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The WNBA in NBA 2K20: Proof of a long-overdue concept

The women’s league in MyLeague shows that sports games’ big systems work for them too

Closeup of WNBA star Breanna Stewart in uniform with a crowd in the background.
Seattle’s Breanna Stewart is one of three 95-rated players in NBA 2K20’s WNBA.
Visual Concepts/2K Sports
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

When 2K Sports announced, back in August, how the WNBA would figure into its NBA 2K flagship, I sort of fixated on the fact it wouldn’t be included in the game’s MyCareer suite and left it off there. In my defense, the official announcement lingered on every detail but the modes of play, which it described as “Play Now” and “Season.” I took the latter to mean a stretch of 34 games without much connecting them.

Wrong. Whoever wrote the news release did the game no favors, because the WNBA gets MyLeague, not whatever “Season” is, and that’s a much more robust mode even if it has taken a backseat to other features lately.

Though MyLeague has large numbers of players (mainly through its online league support) and got a thorough reconditioning in NBA 2K19, its new details also serve the MyGM mode, which wraps the same level of multi-year franchise management in a rich role-playing layer. Thus most of the attention is on MyGM. MyTeam, the fantasy sports/collection mode, also hogs the spotlight, though its attention is not always a good thing.

But when MyLeague is applied to the WNBA, I found a symbiotic outcome that strengthens MyLeague and the title’s value overall, while also taking women’s team sports light years beyond the treatments they’ve gotten in other video games.

The WNBA in MyLeague is short in two key areas: no online leagues, and no means of creating or editing players. But more importantly, it shows a women’s team sport working with and within all the systems of sports’ video games big persistent modes — scheduling, player progression, player management, and even single-player control — that many assumed took too much development time to be done respectfully. That can now be considered a cop-out, not an answer.

Yes, I’m saying the WNBA’s biggest appeal in NBA 2K20 rests on things created for the men’s game and iterated over two decades. That’s the point. The core stuff of a sports title works for them, too, and now there’s proof.

One of the Las Vegas Aces hoists a shot in NBA 2K20 Visual Concepts/2K Sports

The breakthrough for me came when I was going through all the menus and realized I could lock control to a single player, effectively turning MyLeague into a solo career starring Kelsey Plum, a point guard I came to appreciate in NBA Live 19 last year. First of all, NBA 2K is a complicated game made a lot easier when you only control one player, thanks to the game’s AI and playcalling systems (both of which, again, serve WNBA play). That is the backbone of MyCareer play, so we know it can include women. The question now is when.

But elsewhere in the suite, such take-it-for-granted things as dynamic player progression, team chemistry effects and badges (special traits and perks for star players) are also working for the WNBA. To now, women have either cameoed in team sports games (the NHL series) or gotten modes no longer than a tournament (FIFA), which neither have nor need persistent details like these. Stats tracking is also meaningless in shorter side-mode treatments. But because this is MyLeague, the WNBA also gets a full package of tendencies and statistical splits to game plan around. Hell, there’s the full system-optimization menu, where I can evaluate how well my lineup works given a particular focus (quick offense, pressure defense and what have you).

A distinct and enjoyable game unto itself

None of this would matter if the gameplay itself wasn’t distinct, and enjoyably distinct at that. I get that. Such that my unexpert eyes can tell, though, women’s basketball is a different and rewarding game, and not for the damnation-by-faint-praise of “good fundamentals” or “great passing” that WNBA detractors often use.

The pace of play in NBA 2K20 overall is slower and that helps the women’s game not by comparison to the men’s speed, but by the way it highlights spacing and matchups, especially switching the offense to exploit them. I learned this the hard way when I was playing the Washington Mystics against the Connecticut Sun, and ended up with Kristi Toliver (5-foot-7) on Jonquel Jones (6-foot-6). You don’t see too many 11-inch height advantages in the NBA, and Jones went through me like crap through a goose.

Jones, at 6-6, also handles the ball a lot better than a 7-foot man (indeed, Jones’ ratings in both ball handling and speed with the ball are well above average for a power forward). Resolving to put this to work for me, I found I could quickly dominate a game with a wing scorer’s blend of movement and size, (think L.A.’s Candace Parker or Seattle’s Breanna Stewart), where I have a much harder time getting men at a similar position to stand out. As such, substitutions have gone from something I usually automate without a second though to Hey, they’ve got three guards in, I need to get some tall folks on the floor.

Spacing is also key in the WNBA games. I expected it would be, but it’s also served by NBA 2K20’s overall defense, in which a defender’s height and proximity can passively affect a shooter’s chances more than in the past. This is even more apparent the further you are from the basket. The result is that even on Pro difficulty (second of four settings) I felt I needed either a wide-open look at the basket or I had to max out the timing meter to drain a three-pointer.

Still, Tim Swartz on the announcing team broke in when I whiffed on a three with Ariel Atkins to say I took a good shot, and that I should take the same shot again even if I had a hand in my face. In any sports video game, I’m looking for commentary that sounds like someone is watching, and timely remarks like that pull off the illusion. Announcer Blake Suniga picked up on my use of Delle Donne and added some context about how she’s dominated the league since joining the Mystics.

The presentation overall lags behind the NBA side of things, but that’s mainly through the broadcast graphics. Games begin with a text-only lineup and that’s it. The most you’ll get in terms of visual analysis is a replay between possessions, but no statistical call-outs or updates. And it’s a glaring mishap when a player with a common last name, like Jones, gets misgendered by a commentary engine developed for men. That said, NBA Live 19 had barely any player-specific commentary for its one-off WNBA games, and NBA Live 18 had none at all. 2K Sports has been best-in-class for broadcast presentation for more than a decade, and the dialogue is one area where Visual Concepts gave the WNBA its full attention.

A new mode, not a side mode

Mostly, I’m impressed by how the WNBA feels like an additional mode of NBA 2K20 as opposed to an alternate set of teams you can mess around with (and there are dozens in it). That has been the extent of things for the WNBA in NBA Live and women’s national teams in FIFA. It may raise expectations for NBA 2K21 and add another mouth to feed in the annual round-robin of which mode gets attention this time. But Visual Concepts has been playing the how-do-we-outdo-ourselves game every year for a decade, and usually winning.

I think the pressure is more on their colleagues with EA Sports. EA Tiburon may have put women in The One last year, but it was only for the pickup basketball portion. FIFA 20 has mixed-gender competition this year, but it’s in the street soccer Volta Football mode. Well, the direct competitor of both games has now delivered a women’s team sport as something other than a side experience. So the ball’s in their court.

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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