The Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry is an unprecedented talent in the sport of basketball. His jump shot is deadly from just about anywhere on the court — even from well beyond the 3-point arc. It was so good last season, in fact, that it threatened to break NBA 2K16.
This year, NBA 2K developer Visual Concepts is taking a path that could help out players looking to defend the Warriors — a club that’s now even more of a superteam with Kevin Durant on board — while simultaneously asking more of them. NBA 2K17 is focused on giving players more control than ever on the court, and when the onus is on you to execute, that’s a big responsibility.
The Curry conundrum
Steph Curry finished the 2015-16 NBA season hitting more than 51 percent of 3-point shots that he took between 28 feet from the basket and the half-court line, which is 43 feet from the backboard. The rest of the NBA shot less than 21 percent from that range, according to ESPN. (At its deepest, the 3-point line is 23 feet, 9 inches from the basket.)
That performance was so incredible that NBA 2K16, although it offered an acclaimed simulation of basketball, could not initially account for it. Senior producer Rob Jones told me in an interview last week that developer Visual Concepts designed the game with a "significant drop-off" in shot accuracy beyond a certain distance past the 3-point arc. That turned NBA 2K16’s version of Curry into a mere mortal when it came to shooting deep 3s.
"Steph and [the Warriors] started doing all that crazy stuff, and we weren’t really ready for it," said Jones. "So we didn’t want people to be able to shoot those shots. That’s obviously something that [we] thought about and fixed for this year."
The key was to ensure that other skilled long-range shooters couldn’t match Curry’s ability to hit 3s from way, way out — not even his fellow "Splash Brother," Klay Thompson.
"He’s the only guy that’s actually doing it," Jones explained. "Nobody else is coming down, getting to the hash mark, or getting to the circle, and going, ‘Well, I’m shooting from here, forget you.’ And so we didn’t want to make that change without being able to individualize that to the one person currently who’s doing it."
Control is power
On defense, it was already tough enough to stop Curry and the Warriors. Now, opponents will have to contend with Durant as well, and it’s almost a sure bet that the Warriors will be the most popular team in NBA 2K17 online play. What recourse will players have?
One strategy will be to rely on the game’s artificial intelligence. Jones told me that Visual Concepts did a lot of work on AI for coaches and players in NBA 2K17. That manifests itself in coaching decisions like the personnel on the court, and in the action itself, it means that players move with intent — they go to a spot on the floor for a particular reason, such as to help out with defense in the paint or to set a screen.
NBA 2K16 brought in authentic "freelance offenses" for clubs like the New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs, but NBA 2K17 will have them for every team. This means that you’ll see players move in accordance with their coach’s offensive system, just like in real life. But to stop high-powered teams like the Warriors, you may have to go into the strategy screen and set up your defense yourself — something that only NBA 2K die-hards will know how to do.
Positioning improvements on defense also became clear during my hands-on time with the game. Jones pointed out that blocks are more realistic this year in the way they come about — namely, from help-side defense, which is a fundamental basketball philosophy. I saw teammates leave their assignment to stop someone from getting an easy basket in the paint.
Another big change comes in the steals department. Steals have felt random in pretty much every basketball video game ever made, but in NBA 2K17, the opportunity to make a play is in your hands.
"If I can expect you to make a move and show the ball unprotected, I can time my button press" and knock the ball away, said Jones, who did this exact thing to me when we played each other. This applies to passes, too. Jones acknowledged that throwing the ball willy-nilly into the key was almost a "money" play last year. In about half an hour playing NBA 2K17, I saw multiple passes to the paint get deflected and even picked off. The ball just felt more live, whether on passes, steals or rebounds.
Because it’ll be so important to protect the ball, Visual Concepts has built more control into dribbling in NBA 2K17. Jones pointed to the series’ "signature size-ups," the dribble moves that superstar players like Chris Paul and Steph Curry can pull off, as an area that needed work. The moves had certain branch points that allowed players to break out of the animations, but if you misjudged the timing — or didn’t know where the branch points were — you were stuck. This year, you’ll still be able to re-create those signature dribble moves, but NBA 2K17 will offer one-to-one responsiveness to your movement on the analog sticks, according to Jones.
