NBA 2K: The Greatest Game Ever Played

It’s somewhere around the year 2050. The NBA has expanded. The Louisville Liberty are a dynasty. The Pittsburgh Force have won multiple championships. A legion of fictional players — some descendants of current stars, like Gordon Hayward, Jr. — reign over the league.

I’ve played more than 30 seasons of the NBA 2K17 franchise mode experience on the PS4 and it’s safe to say this is the greatest game ever played.

I don’t intend this to be a video game review. I’m not going to compare it to every past and present version or competitor. I know the 2K18 version has just come out, and I’m sure that’s even better.

This is just the story of a completely immersive experience.

Part of what makes it so special is that it’s a story of your own making. In my case, when I started the league and took control of four franchises — the Chicago Bulls, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and expansion team Vancouver Ravens — I combined all of today’s greatest players with legends of the past and mixed them up in a fantasy draft.

I modified the length of the games and the season, I created a player based on myself, I redesigned the courts, I realigned conferences, moved teams to new cities — the Chicago Bulls became the Seattle Supersonics and the Ravens became the new Bulls.

I drafted and developed young players, traded stars for picks, watched free agents leave and legends fade from their primes. And I may have only scratched the surface, as it took me a while to start doing things like attending league meetings or firing bad coaches, but I still haven’t participated in scouting or summer league or free agent signings.

The Great What If

One of the most thrilling aspects of NBA 2K is the ability to match legends of the past with stars of today.

What if Michael Jordan was in the same league with Bill Russell and Lebron James? What if Magic Johnson was not the first pick of the Los Angeles Lakers, but of the upstart St. Louis Sound? What if Jerry West and Kobe Bryant were paired up on the Golden State Warriors (they won five straight championships).

What I found is that if you put a really good player from the 70s, like Lou Hudson, against today’s athletes, they don’t match up.

Magic and Bird, and West, though, are great regardless of circumstances. And while Michael will win a title, he’s limited by his lack of 3-point shooting.

With my first pick in the fantasy draft of 2016–2017, I took a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for the Vancouver Ravens. He was nearly unstoppable with his sweeping sky hook, size and athletic ability, but without a proper supporting cast he failed to win a title and moved on to the Orlando Magic in free agency.

It wasn’t until I paired an aging Joel Embid with a big, physical futuristic point guard named Jim Thomas that I reached NBA glory.

The Future

Of course, in NBA 2K there’s no apparent end point in sight. Supposedly you can play up to 80 seasons and I’m curious to see what happens when you reach that point.

But for now, new waves of players enter the league — some are forecast versions of real life prospects like Lamelo Ball, while others are completely fictional. A new breed of enduring stars emerges that you get to know and appreciate as the league wears on.

You eventually notice guys like Jabbar and Jordan wearing suits on the sidelines, as they go into coaching. Dwayne Wade wins coach of the year. Bill Russell becomes an assistant to Steve Kerr.

The rules change too. Overtime becomes sudden death. The shot clock changes. The collective bargaining agreement expires. You see your former draft picks make the rounds to other teams.

You turn the aforementioned revamped Supersonics into three-time champions with two super athletic big men and a tough as nails point guard, only to watch those big men age and have their jerseys retired, while the point guard moves on to win more championships, beating you in the process.

Suddenly you’re not just playing a game that you start and restart, you’re part of an ongoing narrative that evolves and crescendos. There are peaks and valleys, droughts where you don’t make the playoffs. Picks you trade go on to be MVPs.

AI

The AI in this game is incredible, and I don’t mean Allen Iverson, although he has his day too.

The artificial intelligence is not the dumb, old, easy to trick computer, of yesterday’s games. Instead it’s a machine that captures team chemistry, fan interest, fatigue and momentum to create a virtual reality.

You can feel the tension build in a game 7 of the NBA Finals. You see the sweat drip from a player’s brow as he stands at the free throw line. The frustration of a ticky tack foul late in a game.

The way the game captures movement is so precise, you can sense the slight bump of a screen, the need to square your shoulders on a catch and shoot, the contact going to the basket and the slight loss of control dribbling behind your back.

The computer manages to sniff out successful plays run multiple times and increase its intensity at critical moments.

Keep in mind, too, you’re running complex NBA offense. This isn’t spin move, spin move, dunk. It’s pick and roll, backdoor screens and motion.

A mismatch of coaching styles and players, and it doesn’t work. Too much reliance on one style or one player and your offense will stagnate, as your role players’ morale drops.

Each player has his own unique physicality, speed and shooting style. What’s a flick of the wrist release for one is an awkward pump of the arms for another. Some players can pound you in the paint, while others get pushed off the block and shoot fadeaways. Matchups matter.

Steph Curry exposed down low by Magic, Pete Maravich unable to keep up with John Wall. A slower, more easily fatigued but highly effective Karl Anthony Towns at age 37.

Dominique Wilkins coming down from a seemingly benign mid-range jumper in the middle of the Finals and tearing his ACL.

All of this is possible in the game and somehow manages to feel authentic.

More Than Just a Game

You could probably argue that putting this much time and thought into a video game is a waste of time, and that’s probably partly true.

But NBA 2K17 requires a level of concentration that allows your mind to turn off the rest of your problems. It’s a form of digital stress relief in a frenzied world filled with online anxiety.

It’s something more like sinking into a great novel than repetitively tapping buttons to some pointless end.

Here’s a game that requires you to think, to plan, to absorb tough losses.

The agony of defeat, the exultation of victory, the satisfaction in knowing you tried your best and it wasn’t good enough.

I think back to games like Double Dribble where every shot that went in was a swish and now we have this — something I might have dreamed of as a kid.

Multiple people have walked into the living room while I’m playing and asked, “who’s playing?” They think they’re watching a real game.

They can’t tell the difference between virtual reality and reality.

If this incredible game is any indication, that gap may be narrowing to the point of being indistinguishable.