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Here’s what 2K Sports brought to NBA 2K Playgrounds 2

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A lot more than branding, according to the developer

NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 - Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George vs. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal on a Korean court Saber Interactive/2K Sports

With its follow-up to 2017’s NBA Playgrounds, Saber Interactive is looking to deliver an arcade basketball game with improvements such as a bigger roster, upgraded online play, a revamped progression system and new modes of play. The sequel also represents Saber hitting the big time in the sports world: It’s called NBA 2K Playgrounds 2, since the company has signed a publishing deal with 2K Sports.

By the time NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is released on Oct. 16, 2K Sports will have been working on the game with Saber for about half a year. The collaboration, according to both companies, has improved the game itself and puts it in a better position to succeed.

The genesis of their arrangement was a conversation between Saber and 2K Sports before the original NBA Playgrounds launched in the spring of 2017. But Saber, as an independent developer with very little experience making sports games, had to prove itself before a relationship between the two companies could arise.

“They didn’t think we were quite ready for prime time,” said Saber CEO Matthew Karch in a recent phone interview with Polygon, characterizing 2K’s initial impression of NBA Playgrounds from that first meeting.

Karch told Polygon last year that Saber’s announcement of the game caused some concern at 2K Sports, which owns a stranglehold on the basketball video game market with its acclaimed, best-selling NBA 2K series of simulation titles. (Its only competition, EA Sports’ NBA Live franchise, is still on its way back to prominence.) Even though 2K Sports hasn’t released an arcade game in almost a decade — Playgrounds 2 will be the first one since 2009’s The Bigs 2 — it’s not hard to imagine that the publisher could feel alarmed upon seeing a new basketball title of any variety.

As a result, Karch flew out to 2K’s headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area to speak with executives at the publisher and show NBA Playgrounds to them. While that meeting didn’t immediately lead to anything, the game’s impressive sales performance helped convince 2K Sports that picking up the sequel was the right move. In an interview regarding the announcement of the companies’ partnership for Playgrounds 2, Jason Argent, senior vice president of basketball operations at 2K Sports, told Polygon, “We couldn’t ignore the fact [that NBA Playgrounds] sold about a million units.” The deal was a huge moment of validation for Saber, according to Karch.

Karch said Saber already “had a solid game” in Playgrounds 2 by the time 2K Sports came on board, but added that the publisher has made “very substantial” contributions to the project. “I would say 20 percent of the improvements to the game have taken place over the last four to five months of development with those guys,” Karch said of 2K Sports.

Since the NBA Playgrounds series offers a two-on-two arcade basketball experience à la NBA Jam, each game’s roster serves as its foundation. NBA Playgrounds also puts a particular focus on the roster, through a mechanic in which additional NBA athletes are unlocked by earning packs of virtual trading cards.

NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 - Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George vs. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in Korea Saber Interactive/2K Sports

While the original game featured a number of the sport’s top current players and all-time greats, 2K’s involvement in Playgrounds 2 made it possible to bring in some legendary athletes who have traditionally been prickly about licensing arrangements. That includes Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, all of whom Saber’s Karch characterized as “players that we [on our own] would never have been able to get.”

2K Sports’ existing work with the very realistic NBA 2K franchise also helped add signature animations for certain NBA players to Playgrounds 2. You’ll recognize moves like George “Iceman” Gervin’s finger roll and Michael Jordan’s dunk from the foul line.

In addition to facilitating major additions like key athletes and dedicated servers for online play, 2K Sports also helped Saber refine elements such as Playgrounds 2’s in-game purchases. Karch noted that most of the microtransactions are cosmetic items along the lines of “character customization stuff.” There is still an option to pay to unlock the game’s entire roster for players who don’t want to bother with the progression system; that was a very popular purchase in the first game, with more than 150,000 sales. On that front, Karch said Saber worked to improve the unlock system by reducing duplicate cards.

The impact of those changes remains to be seen. I played a few games of Playgrounds 2 in early September, and the action on the court seemed fine — a bit less reliant on shoving players to relieve them of possession, perhaps, which would be an improvement. But it’s impossible to evaluate elements such as the progression system in a setting like that.

NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 - D’Angelo Russell and Kemba Walker vs. Karl Anthony Towns and Damian Lillard Saber Interactive/2K Sports

As for the future of the NBA Playgrounds franchise beyond Playgrounds 2, Karch didn’t make any promises, but believes that the partnership between Saber and 2K will endure. Under the terms of their current deal, Saber still owns the NBA Playgrounds intellectual property, but the publishing arrangement is valuable to 2K Sports because it “complements what they’re doing” with NBA 2K, according to Karch.

“I will say that 2K is not interested in one-offs,” said Karch. “They see the long-term potential for this game.” He couldn’t say whether Saber and 2K are planning to make NBA Playgrounds an annual franchise — a strategy that might be unwise, since it has rarely worked out for arcade sports games. But either way, Karch described 2K as “fully invested” in the title.

NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is set to be released Oct. 16 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One — with full feature parity, including up to four-player online play, across all four platforms (unlike the original game).