NBA 2K23 is a video game more than 20 years in the making

At Visual Concepts, the 2K Sports studio responsible for NBA 2K23, development usually runs for a week or two, then the team takes an entire workday to play the current version of the game and evaluate what they’ve built so far. For executive producer Erick Boenisch, that also meant some time spent reflecting. Reminiscing, even.

“Going through the drafts, you’re literally like, I have the chance to draft Shawn Kemp here,” Boenisch said with a chuckle. “This is insane! Or, Here comes Hersey Hawkins. I love that guy in real life.”

Boenisch, 43, was speaking to Visual Concepts’ transformative approach to a sports video game’s traditional franchise mode in NBA 2K23: MyNBA Eras, which lets fans start in the NBA of 40 years ago (or 30, or 20) and rewrite professional basketball history from there. There is simply nothing else like it in sports video gaming, before or since. And delivering this experience, Boenisch said, was as personally fulfilling for him, and NBA 2K’s development staff of 475, as it is for the millions of fans who have now peeked inside the mode and gone down a time-travel rabbit hole for themselves.

“Dino Radja,” Boenisch said, calling out the 1994 Boston Celtics’ Croatian sensation alongside Hawkins. “I love that guy. In my childhood and my youth, they hold special places in my heart. Like Dana Barros [also a Celtic from that time] — always on my team. At one point, he held the NBA record for most consecutive games with a [3-point basket] made. […] I always had him on my team for that.”

Radja was gone from the NBA well before Boenisch joined Visual Concepts 20 years ago, fresh out of Sonoma State University, which is 20 minutes north of 2K Sports headquarters in Novato, California. But Radja, and Barros, and Hawkins, and all the other guys who didn’t make the cut in the earliest versions of NBA 2K come to life this year in a mode that Boenisch and his longtime colleagues blue-skied and spitballed almost from day one together.

Michael Jordan in his NBA All-Star uniform from 1985 to 1990

Image: Visual Concepts/2K Sports

“If you’ve astutely paid attention, we’ve been working toward this for a long time,” Boenisch said. “We’ve been adding classic teams and cities for years and years and years — and getting players’ [likeness] rights along the way — [and] creating historic uniforms, court floors; the MyTeam mode has so many historic uniforms and players. We were building up our library to pull this off.

“If you undertake everything that is MyNBA Eras in one year, it is physically not possible,” Boenisch said. “But this year, I was like, We have enough. We can do it.”

MyNBA Eras lets a fan start a franchise playthrough with any NBA team extant in one of four years — 1983, 1991, 2002, or 2022 — and continue from there. For guys who are Boenisch’s age, or mine, it is a riot of nostalgia. Seeing David Thompson’s name in the Golden State Warriors’ starting lineup on opening day, 1983, was an emotional experience I’ve never had in another sports video game. Taking over the Charlotte Hornets in 1988, and betraying my favorite player from that team — Rex Chapman — by drafting center Rony Seikaly instead, I had to go hide in the bathroom for five minutes, and I live alone.

It didn’t come together until 2022, Boenisch said, because the demands of building two separate versions of NBA 2K21 — for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and then for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X — left Visual Concepts with an even shorter development cycle last year for NBA 2K22.

2K22 was, literally, our shortest dev cycle in NBA 2K history,” Boenisch said, because the PS5/Series X version launched in November 2020. “And that was coming off the backs of, you know, a new console generation, and the pandemic. There’s only so much you can ask from people.”

MyNBA Eras isn’t just a cosmetic appliqué over some renamed rosters. Professional basketball’s rules have evolved greatly — perhaps more than those of American football — over the past 40 years, alternately allowing and prohibiting things like zone defenses, hand-checking, and contact a lot more rough than you see in the present-day sport. Boenisch and gameplay director Mike Wang knew that the time-travel promise inside MyNBA Eras would ring hollow if all it delivered was classic uniforms and a CRT screen filter.

Screen showing the starting lineups for a 1980s Lakers-Celtics matchup, in period graphics

Anyone over 40 is now hearing CBS’ intro music and Pat O’Brien introducing tonight’s starting lineup.
Image: Visual Concepts/2K Sports

“Mike is like me — he’s a fan of the game, and a fan of the history of the game, more importantly,” Boenisch said. “The game has to honor those things, or really you have nothing. 2022 rules playing in 1985 — I guess you can, but it’s just not at a level that I could sleep well at night.” It only took a brief conversation with Wang and his gameplay lieutenants, Boenisch said, to get them committed to the complete immersion that Boenisch imagined for MyNBA Eras.

“His team was like, This is something new and different; we love this,” Boenisch said. “We’re old heads, most of the people on that team — we’re in the Dad Phase of life, right? So they were just super gassed about doing this. Mike’s team was gung-ho, 100%, whatever it takes to make the best game of basketball, and they delivered.”

The harder sell was getting buy-in from all of the third parties who contributed to NBA 2K23, whether that was recalcitrant institutions like Michael Jordan’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina, or the Los Angeles Lakers’ owner, Jeanie Buss, or even the Atlanta Hawks’ all-time great Dominique Wilkins, who isn’t camera-shy but never sat for an interview about Jordan until 2K Sports came calling. All of these moments are presented interstitially in the Jordan Challenge, a showpiece mode where players re-create 15 of His Airness’ greatest achievements, from college to his last days as a Chicago Bull.

In the same way that NBA 2K23 is a product of years of iteration and ambition, the wholehearted participation of sports personages like Mike Fratello, Phil Jackson, and Patrick Ewing also can be attributed to years of grunt work, building something that started as a first-party sports title for the Dreamcast into a mainstream pop culture phenomenon. “The other half of it is putting out a product for so long, that is of such high quality, that people understand if you reach out to them, you’re doing high-quality work,” Boenisch said. “Then they don’t have to worry about, How am I going to be presented in this game?

Boenisch allows that the concepts behind the Jordan Challenge and MyNBA Eras aren’t necessarily revolutionary. But Visual Concepts is still the first studio to bring them to life on video game consoles. That happened because he and Wang marshaled almost 500 people to row in the same idealized direction, and everyone bought in.

“Let me give you a stat,” Boensich said. “At Visual Concepts, here in Novato, we have over 65 people who have been at the company for 10-plus years. And there’s 40-ish that have been here for 20-plus years. That’s a big number on top of a big number. The people who work here are incredibly passionate about our game. So rallying the troops, this is never a challenge. We meet, we say, ‘These are the things we want to do.’ We have honest discussions on whether they’re possible or not.

“And then for the ones that we decide aren’t possible, we usually do them anyways.”

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