Screenshot: YouTube

If you have read anything about the NBA 2K series in the past couple years, then you know that its centerpiece “MyCareer” mode, in which you guide a custom-created fledgling NBA player to stardom, is a hyper-branded, microtransaction-choked nightmare all but explicitly designed to pressure human players into spending real money to unlock game features. In this respect, the most recent version, NBA 2K19, is as yucky as any free downloadable iPhone game. But that’s not the only way 2K19 is astonishingly gross.

(If any of this is news to you, I encourage you to check out Luke Plunkett’s terrific post about this, over at Kotaku. Or to just keep reading this blog. Or both!)

The way it works is, within the fictitious world of the MyCareer mode, everything costs a virtual currency called, uh, VC. Cosmetic stuff (clothing, shoes, tattoos) costs VC; much more insidiously, your player’s basketball attribute improvements also cost VC. His skills are tracked via attribute sliders that can go as high as 99; in order for him to improve at discrete basketball skills, he must spend VC on leveling-up his ratings in these individual skill areas. This is the only way to improve: You could spend a month practicing three-pointers on your player’s in-home basketball court and it will never increase his three-point shooting rating even one point. And if you want to have fun using him, you’ll have no other choice: He begins his career as a completely useless bozo with no skills to speak of.

So, how do you get VC? You can buy it with real dollars, as the game constantly and shamelessly invites you to do. Or you can earn it. Your player receives game checks for playing NBA games (his contract is negotiated in terms of American dollars, but he gets paid in VC) and can get smaller amounts for playing in online multiplayer modes in the game’s virtual “neighborhood” interface. In addition, as he progresses and becomes more successful, he can sign endorsement deals with real-world brands, advertisements for which are splattered across every inch of the NBA 2K universe: Gatorade, Foot Locker, a selection of major athletic shoe brands, and so on. Here is a place where shit gets really gross and bad.

Let’s say you have your player sign a shoe deal with Nike. Nike agrees to pay him VC bonuses for hitting certain in-game statistical benchmarks, like for example he can get, say, 100 VC every time he records a 30-point, 12-rebound box-score line in an NBA game. It also agrees to pay him a nice big chunk of VC for doing certain promotional activities he can unlock by becoming more popular with fans. Also, he can get certain Nike shoes for free from the virtual Foot Locker store in the “neighborhood.” And in return, all he has to do is wear Nike shoes whenever he plays in NBA or neighborhood multiplayer games. Nice. In the very broadest terms, this is how it goes in the real NBA, too, up to a point.

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Okay. Now let’s say that, whoops, you forgot to equip a pair of Nike shoes on your guy and you went and played a playground game with your buddies. After the game, your player will receive a terse text message from his agent, letting him know that Nike is displeased and warning him that he’ll need to wear Nike shoes to games if he doesn’t want to lose his shoe deal. We can debate whether simulating the career of an NBA player in a video game really requires including this gross crap, but let’s agree that, broadly, this too probably is reasonably accurate: If, say, noted Nike endorser Kyrie Irving showed up to Rucker Park wearing a pair of Adidas shoes, I am extremely willing to believe that someone at Nike would at least get in touch with Kyrie’s agent to ask about it.

Now, both in real life and in NBA 2K19, the NBA player who happily fulfills the contractual obligations of a brand endorsement deal will have more money than an otherwise equal player who does not. But, because in NBA 2K19 the only way to improve your skills is to spend VC on attribute improvements, the player who is a good brand partner will not only be richer than the one who defies the brands; he will be able to improve his skills faster. He will be a better basketball player. In the world of NBA 2K19, the way to improve as a basketball player is to be loyal to the brands that paid money to be included in NBA 2K19. Basketball players who are loyal to brands are better at basketball than basketball players who wear whatever shoes they want to the park. Brand loyalty and basketball skill scale up proportionally, within NBA 2K19.

Enforcing this at all times is the game-world’s flatly insane pricing system. My player is an 82 overall (I’ve never bought VC) whose NBA contract, in American dollar terms, supposedly pays him something like $24 million per season. That’s a lotta damn money, even among sub-superstar NBA players. But of course he gets paid in VC, not dollars, and God only knows the conversion rate between the two currencies. Between his salary, stat bonuses, and a bonus for winning, he typically pulls down around 2,000 VC per NBA game. A pair of shoes costs around 2,500 VC. A shirt costs several hundred VC. A pair of generic-looking basketball shorts costs several hundred VC. In the world of NBA 2K19, a single outfit of workout clothes costs the equivalent of two NBA game checks. But more importantly, the next small one-point upgrade available for my player’s three-point shooting skill—one attribute slider, among many!—will cost 3,500 VC.

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And then, in order to put those improvements into practice, he will also have to buy better—crisper and more effective—game-play animations for things like dribbling and shooting. There are dozens of categories of skill animations that can be improved; without doing this, your player will remain a leaden doofus even if his skill ratings improve. These also cost hundreds or thousands of VC, and are unlocked as you level up, which you can only do by spending VC. So you see, there is a lot of pressure to get those endorsement dollars; without them, your player is effectively broke.

One obvious problem with this is that it’s just simply a hilariously inaccurate representation of things, in a game that at least nominally purports to offer something like a simulation of what an NBA career is like. Anthony Davis could nuke whatever endorsement deals he has and never enter into another one so long as he lives, and it would not in any way slow or impede his progress as a basketball player. It would cost him many tens and maybe hundreds of millions of dollars in income! But it would not make it one iota harder for him to improve his three-point shot. He does not need to purchase the privilege of doing a particular style of behind-the-back dribble. That’s just not how it works.

Another problem with this is that it’s fucking Satanic! In basic terms, video games are all about the feeling of chemical gratification you get from figuring out and successfully performing certain designed actions—nailing the timing and rhythm of a tricky platforming section in Super Mario Bros., or mastering the perfect-reload boost in Gears of War, or lining up a sequence of coordinated party attacks in a sophisticated role-playing game. Figuring out what the game wants you to do, and doing it, and getting the addictive endorphin reward as a result. In a big, complex, modern game like NBA 2K19, that can take lots of forms: Getting a perfect “green” release on a jumpshot, or syncing up with your online pal for a perfect backdoor cut and lob pass, or timing your opponent’s cheesy dribble moves just right and poking the ball away for a steal. Or making sure that you’re wearing the right brand of shoes so that a corporate apparel company will pay you some money. Or hitting the box-score benchmarks that will get it to give you even more money.

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The rewards come right away in the form of VC; cumulatively, loyal brand servitude makes you better at the game than another player who doesn’t bother with that shit. Take your MyCareer player up against opponents who are obedient brand-servants in one of NBA 2K19's multiplayer modes, and they will be better shooters than him. They’ll be better at dunking and dribbling and playing defense. Because they did what the shoe company told them to do, and therefore were able to unlock a more rewarding game experience.

In real, practical terms, NBA 2K19 is a game that trains you to identify the will of brands, and do it, and get gratification from that, and get a competitive advantage over other humans because of it. That’s evil. It’s straight-up evil.