You’ll have to pay more attention to the sticks when you’re shooting the ball, too. Visual Concepts introduced a shot meter in NBA 2K15, and last year, the player’s release timing only mattered for jump shots and shots in the post. Now you’ll need to time layups properly as well, and aiming is a factor in addition to timing — a jump shot will fly true only if you pull straight back on the right stick.
Jones also said that the studio wanted to bring to life the toughness of driving toward the basket, while affording players more control on how they got there. You’ve been able to select a layup type before, but couldn’t truly convey whether you wanted to use a straight-ahead power move or go around someone. In NBA 2K17, the direction in which you move the left stick will make a difference, so contact won’t necessarily come from the defensive side alone.
"There’s a level of physicality near the rim [in NBA 2K17] that’s never been part of 2K, in the sense that 2K, for me, has always felt like if I got hit going to the basket, the defender was always the initiator," Jones explained.
Of course, plenty of players just try to sprint up and down the court and run circles around defenders; the Warriors, with their propensity for pull-up jump shots in transition, quick screens and great ball movement, are the perfect video game team in this respect. Visual Concepts is revamping its fatigue system for NBA 2K17 in an effort to address this issue in a more realistic way.
Jones explained that real athletes play at full tilt when they need to, and when they’re jogging, it’s so they can recover their stamina. That "doesn’t mean that [playing is] drawing so much from them that their attributes drop," he said, noting that that’s how NBA 2K managed fatigue until now. The new system in NBA 2K17 is designed to penalize people who lay on the sprint button all the time, because that’s simply not a realistic way to play basketball; you’ll have to bring in backups from time to time so your starters can catch a breather.
Own your skills
That level of control may be daunting for some players, and NBA 2K has never had great teaching tools. Visual Concepts is trying to rectify that issue in NBA 2K17 with a tutorial mode called 2KU, which will be narrated by USA Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Jones couldn’t provide details yet, but said, "I think we’re taking [a] kind of introductory-adventure approach."
Still, it sounds like your success in the game will largely come down to your own skill level, and that’s exactly what Visual Concepts wants.
Jones said that in NBA 2K16, people played more games of the solo career mode, MyCareer, than simple "quick play" exhibition matches. Players are spending more and more time in modes such as MyPark and 2K Pro-Am — both of which depend on the athlete they create in MyCareer.
"We can argue that the way people are consuming basketball is changing," said Jones. "And therefore, the whole idea of more control — especially if I’m going to spend most of my time [locked to one player on the court] — is really, really important to me."
At some point, everyone who plays NBA 2K online seriously is going to have a high-rated player, just from having put in the time to upgrade their character’s attributes. So the way Visual Concepts sees it, giving players more control on the court is the only way to determine who has more skills on the sticks.
"the way people are consuming basketball is changing"
"They’re all trying to max their guy out, anyway," Jones noted. "So just saying, ‘Hey, I’m [rated] 95, so I’m good’ — you want to be able to separate that field, and really start bringing out the guys who really know what they’re doing versus the others."
In my hands-on time with NBA 2K17, I played as my hometown Knicks and faced off against the Warriors. Jones may just have been buttering me up, but he praised the quality of my defense on Curry — he had noticed that after Curry drained one 3-pointer because I gave him too much space, I played him more tightly and wouldn’t allow an open look. Jones contrasted my defense with that of other people he’d seen playing this NBA 2K17 demo, saying that a few folks let Curry hit as many as four shots from downtown in a single five-minute quarter.
Jones told me what that lackluster defense made him think: "When are you going to figure out that if you don’t close on [Curry], he’s shooting? Because that’s what he would do in real life."
If the Cleveland Cavaliers could do it, there’s hope for you yet.