similar to the seasons of other online multiplayer games. You can customize badges, trade-in cards – if your goal is to milk hundreds of hours from NBA 2K, this mode can help you do that. I found it a little tedious, especially because I didn’t really enjoy actually playing the game this year, so trying to incentivize me to play hundreds of hours didn’t seem like a treat, more like a sentence.
The game still looks good, even great. I hate taking the hard work of Visual Concepts for granted, so I have to acknowledge that once again, a lot of work has gone into replicating the most famous faces in the game. That said, the presentation that surrounds the play on the court has definitely become rote. I love Kevin Harland and the studio team, but it all has looked and felt the same for so many years, it becomes difficult to appreciate it. That might be harsh, but I can’t help but admit, I’m just a little burnt out on even the best things NBA 2K has to offer.
The biggest aesthetic change offered is in the form of 2K Beach. A re-skinning of the neighborhood mode, which previously had paid homage to the street courts littering New York City, the king of which is Rucker Park. 2K Beach is inspired, I’m sure they play street ball in Los Angeles but it is not a recognized lifestyle the way it is in New York (though, spoken by someone who lives in neither city.) Don’t get me wrong the new neighborhood looks pretty enough, but it feels more gimmicky than the mode ever felt before.
My tired feelings on NBA 2K21 surprised me. Again, having just watched “The Last Dance”, I found myself really looking forward to playing some digital basketball this year, but this definitely feels like the weakest game 2K has had this console generation. I would go back to earlier versions and skip buying this year. It feels a bit like NBA 2K is simply treading water and getting itself ready for the new console generation, skipping anything new and exciting in its swan song. That sucks. Just because there’s the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X on the horizon, that doesn’t mean that the current generation deserves to be overlooked. NBA 2K began this console generation as one of the strongest sports franchises, and it’s sad to see it go out this way.
There’s no doubt NBA 2K21 looks good, but does it look any better than the years before it? The aesthetic is in need of a change.
The physics and mechanics of 2K are just starting to feel a little ancient and in-need of an overhaul.
MyGM mode used to be one of my favorites; now it feels stripped down and frustrating. Meanwhile, I can’t keep these MyCareer modes straight anymore, they’ve all just become a melting pot of the same story.
With the gameplay already in question, adding more humans who struggle with the controls, just adds more jank.
The game runs competently. I had a few server issues, and some long loading screens, but it’s nothing atrocious.
NBA 2K21 marks a new low, which is really disappointing. At times, NBA 2K has been my favorite sports franchise, reinventing itself in ways that reverberated across the industry. But this year’s edition feels incomplete and lacking. I would recommend revisiting older games before picking this one up; maybe the next-gen version will be more complete.