The story of NBA 2K19’s MyCareer, the series’ long-running single-player career mode, is about an arrogant athlete who needs to learn some humility. In a way, that tale could serve as an analogy for NBA 2K developer Visual Concepts itself, as far as the game’s career mode and online play are concerned.
Last year’s NBA 2K18 won plenty of accolades, as each new entry in this perennially acclaimed franchise does. But as players spent more time with MyCareer and the Neighborhood — a revamped online hub that transformed menus into a walkable in-game space — they became frustrated with how slow everything felt.
Visual Concepts is aiming to give players more things to do in NBA 2K19, in an effort to reduce the frustrating roadblocks to making progress in MyCareer. It all sounds very promising for fans of the game’s solo and online offerings — fans whose complaints from last year seem to have been heard at the development studio.
NBA 2K19’s career mode is called The Way Back. The story stars a character of your creation, who is always named A.I.: a young gun who believes he’s ready for the NBA. But after the crushing disappointment of being overlooked in the NBA draft, his next best option is to swallow his pride and head to China to work on his game. (Although this segment of the story is set in Shanghai, NBA 2K19 does not feature the real-world Chinese Basketball Association or any of its teams.)
A.I. eventually works his way back to the States and enters the G League, the minor league for the NBA, where he becomes a member of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. (Yes, that’s a real G League team, and a few others, such as the Austin Spurs and Greensboro Swarm, appear in NBA 2K19.) Telling a story about an unorthodox path to the NBA was a way for Visual Concepts to highlight a real-life trend, according to senior producer Ben Bishop.
“It’s become more common for players who either don’t get drafted or don’t want to go to college, even, to find these alternative ways to get their games ready to get to the NBA,” Bishop told Polygon in an interview during the NBA 2K19 launch event, which was held in Brooklyn on Wednesday.
As you can see in the MyCareer trailer above, this year’s iteration of the story features a cast packed with well-known actors, if not A-list stars, including Anthony Mackie, Michael Rapaport and Haley Joel Osment. Bishop said he believes that both the cast and writing are the best they’ve ever been for NBA 2K. But if you’re not interested in these virtual performances, you can skip all the cutscenes — a new option for the series.
One option that still doesn’t exist is the ability to play MyCareer on Rookie difficulty; instead, Pro is the easiest setting available. But if you turn up the challenge, a multiplier — yes, it’s back — will give you extra rewards in both MyPoints (which raise attribute caps) and Virtual Currency (VC). And Bishop told Polygon that the developers worked to make Pro “a little bit more accessible” in NBA 2K19.
Bishop also advised playing through The Prelude — the opening to MyCareer, which is available as a free download on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One — as a way to “give yourself a boost [...] going into the normal NBA part of the mode.” And according to Bishop, Visual Concepts has tweaked the MyCareer progression ramp this year to make it easier to move forward, both in raising your player’s attributes from the initial 60 overall rating and earning badges.
Last year, players complained that the badge system was vague and opaque; doing drills didn’t necessarily result in the kind of badge progress that people were expecting. In NBA 2K19, each badge has a particular drill associated with it. If you want to work on Ankle Breaker, there’s a specific drill to make guaranteed progress on it. In addition, Visual Concepts rebalanced the badge archetypes so that certain ones don’t feel so one-dimensional anymore.
Visual Concepts has also worked to address the other progression issue that people complained about: The drip-feed of VC in MyCareer games and activities meant that it took forever to build up your character’s skills (unless, of course, you were willing to fork over money to buy VC).
Bishop said that players now “earn a lot more [VC] and a lot quicker,” thanks to “a ton more opportunities to earn stuff,” such as signing endorsement deals, playing MyCareer games and partaking in activities. This applies to the mode itself as well as its online hub, The Neighborhood. It was a fun concept in NBA 2K18, but its horseshoe layout forced players to waste time jogging from one end to the other. Bishop likened the new setup to a “town square,” with the courts in the middle, and areas like stores and the Jordan Rec Center around them.
“Although the layout wasn’t the best, there also wasn’t a whole lot to do,” Bishop admitted. “Another focus for us with the Neighborhood this year was trying to make it a more useful space, and just make more things going on.”
The redesigned Neighborhood in NBA 2K19 offers ever-changing minigames, like dodgeball and trivia, that hand out VC on a daily basis. Plus, there’s “trampoline ball” at the Cages, which are presented by Under Armour (yes, sponsors still have a heavy presence here). The idea, according to Bishop, is to give players an option to play something fun — and earn rewards — even if they just have a few minutes to kill.
More importantly, some of Visual Concepts’ changes to the Neighborhood are intended to make it more user-friendly. Getting a haircut is now completely free, and you can preview a new ’do right from the barber’s chair. A store called Wheels sells transportation like skateboards and bicycles, so you can navigate the Neighborhood more quickly. Plus, there’s now an online ranking system, on a per-activity basis, that’s separate from your MyPlayer’s overall rating. You’ll see both ratings beneath each person’s feet.
“You’ll see, as you walk from the Park to the Cages, for example, the ranking under your feet might change from Amateur to Pro, because you’ve played more Cage games,” Bishop explained.
Giving players more information and more options is usually a good thing, especially in a game like NBA 2K. The more ways in which players can reliably earn VC, the less they might feel pressured to spend real money on it. We won’t have to wait long to find out if Visual Concepts’ tweaks over the past year have made a meaningful difference: NBA 2K19 launches Sept. 11 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One, with the 20th Anniversary Edition rolling out four days earlier on Sept. 7.