How NBA2K went from sports game to cultural touchstone

Chris Young
Sports Reporter

Few things demonstrate the rapidly expanding cultural capital of the NBA than NBA 2K, the annual gaming franchise that seeks to capture the essence of the league ahead of each and every season.

But how do you capture a sport with a personality as unique as the NBA, and make it accessible to the average player on their couch?

For the game developers at 2K, it’s a year-round challenge which has grown and evolved, not only in lock step with NBA players, but also the game’s dedicated fanbase - one which is becoming increasingly sophisticated and professional.

Every year since 2006, NBA2K20 gameplay director Mike Wang has spent his time at work crafting the most authentic experience possible - and it’s an experience that has come quite a long way since he first took a development job with 2K.

“It makes me feel a bit old, for one,” he said.

“When I first got into the industry I was a bit green, wide-eyed, excited for all these things I wanted to do, but I quickly saw the realism of well, here’s what we can actually do in development.

“Seeing that expanded is really cool. I’m still in a place where I’m a huge fan of the sport and the game, but when I see the game, i see the stuff that isn’t there yet, the potential that’s there, but it’s cool to see it slowly get there”

Australian NBA superstar Ben Simmons, as he appears in the upcoming NBA 2K20 videogame. Picture: 2K Games

Mike rightly points out that players of the game only see what the team has been working on once a year - what is a steady trickle of updates and balance changes for the dev team is a treasure trove of new features and re-worked gameplay for hardcore fans.

Gone are they days where the main gameplay loop was playing multiplayer on the couch (although that is still core to the 2K experience, and has been polished to near perfection).

Instead, what 2K has found is that rather than fill the shoes of their favourite players, gamers were more interested in playing alongside those superstars.

Culture of basketball is growing, changing

As NBA2K has grown, so has the profile of Ronnie Singh - or Ronnie2K as most fans would know him. He went from a kid playing NBA 2K05 to someone who is considered the face of the franchise.

Every year, Ronnie releases the ratings for most NBA players on his own social media channels, much to the delight or chagrin of players, depending on how their rating turns out.

He’s seen NBA2K grow from a fairly run of the mill sports game into something that has grown far beyond that.

In the upcoming NBA2K20, SpringHill Entertainment, the production company associated with LeBron James and Maverick Carter, came on board to help drive what 2K hopes will be the series’ most impressive story campaign yet - with AAA talent like Idris Elba and Rosario Dawson featured heavily in promotional trailers.

The day before Yahoo Sport Australia spoke to Ronnie at the NBA2K Community Day in Los Angeles, he had been visiting James’ ‘I Promise’ school in Cleveland.

“The lifestyle of basketball players has become about so much more about off the court,” he said.

“Yesterday I was in Cleveland at the I Promise school, looking at everything LeBron has done, all of these guys are thinking that way, and our game has followed suit.

“As basketball becomes more of a cultural movement, so do we.”

WNBA stars Breanna Stewart (L) and Candace Parker (R) with 2K Games' Ronnie 'Ronnie2K' Singh prior to being scanned into NBA 2K20. Picture: 2K Games

For Ronnie, the game is about so much more than friends dunking on each other on the couch - it’s an opportunity to connect people to the world and lifestyle of a professional basketball player.

It’s a goal he says rings especially true for an international audience who can’t attend NBA games.

“I think NBA2K gives non-basketball attendees a huge chance to be a part of that culture and lifestyle,” he said.

“It’s growing tremendously year over year, there is still work to be done but it’s something we’re aggressive about. It’s imperative to for us to help that along.”

Yahoo Sport Australia was invited to test the game at the NBA2K Community Day in Los Angeles courtesy of 2K Games.