NBA 2K20‘s MyCareer story mode goes for something a little more real and a little less escapist. Narratively, it’s only partially successful; your character’s ethical code doesn’t gel with the materialistic wish fulfillment at the heart of the franchise.
An upside to the more serious tone is that none of the characters are deliberately obnoxious. For years, the NBA 2K MyCareer storylines were filled with bizarre, unlikable characters. Your avatar was a fame-chasing cornball. Your agent was a cowardly shill. And you were saddled with hangers-on from your old neighborhood who crashed your apartment and ate your Reese’s Puffs.
In NBA 2K20, the attempts at comedy and “hip” dialogue are gone. Your character is a reflective guy who takes a debatable moral stand and pays a price for it.
You play as Che, a basketball superstar and locker room leader for your college team, the Bay City Flames. You have a heated argument with your head coach (played by Idris Elba) after he pulls the scholarship of your injured teammate. You drop out with one semester left, and suddenly, your well-laid path to the NBA is in shambles.
Che must take the long route to glory. He plays in the Portsmouth Invitational, grabs the attention of scouts, and scores an invite to the NBA Combine. And eventually, after tryouts with several interested teams, he enters the NBA Draft. Whether he’s drafted in the first round or not at all depends upon your performance in the aforementioned activities.
Built To Ball
First, you design your character. After choosing your floor position, height, weight, and wingspan, you create your playstyle by balancing four different categories: Finishing, Shooting, Playmaking, and Defense / Rebounding. You further customize your player through badges, which are very important in this year’s MyCareer. Unlike in prior years, you have the choice to assign and upgrade the badges you want to, rather than grinding redundant plays to earn your bronzes, silvers, and golds.
To upgrade your MyPlayer to an 85 rating (from his initial rating of 60) will require anywhere from 150K to 200K in Virtual Currency, better known as VC, depending on what type of player you create. The game sells VC as a separate microtransaction from the core game; assuming you bought the standard edition, you would have to spend an additional $50 to start MyCareer as the prodigal talent you’re hyped to be.
If you decide to earn your 200K VC through gameplay instead of a microtransaction, you’re in for a grind, though it’ll be less strenuous than in years prior. NBA 2K20 is more generous with its sponsorships and contract negotiations, which provide VC incentives for making X rebounds or Y assists. We’re talking weeks to get to 90 or above, rather than months.
NBA 2K20’s on-ball and off-ball play has been adjusted in noticeable ways, too. Some are minor quality-of-life improvements, but other changes are more consequential. Blocking, for example, is much easier for both you and your computer-controlled opponents; you can no longer charge the basket on a prayer and expect to score. It feels organic to learn these new mechanics in the context of MyCareer. You’re forced to adjust and react to difficulties that you hadn’t experienced in prior iterations of the game, just as a real-life rookie has to step up his game in the big leagues; there’s an adjustment period.
Working The PR And Press Rooms
And as you negotiate this learning curve, the people surrounding your MyPlayer–the fans, the commentators, the press, and your fellow players–pull you in multiple directions. As your profile and notoriety increases, you’re made to choose between practice and enjoying the perks that come with stardom. You answer probing questions from the press. You endure heckling from fans.
Will you take the high road or stand up for yourself? Will you take sole credit for your accomplishments or defer to your team’s contributions? MyCareer makes you choose between building your team’s morale and building your fan base (literally; the game tracks both), which feels fallaciously binary. Not everyone loves a shameless braggart, but the game forces you along this path if you want to sweeten your corporate partnerships.
The entire mechanic is a musty holdover from the prior NBA 2K games, where your character was broadly rendered. But in NBA 2K20, Che has a modicum of depth, and your decisions can undermine what the audience has been told about him and his high-minded principles in cutscenes. Must he choose between team chemistry and fan adoration? Why not both? Nuanced characters deserve multiple, nuanced choices.
King James Decrees It So
There’s also an underlying meta-debate in MyCareer: Should athletes use their platforms to speak out publicly on issues that matter to them, or should they “stick to sports?” It’s something that LeBron James, who executive produced MyCareer, has increasingly dealt with.
The MyCareer storyline reaffirms James’ proactive ethos… but it’s difficult to meld the NBA 2K franchise with that ethos.
In 2014, James took an explicit stand against police brutality when he wore an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt in honor of Eric Garner. In 2016, he vocally supported Hillary Clinton. In 2018, he spoke out against President Trump on social media, and told his critics that he would not “shut up and dribble” as they said he should. The MyCareer storyline reaffirms James’ proactive ethos, albeit about the treatment of college athletes, with a character in a more precarious, unstable position than James was when he first became outspoken.
I don’t doubt James’ sincerity in celebrating athletes who speak out. But it’s difficult to meld the NBA 2K franchise with that ethos. MyCareer works as a power fantasy about becoming an NBA Hall of Famer with lucrative sponsorships. A story of principled sacrifice naturally conflicts with that.
The Odd Parallel
And there is also an impossible-to-ignore situational irony in this game: Although the game definitively supports Che’s rejection of materialism and easy success in favor of higher, ethical principles, the gameplay links his on-court abilities to the earning or purchasing of virtual currency–currency that you can earn by signing a multi-million dollar shoe deal. The game hints at and provides lip service to social justice, but the core conflict is solved with a single conversation and a neat bow. And the game’s more implicit narrative–of earning enough in-game money to facilitate your character’s growth–reigns supreme.
Is it even possible to have a truly woke narrative in a game so relentlessly money and fame-driven? Perhaps not. But NBA 2K20 asks you to accept this melding at face value. That’s impossible, but thankfully, there’s a legacy of NBA 2K quality that makes the reconciliation less important. The story and how it’s told don’t hold up to scrutiny. But the gameplay, honed from years of incremental development and effort, always does.
NBA 2K20 is, even in its contradictions, an excellent facsimile of the NBA itself.