NBA2K23 has been out for over a week now and all the hottest gaming sites have already reviewed it thoroughly. If you’re an NBA2K wizard, greening out your shot meter instinctively, juking and dunking to your heart’s content with your self-created superstar, this may not be the post for you. Somebody needs to write a review for the rest of us, though: the moms and dads deciphering how to play this thing, grandparents trying to figure out what little Brayden, Jayden, Cayden, and Clyde are doing around the TV all the time, casuals trying to see what is new. If that’s you, welcome to review paradise.
I haven’t been living under a rock for the last decade and a half. I’ve known about the NBA2K franchise since it started. I even picked up a couple editions along the way. But I never got good enough to spend serious time with them. When it came to 2K, I was the, “Install the game, try to hit a three-pointer, toss the controller in frustration, go back to playing Civilization IV” type.
But this year the good people at 2K made review copies available to basketball sites like ours, so I figured THIS was going to be the year to spend quality time with the title, examine what made it great, see if I couldn’t pick up a trick or two, then clue in other newbs like me. Naturally I would play always and only as the Portland Trail Blazers, because DUH. And I’d take special delight in trouncing the Los Angeles Lakers whenever possible. As long as those boundaries were maintained, I was up for anything.
To broaden my perspective, and ease my transition into all things NBA2K, I enlisted the help of my 14-year-old son. He, himself, is an NBA2K veteran. He’s got fingers like an octopus and reflexes like a slightly-stoned cat (which is still better than mine), but I’m still Dad. Beating him would be a challenge. but I was playing video games since before he was half a chromosome. I could do this.
There’s no way to walk through every feature of the game in one post. Having only played a week together, we haven’t unearthed them all yet! But this should give neophytes an idea of what’s going on and how to access the fun that everyone is crowing about.
If you’ve played any modern console games (read: anything after the PS2), picking up the basic controls of NBA2K23 shouldn’t be hard for you. One movement stick moves your active player. There are buttons for passing, switching players, stealing, and blocking. Your brain is going to go, “Haha! This isn’t that much different than the old Double Dribble gameplay! Prepare to be pwned!”
Looks can be deceiving, though. Three mechanics are going to mess with your arcade instincts. Think of them like NBA2K’s language. If you don’t learn them, you’re going to be like the rotten tourist shouting, “Which way to the Mango Museum?!?” louder and louder while locals pass by saying, “Mon Dieu! C’est un DORK!” Except instead of muttering, the NBA2K locals will be raining dunks and threes upon your head while you curse.
Steals and Blocks
Arcade basketball is obsessed with the flashy aspects of defense: blocks and steals. Players have no real sphere of control beyond basic collision detection. Defense has nothing to do with position, everything to do with timing. If you hit the button at the right time, you’re going to get a big play. In the aforementioned Double Dribble on the original NES, I once won a game 206-0 because I knew how to execute a steal at the halfcourt line perfectly.
NBA2K23 turns these arcade conventions on their head. Players have weight and momentum. In order to defend someone, you have to stay in front of them. An offensive player can’t just barge through, or past, a body. (Unless that body belongs to a small, terrible defender and your name is Giannis Antetokounmpo. In which case, Happy Dunkmas.) Keeping the offensive player contained is the first step to defending.
Steals and blocks are still possible with good position and timing, but the same mass and momentum that help keep offensive players away from the bucket work against you if you lunge for a steal or leap for a block. Your animated player will move or leap in response to your attempt. You’ll not be able to recover as they are doing so. If you actually come up with the steal, that’s nifty. If not, your would-be defender is stuck in a lunge or leap while the offensive player dribbles right past them for the easy conversion.
If you’re used to spamming the steal/block buttons on defense, you’re going to end up looking like a clown in My First Aerobics Class, making ugly lunges while the opponent scores on you incessantly. I actually succeeded better on defense while learning the game when I ignored the existence of those buttons, only adding steals and blocks to my repertoire after I learned the basics.
The Shot Meter
Shooting in NBA2K23 is exactly as you’d expect. Pull the shoulder trigger and a shot meter appears above your player’s head. It’ll rise quickly, briefly touching the top in a green “perfect” line, then descend back into oblivion. Release the trigger at exactly the right moment and you’ll “perfect” the shot attempt. The farther away the meter stops from the optimum, the less chance the shot will fall.
Though this is bog-standard, many participants complain vociferously that they can’t nail a shot to save their life...or their character’s career.
Several elements go into success. A character’s shooting skill and distance from the hoop are two primary ones. The shot meter becomes more forgiving when those factors are positive. But distance from defenders plays a huge role as well, more so than in any basketball game I’ve played.
The difference is marked. You can just about “green” an attempt on the meter, but if a defender is close, the shot will rattle out. Conversely, when a shooter is open, you can miss the meter by a greater amount and it’ll still go in. For a generation raised on “skill and rhythm trump defense,” this can be frustrating. Once you figure it out, the offensive feedback loop becomes clearer and the game more accessible.
