NBA 2K23 Brings Basketball History to Life (Just Watch Out for Those Microtransactions)

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<i>NBA 2K23</i> Brings Basketball History to Life (Just Watch Out for Those Microtransactions)

Back in July I got to play a little bit of NBA 2K23 at a preview event. When I asked 2K’s Marketing head Alfie Brody and Gameplay Director Mike Wang about monetization, I got answers that were open to interpretation and left a lot to be desired. Having now spent a lot more time with the shipped version of NBA 2K23, I feel confident that the game isn’t just about wringing every red cent from players. A lot of the crasser product placement seems to have been jammed into the open world-RPG-like MyCareer mode, which I’ve more or less avoided. There and elsewhere, NBA 2K23 is a comprehensive basketball experience.

I don’t like that NBA 2K23 starts by asking your date of birth. It’s likely hard to remember now, but once upon a time the EAs and 2Ks and Ubisofts of the world didn’t ask you to make an online account as soon as you wanted to start playing a single-player game. Granted, you can postpone giving them this information until you feel like playing MyCareer (which is a single-player mode at first) and MyTeam (2K’s version of the trading-card/gambling game), but those are the flagship game modes of NBA 2K these days as part of a general industry-wide trend toward games-as-a-service and always-online play. I remember how upset we all were when the Xbox One was advertised as having a required camera and being always online. Now we all just live like this. You used to be able to play games without signing away privacy rights. Now, just like every other electronic service and most big businesses, videogames compile information to be sold between one another to in turn sell things to players. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Past that initial annoyance—which is why I’ve been in no rush to interact with MyCareer—I found the gameplay very enjoyable, with an exciting suite of modes and options. It’s sort of infuriating seeing how much better this is than Madden; even though the landing page still tries to get you to play the card game mode here, the rest of it is a joyous experience.

The first thing I checked into was the WNBA section, where 2K players can jump into “The W.” There they’ll find the MyPlayer for women’s basketball, the MyWNBA franchise mode, and Quick Play, or be able to jump straight into the WNBA playoffs. It’s really cool for the WNBA to be gaining prominence in the videogame space as women’s sports are gaining long overdue prominence in wider culture. (Congratulations to the Las Vegas Aces for winning the championship this weekend.) NBA 2K likely doesn’t need four different covers (Devin Booker, Michael Jordan, and there’s a Dreamer edition with J Cole for some reason) in a predominantly digital download era, but it’s cool that one of them has WNBA legends Sue Bird and Gina Taurasi.

After “The W,” I went straight into “Jordan Challenge” mode, which starts in the 1982 NCAA Championship between Michael Jordan’s North Carolina Tar Heels and Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas and goes on from there. What’s especially impressive about these early challenges—and it’s mimicked in the older eras of the “MyNBA” dynasty/franchise mode—is the way fthe presentation is set up to suit the older eras. The on-screen scoreboards and instant replay are changed to reflect how the game looked on TV back then, and there’s a filter over the screen to further accentuate the change.

Coincidentally, the thing I’m most impressed with across the board is the ability to play in the NBA during different eras, with historic rosters and historic draft classes. The eras are “The Magic vs Bird Era,” starting in 1983; “The Jordan Era,” starting in 1991; “The Kobe Era,” starting in 2002; and “The Modern Era,” where players can start in the 2022 offseason, the 2022-2023 regular season, or the real-world date (once the season starts). It’s odd to me that the 2010s got skipped over, but I still think this is an ambitious undertaking. Now, neither the rosters nor draft classes are perfect. There are generic players to fill slots for real life players they couldn’t sign. But it took me a while to figure that out because the historic rosters are deep. Though one funny quirk includes incorrectly aging players like former Philadelphia 76er/Golden State Warrior Sam Williams to try to force an early retirement (in real life he moved from the NBA to the Euroleague between the 1985 and 1986 seasons). You also have the option to edit the rosters and the draft classes, so it wouldn’t surprise me if—before the season is over—some hardworking fans have updated everything.

The NBA 2K team also didn’t focus on having accurate coaching rosters or front offices for the period (in my first go-around in 1983, the Lakers coach won the Coach of the Year, but it was most certainly not Pat Riley). And Chris Broussard does draft analysis at a time when he would have been in his teens. Still, it’s exciting to get to go through the last four decades of NBA basketball, see changes occur as they did historically, and even override them—you can accept or deny general rule changes and things that get voted on at the owners meeting. You can decide where the NBA All-Star game is played. In addition to the real-life expansion teams and team moves that historically occur, you can just add expansion teams based on templates made by the design team or based on your own design or one downloaded from the internet made by another 2K player.

I don’t have a ton to say about MyCareer. It has a very expansive storyline that they’ve built out. I have no doubt that there are some players whose aspiration when playing 2K is to make a fictional NBA rookie that develops a rivalry with a guy who thinks he’s better but got picked later. There’s certainly a satisfying feeling to beating him in the Summer League Championship. And the design depth that went into fleshing out the MyPlayer’s apartment and The City is admirable. It’s not where I’d personally put resources, but I’m sure lots of people will be pleased.

Meanwhile, PlayNow includes the Blacktop, a streetball mode which allows games of as few as one-on-one or as many as regulation five-on-five basketball. There’s just a lot to do in this game, and it’s well executed.

If, like me, you’re a semi-casual basketball fan (I watch a handful of regular season games and then tune in consistently during the playoffs) who hasn’t played a ton of NBA 2K year-to-year, this will probably suit you perfectly. If you do play 2K every year, you’ll be treated to gameplay improvements in fluidity of motion, shooting physics, and defense. It’s a prettier, better-handling game than last year with the awesome addition of MyNBA Eras. It feels like a major step up after some years of critical backsliding. Here’s hoping they can maintain the momentum.

NBA 2K23 was developed by Visual Concepts and published by 2K. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X|S version. It’s also available for the PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, Mac, and PC.

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.