In the locker room tunnel of an unremarkable minor league arena, the expanded narrative of NBA 2K21 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X leads to you thinking you made the wrong choice, turning professional immediately out of high school.
Your world-weary coach mutters at the trash left by hockey players from the night before. You might be starting, but he expects you to earn your playing time from the next game on out. Then you meet your teammates: the Tracy Morgan-esque Sheldon “ATM” Middleton; Shammy Wells, who’d shoot a four-pointer if they had a line for it; a Nosferatu-looking dude called Vlad the Impaler; and, of course, Jackson Ellis, a hype-man to himself.
All of these names are familiar to longtime NBA 2K players. They’ve been the career narrative antagonists going back to NBA 2K14, with Ellis as the motor-mouthed measuring stick for the player’s original rise to fame. Visual Concepts got the band back together in the best way for MyCareer’s opening on new consoles, but as they kept the teammate reunion under wraps through the game’s Nov. 10 launch, mostly highlighting other improvements until then, I didn’t really know how much better the mode is until I took it for a spin over my Thanksgiving weekend.
Being introduced to these yo-yos was all it took for me to know I made the right choice taking a “select contract,” to the bus rides and taco promotions of the G League. I played all 10 games with a wide smile, even the first one, where I think the game nerfs all your attributes to rock bottom in order to contrive a bad start that’s key to the player’s personal journey.
Ellis skipped NBA 2K20 last year but has been in every MyCareer story since 2013, even making a cameo as an arena security officer in NBA 2K18. He partnered with ATM the last time the series went to the G League, in NBA 2K19, where the two billed themselves as the “Smoke and Mirrors” player combination. Hagi also appeared in that game, as a gameplay opponent only, with no cutscenes or speaking lines. He was a formidable post player from Eastern Europe whose shot-blocking pushes you to find open teammates instead. And Shammy Wells comes from NBA 2K18, where he starred alongside the player character “DJ,” jacking up an unconscionable amount of contested three-point shots and getting in DJ’s face if he wasn’t passing him the ball enough.
All of these guys are back with their original actors at the mic. As one fan put it on Reddit, it feels like Visual Concepts was writing a sentimental farewell note to NBA 2K on last-generation consoles.
Love letter or victory lap, Visual Concepts earned it. 2K Sports’ in-house studio turned to these fictitious frenemies after their attempts to make real NBA stars into the player’s mentor turned in some embarrassing voice work (looking at you, Eric Gordon) for NBA 2K14 and 2K15. Spike Lee directed a mentor-less story for NBA 2K16; Michael B. Jordan likewise soloed as player-character Justice Young in NBA 2K17; and teammates returned to cutscene dialogue in NBA 2K18 with the actor Cameron Bedford as Shammy Wells.
At this time, MyCareer’s story got a lot more engaging. Moreover, the series’ writers discovered a winning formula: take an antagonist, give them a face turn, and now you have a character for whom players will go to the mattresses. In NBA 2K20, it was training partner Axel Walden (Blondy Baruti); he ends up making the league with the player character in an honestly heartwarming on-court finale. In NBA 2K21, Hendrixx Cobb (Vince Washington) is the presumptive No. 1 pick and the player’s rival, but after going to college, the two develop a very close friendship, culminating in some lighthearted pre-draft antics together.
Of course, you miss a lot of that arc with Cobb if you take the G League route in the expanded NBA 2K21. (Cobb and the player still part ways on a happy, mutually supportive note.) But it’s worth missing college to ride the bus as Vlad freestyles; to celebrate as ATM and Jackson make it back to the NBA on 10-day contracts, and then to come back together for a two-game finale whose opposing team I just can’t bring myself to spoil. Longtime players should be able to figure out the roster, though.
NBA 2K21, like the three games preceding it, has smartly written dialogue and well-acted scenes that are head-and-shoulders above the story modes attempted (and abandoned) by other sports video games. I sense that Visual Concepts has stuck with the storytelling because their writers understand an absolute truth of sports video gaming’s career modes: You have to give the player a character they can admire, someone they want to be, or someone they will care about if it’s not themselves on the screen.
Visual Concepts and NBA 2K21 do more than that; they give the player-character friends you’ll care about, too.
Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.
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