NBA2K20 is the latest entry in Visual Concept’s annual NBA-licensed cash cow. Every year 2K spits out another iteration of the same video game, and every year it’s among the highest selling titles in any genre. It has one of the most rabid fan bases of any gaming franchise and its esports community is both large and lucrative. Within a few weeks of its launch it became the highest selling video game of 2019. So why don’t any of my friends or colleagues play it?
I can only assume they don’t know a good RPG when they see one. Because, in my not-so-humble opinion, NBA2K20 is the best roleplaying game ever made. Even if you hate sports games, don’t like basketball, and haven’t the slightest clue who any of the people in the NBA are, this game still deserves a spot on your shelf next to your favorite RPGs.
The first RPG video game I played was Venture on the Atari 2600. Despite its 8-bit graphics and the fact it only had three repeating levels, I must have sunk 100 hours into that game. My next obsession was Final Fantasy on NES followed by Dragon Warrior and The Legend of Zelda.
When the internet era hit in the late 1990s I turned my attention to text-based MMORPGs (called MUD/MUSH/MOO games) including many Simutronics games such as Dragonrealms. In the time since, I’ve played every online RPG game from Everquest, City of Heroes, and World of Warcraft to The Elder Scrolls Online and Eve Online.
Fast forward to 2019 and I’m splitting my time between a handful of incredible RPGs: Borderlands 3, Persona 5 (yes, still. I can’t wait for Royal), The Outer Worlds, and NBA2K20. If I had to choose only one, I’d stick with the latter because it has the most RPG features.
Experience-based character progression? Check. Multiple game modes to support both offline and online play styles? Check. Unique character classes, an engine that makes the game enjoyable for every build, robust action mechanics, a deep engaging story, and decisions that matter? Check, check, check, check, and check.
If you haven’t played modern sports games it probably seems like I’m being hyperbolic. Sure, any game is an RPG if you put on your imagination cap and pretend. But in this case the game was actually developed to be an RPG on purpose. In fact, most sports games today have a dedicated “story” mode that allows you to control an athlete protagonist on their journey from obscure rookie to sports legend.
The crowning jewel in NBA2K20’s RPG ambitions is its “My Career” mode. When you start up the game you’ll be asked to create your “My Player.” This can either be your in-game doppleganger – you can upload a scan of your face using the NBA2K20 app to put yourself in the game – or any character you can conceive and create using the robust character creation tool.
Like any RPG, you’ll choose from a number of character classes. Instead of the traditional warriors and wizards, you’ll pick from one of five basketball positions. In many ways they do play like old-school RPG classes. The “big man,” or center position is like a tank-build in that they’re responsible for defending the rim against layups and dunks. Shooting guards, the number two spot on the floor, are like wizards who can score high-value shots worth three points (normal shots are worth only two), but they’re also weak against larger attackers like the small and power forwards. Finally you have the point guard, the strategist and general of the team who, like a Cleric, bolsters their party with support and leadership. You’ll add a special move and, later, badges that work like perks to round out your character and make them unique.
Once you’ve decided on your class, or position, you’ll start building your archetype. This is where you’ll distribute your starting skill points and set your level caps. Basically, there are limits – you can’t just be perfect at everything, even Lebron James and Michael Jordan have weaknesses in their game. You’ll choose whether you’ll eventually end up being a Hall of Fame defender who can barely shoot the three or a slam dunk champion who gets back on defense but struggles with his mid-range shot.
Once you’ve created your “My Player,” you have the option to begin your “My Career.” Here you’ll participate in an epic, sweeping story about an athlete who stands up for what they believe is right only to face the repercussions of an unforgiving sports world. This is a fully-produced Hollywood story staring Idris Elba, Rosario Dawson, and your created character.
While playing this movie you’ll watch cutscenes that last as long as some of those in Final Fantasy XV and you’ll make important decisions that change the outcome of the game for your character and a number of NPC characters. By the time you’ve finished the introductory portion of the game you’ll have progressed from a college player dreaming of getting drafted to playing for an actual NBA team.
During the course of your career you’ll make contract decisions, decide who to play for, sign endorsement deals with in-game versions of real world companies such as Nike, Reebok, Beats, Gatorade, and a dozen others. You’ll be interviewed on radio shows, television shows, and by court-side reporters during games and you’ll even get the opportunity to deal with (or ignore) heckling fans after a poor performance.
Everything you do in “My Career” helps you to gain the necessary experience points to level up. The experience system in NBA2K20 is complex, but ultimately it has the same familiar RPG trappings you’d expect. In order to raise your attributes you’ll have to spend VC. This virtual currency can be earned in-game or purchased online with real money, so there’s a cap on how many attribute upgrades you can raise at once. This makes it a little more fair for players who can’t afford to spend real money on fake currency.
Through skill-based gameplay (and the occasional daily unlock) you’ll earn a different set of points that unlock more attribute upgrades. These combine to form your “overall” score, which is analogous to a traditional RPG character’s level.
In essence, you grind out your levels in NBA2K20 through a combination of conversation trees, deal making, and on-court play. You can think of it like talking to villagers, completing side quests, and then doing the bulk of your work in combat encounters.
