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The evolution of ‘NBA 2K’ is pretty incredible when you stop and think about it

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NBA 2K's developers talk the game's growth and listening to fans.

Close your eyes.

No seriously, close your eyes. Not right now. After this paragraph. Imagine the earliest basketball game you ever played. Try to remember the gameplay, the appearance, and how much fun you had playing the game when you were younger.

Now, open your eyes and watch this trailer:

Run The Neighborhood’ is 2K’s newest game mode. It’s kind of like The Sims or Club Penguin, but for basketball.

You can go to f*cking Foot Locker:

Hit the gym:

AND GET SWOLE:

And you can even get superhyped about getting a haircut:

You can do all of this and so much more in the neighborhood.

2K has come a long way

Praise for 2K’s newest game mode is music to the ears of Rob Jones, senior producer for the series.

“For some of the guys in there that have been working around the clock since February to bring this, it’s a validation that what we do is for the love of the game.”

Jones is in his 17th year with the company, and he’s seen a lot of changes with the game over the years. What’s obvious are the clear visual differences between 2K7 and 2K18 when you put them side by side. There is an exponential improvement in game play and graphics, as is expected with the help of technology upgrades and the increased capabilities that the newer consoles possess.

I mean, just look at how different the immortal Dirk Nowitzki looks on 2K7 for the PlayStation 2 vs 2K18 PlayStation 4.

It’s obvious.

What isn’t visible are the long work hours put into the game — the army of developers and producers who work day in and day out to make this vision come true.

“The team’s a lot bigger; obviously the problems are more complex,” said Jones. “You look at how far art has come along, that also tells you that how we do art is very different than the way we did it back then. Seventeen years of development will do that for you.”

Each and every year NBA 2K looks as good as the current technology will allow it. The feeling is similar to when you’re playing a video game and your parents come in and believe it’s the real thing.

"We get wind of new tech. We try to figure out how to maximize what we’re doing for that particular technology. We pushed 4K the moment it came out. We pushed VR last year. We’ll try something in every single way that we can.”

Sometimes the visual accuracy of the game is so good it even surprises the employees who have been on this 2K journey for years.

“Visually we’ve come a long way,” said Ben Bishop, a senior producer with NBA2K. Bishop used to work on the NHL 2K games before making the switch to NBA2K’s MyCareer mode.

“It’s amazing to see the player likeness and what the players look like and just all the things we’ve tried to do. It seems like every year we find different ways to evolve the game and to give you a new and different experience.”

Bishop’s statements are in tune with how the different player game modes have evolved over the years. MyCareer, for example, has come a long way since 2K10.

You know, the one where everyone started out super trash and risked playing in the D-league for a while if you didn’t show out at the “Summer Circuit.”

Here’s my 43 overall center doing his best out there:

While an improvement in video games is expected over time, I never fathomed copping 2K10 and imagining that video games would look this advanced and come this far in such a short time period. The improvement really is exponential.

Here’s a side by side of my MyPlayer in 2K12 and my MyPlayer in 2K18. The one on the right is a face scan. I don’t know the guy on the left.

Thanks to steady improvements and new dimensions added each year, MyPlayer/MyCareer has exploded into an extremely popular game mode. Last year I watched my cousin in high school come home, put on a headset, and play virtual pickup basketball with his 2K squad friends on MyPark. What a time to be alive.

From MyPark in 2K14 to ProAM and now Run the Neighborhood, 2K constantly adds new elements to prevent the personal basketball experience from growing stale. The game has gone from being just about the NBA and has turned into a very personal and versatile basketball experience.

“The sheer scope of the game has grown a ton since I first started working on it, and that’s cool to see,” said Bishop

The overall growth of the game is due to the fact that making/taking care of a video game is a daily operation. With all the constant updates that go on throughout the year, the 2K team doesn't have that much time to look back at what it’s made in the past. When it does, however, it’s a time of nostalgia and it even provides sources of inspiration.

