There’s a Washington Mystics t-shirt I’ve been eyeballing for my original player’s road outfit in NBA Live 19’s “The One” career mode. Yet so far when I’ve gone to the in-game store, she’s come out with shirts for last-place Indiana and Las Vegas instead.
Ordinarily, this would be where someone ruefully mentions that this item otherwise randomly unlocked can be bought directly for real money. In NBA Live 19, it can’t. That’s because there are no real-money microtransactions whatsoever in its centerpiece mode.
It might be frustrating to have met the requirement to get the thing I want and walk away with something else, but it’s a mild disappointment. With microtransactions out of the picture, I can see that the game’s makers are trying to incentivize play, at least, and aren’t making an extra buck off my customization desires.
This is a notable contrast given that NBA 2K19 has also just launched, bringing with it a career mode that is as relentless as ever in selling a catalog of microtransaction-available content. Despite being a vastly deeper, more polished and better pro basketball franchise than NBA Live, NBA 2K’s ubiquitous “Virtual Currency,” and MyCareer mode’s player progression’s utter dependence on it, is widely resented even by longtime fans. Last year nearly pushed them to the breaking point, with meager VC payouts and ridiculous prices on haircut customizations that left many choosing between playing with a skilled player or one that looked like everyone else’s.
In MyCareer, users must spend Virtual Currency for practically every improvement or customization for their player. VC is freely awarded through play, but players start off so underpowered (60 rating overall) that they feel forced to shell out real money to level up to barely competitive attributes or get wiped out in the game’s robust online multiplayer games. A $100 special edition also comes with a wad of VC, further driving the incentive to pay out and bypass torturous grinding in the early NBA career.
NBA Live 19 has a much more streamlined approach in reply. Players choose a broad archetype (guard, wing, or big), then a style of play in that category, and then a special characteristic applicable to that. The rest of their progression is strictly linear. Players receive Skill Points when they level up, and these may be applied to one of three attributes (more are unlocked later). There’s no dithering over whether to improve broader characteristics like strength, speed or vertical leap, much less spending virtual cash to do so. Those values increase automatically with each level up.
Shot and dunk animations and specialty shoes are likewise awarded on a schedule, and are themed to the style of play the user has chosen. Want the Nike Kobe IX EM? Get a 77 in your dunk. At 77 on dribbling unlocks Kevin Durant’s dribble moves. Equipping signature moves in NBA 2K19’s MyCareer requires an overall rating of 75 (again, incentivizing an $18 shellout for 75,000 in Virtual Currency) and then another VC expenditure to get the move. And for layups, for example, there are 14 different animations one may equip.
NBA Live 19’s customization store may not be perfectly accommodating, in that users can go there and find whatever they want, when they want it. (This can be a pain in the ass when all you’re trying to do is match kneepads or ankle braces.) This isn’t limited to just cosmetics; there’s a feature many would expect to be fully unlocked at the outset, but it isn’t — and those are the rule variations for Court Battles. These rules are the special parameters a player sets, such as dunks counting five points, when other users come to their virtual court to beat their team and take over their gym. As it is, players only start Court Battles with one or two rule sets available to them (though they can play against anyone else’s rules).
Other cosmetics are walled behind an advancement in “Hype,” which is a second type of XP, before they can be bought with in-game currency. The exchange the game proposes is still fair: Play this game to get what you want. It’s not preying on instant gratification by offering a credit card shortcut. It’s doing the opposite of instant gratification, actually.
It may be ironic that this is coming from Electronic Arts, which was at the epicenter of the loot crate outrage a year ago. The company has since stripped them out of Battlefront 2, however, and promised they wouldn’t be part of Battlefield 5 when that launches in November.
EA Sports UFC 3 and the FIFA series don’t use real-money microtransactions for player progression or customization, either. MTX, as the odious jargon calls microtransactions, are restricted to Ultimate Team, a separate mode that users can avoid altogether. And if NBA Live was the dominant series, I doubt it would be taking the approach NBA 2K does for simple fact that FIFA is a dominant series, and a global best seller, too, and doesn’t monetize progression the way NBA 2K does.
Users complained bitterly about this constant shakedown last year, which got some concessions from 2K in the form of free haircuts and higher VC awards this year. But NBA 2K19 remains as blatantly pay-to-win (or, in multiplayer, even compete) as ever, and it’s been able to do this partly because NBA Live was a nonentity as an alternative.
NBA 2K has been a cultural phenomenon for two console generations, and the polish, detail and involvement it offers is unlike those of any other sports title. Yet the series is not without weaknesses. It has long presented a steep learning curve to new users where NBA Live is much more accommodating. It’s had problems with online multiplayer support and connectivity, where EA Sports, if nothing else, has been rock solid with its servers. NBA Live may have been mocked and dismissed — not without reason — but it was still developed with an eye to NBA 2K’s soft spots, the ones its players grudgingly endure. The One’s microtransaction-free environment is just as deliberate a choice.
Roster File is Polygon’s column on sports and video games.