But none of this matters if you hate the sport right? That’s a matter of opinion, but I disagree. I became an NBA fan because of NBA2K games. The controls are simple to pick up (one button passes, another shoots the ball) but the advanced moves you can pull off number in the hundreds. Don’t like your jump shot? Create your own. Want to dribble like Kobe Bryant, dunk like Michael Jordan, and shoot the three using Larry Bird’s animations? Go for it. You can.
You’re also not beholden to the NBA’s rules or teams with five players. You can take your created character and play online against real people in 2V2, 3V3, 4V4, and 5V5 games in NBA2K20’s open-world theme park “The Playground.”
Here, you’ll squad up with and against other human players to show off acrobatic dunks, personal skill, and all the moves you’ve practiced in the single-player mode. The experience, stats, and progression are all seamless: it doesn’t matter what game mode you play, you’re always improving your My Player.
Multiplayer games can get competitive to the tune of millions of dollars in prizes fought over by hundreds of professional gamers. And 2K hosts weekly events and tournaments to keep the open world experience fresh and exciting.
NBA2K20 isn’t anything like your grandparents’ sports games. It’s not just about rooting for the home team or pretending to be your sports heroes. The big draw, these days, is controlling the fate of a single player. If your team sucks, you can still rise up as a superstar. If your teammate in a multiplayer game can’t play defense and you get trounced, you’re still earning your own experience points and continuing along your personal journey.
You can also spend your hard-earned (or purchased) VC on character customization. You can change your look, clothing, accessories, and even purchase vehicles. Yes, you can buy a skateboard, scooter, or tandem bike for use getting around “The Neighborhood.” And there are hundreds of animations you can purchase and equip that change everything from what kind of flashy pass you can do to how your character struts around the map.
The customization in NBA2K20 is as deep as in any RPG I’ve seen. And this is how those “OMG” moments that keep long-time fans returning to the franchise happen. I felt a sense of ownership over my character. I was invested in his wild pink mohawk, skinny jeans, and Air Jordan sneakers. I wanted him to look different than the millions of other players. I spent VC to give him a taunt that makes him do the Moonwalk on command.
After playing through the early portions of the game and working my way up to become a starter on my NBA team in the single-player experience, I decided it was time to take my talents to The Playground.
I was nervous about my first “online” game against real people, but I trusted my three point shot and defensive mindset. After watching the players before me get routed in a 2V2 game, I joined a total stranger to challenge the victors for the court – losers leave, winners stay.
Right off the bat things went straight to hell. My partner and I were both rather shortish for NBA players and our opponents were both hulking monsters that kept dunking over us. Down 12 – 2, I managed to grab a steal and dish it to my partner who immediately passed the ball back as I sprinted to the corner and nailed a three point shot.
My shot meter flashed green, indicating I’d made the shot with perfect timing. I went nuts. This was just as exciting to me as rolling a natural 20 or landing a critical hit at a pivotal moment against a boss.
I leaped out of my chair in excitement and played the rest of the game standing up and jumping around. We’d go on to win 21 – 16 after an epic comeback that featured a slew of green shot meters. Me and the stranger stuck together and won our next four games. I felt like I’d made a friend that night. We’d defeated players with higher ratings together through teamwork, skill, and a little luck. We slew dragons and walked away with treasure. We were blooded and ready for more.
I haven’t even mentioned the many other game modes in this review – there’s a GM mode that’s equal parts RPG and business sim and a collectible card game that lets you build your ultimate team from historical and current players and then control them on court. These are both excellent RPG experiences.
I can’t think of any other game that gives you more bang for your buck than NBA2K20.
There’s a large learning curve to playing NBA2K20, but it’s worth it. It can be intimidating to play against humans who seemingly never miss. But you can always tune up against the CPU in a full-fledged story mode. There’s nothing else out there like it. Imagine if you could play Call of Duty online and then, instead of a “campaign” mode, it had a single-player mode that took the multiplayer character you created for team deathmatch and provided a never-ending single-player mode that focused on their career and allowed them to progress offline.
You can check out a demo of NBA2K20 on your platform of choice (PS4, Xbox One, PC). It’ll let you play around with the character creator and play some exhibition games with your My Player, but I think the demo focuses too much on basketball.
If I could have one gaming-related wish it’d be another Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic sequel, but my second choice would be a demo that lets you play the full version of NBA2K20 for 10 hours. That’s long enough to dive deep enough into it to get completely hooked, even if you’re not a big fan of sports games to start with.
Anyone who loves RPGs and wants to try a new challenge after conquering other online and offline worlds should give NBA2K20 a shot. It’s beautiful, brilliant, and packed with juicy RPG game modes.
In fact, it’s such a good RPG that it’s inspired me to try another game based on a sport that I’m definitely not a fan of: Wrestling. I don’t watch wrestling. The NBA2K series on Dreamcast led me to become an NBA fan, but I already enjoyed playing basketball on real courts. Given the opportunity to either wrestle in my real life or play a wrestling game, I’d usually take a pass on both.
But If a 2K game can make the NBA experience feel like an open-world RPG, then I can only imagine what WWE2K20’s done with the soap-opera that is the WWE. I’ll be picking that up post-haste.
Hat’s off to Visual Concepts and 2K for making a game that transcends its specialty trappings to become something even greater than its lofty ambition. NBA2K20 is the best game I’ve played all year and one of the most fulfilling RPG experiences I’ve had.