“We tend to look forward more than back, but there is always stuff you can learn,” said Mike Wang, NBA 2K game play director. “Even from last year, looking at some of the feedback we got, some of the constructive criticism we got out of 2K17 and taking that into the next year that actually causes us to look back. What did they not like about 2K17? What did they like better in maybe 16 or 15 or even back to 2K7? So we always look at past products and how we can build the best product now.”

A social game

The influx of technology hasn’t just changed how 2K developers create the game. Social media and the era of influencers have made both praise and criticism easier to receive.

Nothing in life is perfect, and 2K is no exception. The company receives a ton of feedback from gamers on a daily basis. However, it’s the awareness of feedback which makes it one of the best games in the business. Even though the game gets “released” once a year, 2K is willing to listen to the noise and work on addressing the feedback and patching things up. The company tries to be as transparent as possible with these changes as their notes page/blog addresses the details of what is improved/fixed with each patch.

The eternal tsunami of feedback sounds overwhelming to the average person, but the 2K crew is used to it. The noise is actually heaven to the ears of Ronnie Singh aka Ronnie2K, 2K Sports digital marketing director and the prime person whom fans and NBA players hit up about ratings:

“I love it. That means that we’re extremely socially relevant. That meant that people care that much that they want to hit us up about ratings about what the game’s looking like all of that stuff. I think that’s why our audience has grown so much because people want to talk about our game, and it allows us to extend the audience even more.”

2K’s evolving relationship with the gaming community is one of its strengths. With the increase of Twitch streamers, YouTube stars and the increasing popularity of eSports, it’s no secret that video games are going to take over the world one day. Whether it’s being featured on 2KTV or being invited to special events, 2K knows who its biggest voices are.

“We realize that a lot of the young guys get their info from a lot of these gamers.” said Singh.

This is no surprise to 2K. The team's ever-budding relationship with YouTubers and social media influencers comes from how interactive it is with the community. These influencers are exciting, energetic, and speak about what they like and dislike about the game, and most importantly have people who cling to their every opinion like it is some kind of scripture.

We young men about to take a bus #RunTheNeighborhood. Who you getting your news from today?

A post shared by Ronnie Singh (@ronnie2k) on

Gamers like Agent00, a popular YouTuber from Toronto who is known for giving people buckets on the MyPark circuit, is one of a handful of YouTube stars.

He’s an electric and funny personality who is not afraid to point out both the strengths and flaws of 2K. Agent00 isn’t afraid to keep it all the way real in his videos, and he appreciates that 2K isn’t sensitive to his outspoken nature.

“Some communities, if you say something you’re just blacklisted from ever coming back,” said Agent00. “They’re pretty transparent for the most part. There’s not a lot of games where you can just reach out and get replies like that.”

The crazy thing is while an outsider might see the mass of opinions and comments as noise, the 2K team appreciates this more direct pipeline of feedback. From YouTube videos and social media posts, developers and game creators are able to see what is liked in the game and what isn’t throughout the year.

NBA2K sports half a million subscribers on YouTube, two million followers on Twitter and 6.5 million likes on its Facebook page. That’s a ton of voices. On any given day, you can catch Mike Wang answering gameplay questions on Twitter or see Ronnie2k chatting it up with NBA players who are also huge fans of the game themselves.

“What makes us successful is listening to what the fans want and the fans are louder now than ever. On YouTube, Twitter. They’re all over.” said Wang. “We love that because back in the old days when I was first getting into games, we didn’t have that direct feedback all the time. We had to have a focus group. We had to bring people in. Now anyone who has a computer can basically tell you exactly how they feel.”

2K’s interactive nature makes gamers feel like community members instead of just customers, and it’s that willingness to accept feedback and try new things that’s allowed the game to evolve the way it has.

Thank you for reading. You can catch me on the MyTEAM, Play Online and ProAM modes. See you at the Neighborhood and remember to pass the damn ball.

Ball is life.