The NBA’s partnership with game developer 2K has led to some truly unforgettable video game installations throughout the years. Since their debut title was released in 1999, the video game has taken sports simulation games to new heights.
Longtime fans of the series also know 2K has dropped the ball… on several occasions. Even so, the video games remain some of the most popular in North America alongside FIFA’s football simulator and the NFL’s Madden series with EA Sports.
Unafraid of spearheading new practices, the NBA’s 2K series is only the tip of the iceberg for fans of tech. Commissioner Adam Silver has plunged the basketball league into brand new territories, including a successful NFT platform called Top Shot and a fully VR subscription package in their League Pass package.
Despite the league’s successful forays into new fields of entertainment, 2K’s most recent iterations have come under fire. Longtime fans of the video games show a lopsided preference for earlier iterations, like 2K2 and 2K1 (according to Metacritic scores).
There are a variety of causes for the rising distaste for 2K sports, including the introduction of microtransactions, slow server speeds, and surprising lapses in player likeness. Payment portals are becoming increasingly common, while slow server speeds are bound to continue causing problems for 2K.
Player likeness, on the other hand, can lead to some truly hilarious mishaps. So long as a player’s design isn’t interfering with gameplay, it can be fun to watch a haunted-looking Luka Doncič run across the court or some strange man with only a passing resemblance to Jeremy Lin.
Player Ratings vs. Likeness
Over the years, player ratings have received better reviews than player likeness. Given 2K and NBA are partners, the developer has access to live data from every second of league play and is able to create accurate ratings for each player accordingly.
However, these ratings can shift when playing in MyGM mode. For example, Steph Curry, who features heavily in NBA picks from pundits and regularly boosts his team’s odds in any game, can average as many as 10 assists in a given season in MyGM mode.
In reality, the number is closer to six. In the unique case of Steph Curry, his physical design in the game is the most accurate part of the virtual athlete. There are other players, like Jeremy Lin, who have faced the opposite problem in their various cyber-twins created by 2K.
Best: LeBron James, 2K21
As the league’s resident king, it should come as no surprise that 2K sports spent ample time perfecting LeBron’s most iconic markers, from his tattoos to his beard. In fact, the developer may have gotten a bit too invested in creating a flawless virtual LeBron.
Back in 2016, 2K had updated (or, more accurately, revolutionized) its process for character design. Longtime players will remember the incredible improvement in player likeness between 2K17 and 2K18. One major feature were player tattoos.
The company that designed a few of LeBron’s tattoos ended up suing 2K for copyright infringement. However, a court ruled in favor of 2K sports.
Worst: Jeremy Lin 2K16
The heights of Linsanity had waned by the time 2K16 hit shelves, which only makes this mess-up even more baffling. Developers should’ve had plenty of time to nail the likeness of one of the NBA’s (if not North America’s) breakout stars of the 2010s.
Unfortunately for Lin, visual designers failed to create a recognizable character. First, he’s got a crooked nose. Second, he’s got a jaw bigger than Blake Griffin’s. Third, his mannerisms didn’t match any player NBA fans were used to seeing on a live broadcast.
Best: Devin Booker 2K20 & 2K21
Each year, 2K releases bug updates, which sometimes cover lapses in player likeness or will fill in updated tattoos of the NBA’s biggest stars. Recently, these updates have covered historical players like Robert Parish.
Back in 2019, Devin Booker received a huge update from 2K—and it’s one of their best player likenesses to date. They nail his iconic chin beard, as well as his mannerisms. But it’s his facial expressions that are most memorable, particularly his eyebrows and smile lines.
Worst: Luka Doncič 2K20 vs. Luka Doncič 2K17
Here we have one of 2K’s steepest improvements. In the past five years, Luka Doncič has turned from a talented rookie into one of the NBA’s most proficient athletes. His player likeness from 2K17 to 2K20 details this rise from obscurity perfectly.
The Doncič of 2K17 is missing the same color hair, eyes, or skin tone as the real athlete. He’s also got a lost, vacant expression that can’t be explained. And, despite the fact that 2K has clearly spent time upgrading Doncič’s features, even their 2K20 variation misses the mark.
Though fit with accurate facial features, the 2K20 version somehow still looks a bit… haunted. It looks like designers may have overdone the brightness of Doncič’s eye color. Some have pointed out that 2K may simply struggle to portray European players well. In the past, designers have also struggled to depict Kristaps Porzingis and Arvydas Sabonis.
Best: Steph Curry 2K18
As mentioned above, 2K flipped their approach to player design between 2016 and 2017 (2K17 and 2K18, respectively). This upgrade involved using facial scans from players and recreating them digitally.
The results were nothing short of spectacular for players whose main motivation in choosing a simulation game had been gameplay features. With its diverse range of customizable modes, 2K was already ahead of the game in terms of innovation.
Their visuals update saw huge approval ratings (which has helped distract from other issues in recent years) and few players drew attention quite like Steph Curry. At the time, he was fresh off his Dubs run in San Francisco, with his popularity at an all-time height.
The 2K Curry looked like a seamless copy of the real-life version in many frames. The design team also nailed his concentration face, his habit of chewing on his mouthguard, and even minute details of sweat and facial hair.