I got NBA 2K21 for Christmas. Have I ever really been into sports games? Yes and no. I loved them on the original Xbox and PlayStation 2 but dipped out of them as time went on. But I asked for NBA 2K21 for Christmas because I hit a sort of stagnation period at the end of 2020. Very few games were doing anything for me. It didn’t matter whether they were new or old, so I took a little break between mid-December and Christmas. I still played some games but it was not for long and not that often. Like I said before, I got NBA 2K21 for Christmas. Now I have 60 hours played in the newest basketball video game.
I know little about the NBA games and what diehard fans love and hate, but I am really enjoying NBA 2K21 despite how much it goes out of its way to loathe the player when not on the court. When not engaged in the act of playing basketball, all the game does is ask you to pour more money into it. It is gross, but thankfully all I am really doing is playing basketball and I will never delve into the MyTeam features for obvious reasons. But this essay is not about that. So, why has this game been so engrossing for me? Well first off, NBA 2K21 has a legit story mode. It is not a good story mode but it is engrossing in much the same way that the most cliched sports movie can be rousing and engaging. Trials and tribulations, love and loss, win or lose—it has all of that shit. The central story is a beat-for-beat sports narrative trope generator, but it goes for it in such an obvious way that it works (for the most part). I even found myself moved by some of what was going on in the central story. You play as the son of a deceased famous athlete. Everyone compares him to you, and in life, your father compared you to him and expected you to be him one day, if not better. This is the bit that really hit me. My dad is still alive but my parents, who were and are both athletes, forced sports on me at a young age and would often shame me for just chilling out/eating unhealthy food. We have worked past this but it is an irrefutable truth and a part of my past that still weighs heavily on me today, sadly. I was never an amazing athlete—I was only ever okay at football and lacrosse. I hated it and I hated most people I played it with. Coaches were cruel, players were too, and I felt rudderless. From age 10 until age 15 or 16, I just floated by, usually in physical and mental pain all because my parents saw me as a potential athlete more than their son who had his own passions. It still hurts me to this day. My dad was a star athlete in high school and I know that my eventually quitting organized sports really hurt him (at least we could and can still bond over jogging and skateboarding), and I know that it still does. So when NBA 2K21’s story flashes back to the main character’s dad berating his every action and telling him to be the best athlete or be nothing at all, well, that evoked a sort of visceral reaction in me. It hurt me, but once the story revealed what it was doing there, it drew me in—it feels weird to say that a sports game has helped me work through some personal trauma, but it has, if only slightly. The game, at least when speaking to my experience, gets that sort of father/son relationship right and that makes up for a lot of what the story does poorly…which is almost everything else. It has its moments but gets lost in its (sometimes compelling) melodrama. Another thing I like is that some cutscenes are just good “dudes hanging out but wholesome” moments, and in a time when I haven’t seen friends in person in forever, well I’ll take that shit where I can get it.
There is another aspect of NBA 2K21’s story mode that made me want to see it through—how it portrays high school athletics. The game starts during your senior year as you switch from football to basketball, and this story mode brought so many sense memories back to me from my time as a (sighs) high school athlete. Most of this is achieved sonically. The sound of a high school cheer squad, play buzzers, and high school announcers just ripped me back to those Fridays where my evenings were subsumed by high school sports. A lot of those memories suck but some are fun, and I found myself weirdly happy tapping into this hyperspecific milieu of mediocre equipment, packed gyms, and the tension felt when squaring off against rival schools. NBA 2K21 also gets into local school disparities between wealthy communities and everyone else. One of the high school games takes place at the local rich high school and their gym is NBA quality, and the announcers spend the whole game talking about this “great community”, healthy amounts of donations, how amazing every sports and academic facility is there, and more. I don’t think this game is class conscious at all, but this bit was fantastic in portraying the surface level, vapid pomp and circumstance that is the weaving of high school athletics, country club drama, and suburban wealth. All of that being said, it just felt weirdly nice to hear sounds I’d never thought I’d enjoy hearing again. I am not about to be like “actually, I liked playing sports!” or anything, but there was something comforting about just existing at that moment virtually.
At this point, I guess I should talk about the gameplay part of NBA 2K21. The game feels fantastic. The control scheme is kind of complex to wrap your head around at first and every aspect of actually playing basketball in-game is quite nuanced. Yes, it is easy to pick up and play but there are layers and modifiers to almost every motion. Just handling the ball leads the player down many different roads—there are different flicks of the thumbstick to dribble differently, switch up, cross over, dribble between the legs, and more. It was daunting at first, but once I got the hang of it I really couldn’t stop. And shooting feels so good! The right thumbstick is used for shooting and you manipulate it to create the proper arc and direction of your shot. I was genuinely awful at it for a bit so I went into practice mode and just shot on an empty court for about 30 minutes. It clicked. The sheer act of actually practicing in-game felt super nice, and shooting basketballs on an empty court as the sounds of the basketball echo through the gymnasium turned out to be one of the most relaxing things I’ve done in a game in some time. Team play feels great as you swap from player to player to pull off plays and get the ball into the hoop, but there is something really special about how basketball is played in the story mode. You only control one player, and thus you have space to really focus on your place and purpose in a greater team. Where do you fit when certain plays are called? Will you set a pick? What kind of player will you be for your team? It is some sports-game-as-RPG stuff that feels so great. As for me, I’ve chosen to just blend into the team in the sense that I am not a super showy playmaker or amazing shooter. I make good passes, mid-range shots and layups, and I can play commendable defense. The only thing I want is my team to succeed, and I have tailored my character around that. It can feel stressful controlling a whole team and it is also stressful always trying to be the amazing playmaker—there is a certain comfort in just wanting to be a good player, no more and no less.
It is 2021 and I can’t stop playing NBA 2K21, even though it asks a lot from me (besides my money, that is). Learning how to play virtual basketball has been a blast. I set little goals for myself and see if I can achieve them. While I don’t specifically care about basketball in reality, this game has helped show me what makes it such a special and incredibly compelling sport. Will I start watching the NBA? Yeah, probably. Will I play basketball in real life? No, probably not. I’m perfectly content with letting myself be active with things that I fully and truly love—distance running and skateboarding. Though I will definitely keep playing NBA 2K21 for the foreseeable future, here’s to seeing if I can get my shooting average above, uh, its current 35%.