However much you love FIFA or its tortured artist cousin eFootball, hand on heart it never looks true to the real thing. NBA 2K23 is different. Perhaps benefiting from a 5v5 format and a sport that intrinsically seems to lend itself to closer simulation, Visual Concepts' all-conquering, VC-hoovering series doesn't just look like you've accidentally switched to an NBA League Pass stream. It looks as if it plays like the real thing too, with an uncanny ebb and flow to proceedings.
This year, two big items appear to be top of the developer's agenda. The first is making that gap in Uncanny Valley even narrower, with a raft of AI improvements and reworked controls – so that Kyrie attacks the hoop with the same flashiness as his real-world counterpart, and every player build is a little more grounded in reality. The second is making it more accessible to newer players. If that sounds a bit like getting a river to flow in both directions, rest assured gameplay director Mike Wang comes across as knowing his currents.
Two buttons, three points
As he talks us through 2K23's headline gameplay features, Wang says that Visual Concepts has lowered the rookie difficulty level to the point that kids with little to no basketball knowledge can get by and be competitive. A new difficulty level, semi-pro, also slots in between rookie and pro, smoothing out the difficulty curve for anyone working up through them over time.
That's a sensible bit of housekeeping for any sports gaming developer rolling out new releases to an annual cadence. The focus is inevitably on making everything better, in some abstract sense, building on whatever was there before. So it makes sense to check back in on a basic level and ensure the foundations still make sense to newcomers.
"2K basketball," says Wang, "has never really deviated from one simple fact: that you can play the game knowing two buttons. That hasn't changed for as long as I've been at the company, and that's a long time."
Show someone the left stick and the shoot button, and they're basically operational. However impressive the new mo-capped Euro Hop or iso dribble might be, it does feel important to stay true to that simpler style. We should be looking for depth from the controls because we're curious, not because performing six sizeups, two stutter steps and then a no-look pass is the only way to beat a defender.
Easier gameplay and a new difficulty mode isn't going to get the rest of us pumped about a new release though, so the more exciting news comes from the moves Visual Concepts are making towards greater authenticity.
Some of it's subtle on the surface. Like a reworked shot feedback indicator, that only shows you how good your shot timing was after the ball goes in or misses the hoop. Previously you'd know the instant you saw that green indicator that the shot was going in, so there was no need to rebound or box out. Now the drama's back –nobody knows whether the buzzer beater's going in or not until it, er, goes in or not. "Like it should be," says Wang.
Team takeover takes a sidestep away from its previous arcade mechanic and towards something more rooted in reality, too. Before it was about getting so hot with one individual player that the whole team received a buff, but as any of Knicks-era Carmelo Anthony's team-mates will tell you, standing around watching your team-mate score 40 doesn't necessarily get you razzed or make you play better. Now the team needs to perform actions collectively in order to get hot and receive the buff.
Get your jumper on
Jump shot animations also face greater scrutiny in the name of realism. For many releases now, you were free to select whichever signature jumper you wished and use it without any particular effect on its efficacy. As long as you got the timing right, it didn't matter if the animation had a slower release than most.
All jumper animations now have a set of values assigned to them which basically dictate their attributes. Defensive immunity, like Luka Doncic's slow but bizarrely unstoppable technique, is one of them, and puts a value on how easily the shot can be popped off with a man in your face. The point of release and how dependent the shot is on proper timing are also analyzed. TLDR: it matters what jumper animation you pick in 2K23. (The hive mind will inevitably find the one superior jump shot and use it universally – it'll be interesting to see how Visual Concepts reacts when that happens.)
Onto badges. Since the advent of attribute caps, which stop you from becoming a 99 OVR with 99s across each of basketball's many individual offensive and defensive disciplines, unlocking badges by performing certain feats a certain number of times was the best way to make your MyPlayer build OP. Equip them, upgrade them to purple by doing that thing even more times, and you get massive, albeit specialized, attribute bonuses.
They've been reworked. Exact details are yet to be announced, but the 16 new badges and four slots have been designed specifically with realism in mind, and to get the game playing more like its real life counterpart than ever. It's bad news for my 7-foot PF/center who loves to slash to the hoop with a few deft crossovers, then. Whether basketball is the real winner remains to be seen.
Wang's favorite new feature is the physics-based rim hang, though, which he describes as "like a finishing move in a fighting game". While you can't, sadly, smash the glass yet, you can decide your exact contact with the rim and how long you can hang off it. There's no greater gesture of emphasis in basketball, and it's going to be unbearable online, isn't it? Oh god. Come back, FIFA salmon celebration, all's forgiven.
Maybe the aspect that'll feel most profound while you're playing, though, is what's changed in the controls. More moves have migrated to the sticks now, including things like cradle dunks and Euro steps. On defense, there are loads more animations depicting one-on-one coverage. There's also a new element to the player indicator which lets you show your assignment to their left or right side, inviting their slash one way or the other. Obviously keeping them off their preferred dribble hand and away from the key is going to improve your defensive performance, and with more subtlety than before, it seems.
The devs will doubtless be dropping much more info in the coming months before 2K23's release, and like the hopeless MyCareer addicts we are, we'll be covering it all.