It’s About Plays
A common thread runs through both sections above: you can’t just Rambo your way around the court and expect to succeed. You’re not going to be able to pick the ball out of the opponent’s hands, run the court against three defenders, and windmill dunk. The CPU opponent and your own teammates are all running plays. You’d better have some idea of how they work, or your team is toast.
Teamwork is built into the control system. You can call for the ball in any offensive set and usually get it. You can also hit buttons to call for specific sets...notably screens. Knowing how to do this helps.
But even if that’s too advanced for you, you can still succeed with some basic principles. On offense, you want to watch where your teammates run, then go where they’re not. Setting or receiving a pick is one thing, but jamming three offensive players in the same two inches of screen just creates traffic that the game won’t let you escape or shoot over. Operating in open space is the key to getting open jumpers and singly-defended drives.
On defense, you’ll need to follow basic ball-you-man and man-you-basket principles. If you overplay one hand on a dribbler, they’re going to go the other way. If you play too high on the court and give your opponent the baseline, they’re going to dive for the alley-oop. You should also remember that your player is going to “stick” on screens because of the opponent’s body mass, so decide early whether you need to go over it or under it in order to defend your player. It’s not hard. You can even succeed playing mostly off-ball defense if you keep the man you’re guarding from getting open looks. If you just chase the ball around the floor with the same player, though, the CPU will be merciless.
This may seem odd...almost like thinking your way through a video game that’s supposed to be fun. Unlearning old habits and conventions is a strain at first. But once you get it, 2K23 is as accessible and fun a basketball game as any...more so because of the quasi-realism. I found myself watching as my son played, almost coaching as I saw the plays the opponent was running or the open opportunities on offense for my son’s team. 2K23 does a good job of simulating actual action that way, or as close as you can come on a console.
Pro Tip: If it’s hard to watch the action develop, try changing the camera angle in the game menu until you find something you’re more comfortable with.
Plenty of bells and whistles surround NBA2K23’s core gameplay. The game goes overboard trying to make you feel a part of the experience, leveraging every off-court asset imaginable. Halftime shows feature Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and the TNT crew. Timeouts show cheerleaders, dance teams, and crowd interaction. Music and lights simulate the actual arena atmosphere. The real-world NBA layers heavy doses of vibe over actual competition. 2K23 captures that perfectly.
It’s a mark of homogeneity in the modern NBA that this atmospheric doctoring works for pretty much every team in every arena. Just paste new franchise colors over the costumes and you could be in Detroit, Portland, or Philly. But repeated views still evoke the uncanny valley effect. This dance team looks just like that dance team, which doesn’t seem quite right.
Despite massive buckets of dazzle, the game hasn’t overcome the challenge that afflicts sports sims everywhere. The first time you witness the environmental interludes, they’re amazing. Hearing Ernie Johnson actually talk about your players is a, “Gee, wow!” experience in Week 1. After a dozen games, you can’t click the “skip” button fast enough.
On-court audio commentary is a step above the norm, however. You can go through multiple weeks of games without hearing phrases repeated...or at least not to the point that it grates. The analysis doesn’t always match perfectly with in-game action—that open three WAS a good shot attempt, damnit—but it stays fairly fresh throughout.
2K franchises are known for giving players plenty of options for play style. 2k23 is no exception, offering an impressive buffet.
If you’re a vanilla fan, you can pick up a controller and be inside a 2K23 game within seconds. You can choose a one-off pitting any two NBA teams, historic versions thereof, or all-time rosters against each other in any combination. You can also choose smaller, playground matchups, picking single, pairs, or trios of NBA players from the massive list to run against each other. Certain players are still not available (Charles Barkley and Rasheed Wallace among them), but you’ll run out of time on this earth before you run out of possible matchups. You can even choose a player, take to the practice floor, and brush up your skills as others shag balls for you. Game times are adjustable in all incarnations.
If you have a longer-term view, you can select your favorite team and run them through the 2022-23 NBA schedule. This works exactly as you’d expect and is remarkably satisfying, unless you lose a lot. Then you get to deal with the guilt of tanking your beloved franchise worse than the front office you always complain about.
All-Time teams are particularly entertaining to play with. As a Blazers fan, watching Clyde Drexler line up next to Bill Walton and Damian Lillard, bringing Arvydas Sabonis and Kiki Vandeweghe off the bench...this is the way it was meant to be. Fair warning, though: if you lose with your franchise’s All-Time team, shame and frustration will haunt you for weeks. Practice first.
If playing All-Time teams isn’t fantasy enough, you can also scrap the entire league and re-draft it from scratch using the “MyTEAM” mode. As is typical, this offers a cornucopia of options. Type of drafts and participants can be customized, as can draft order. Salary caps can be turned on or off, trade options too. You can play out seasons with your revamped roster, let the computer sim games, or any combination thereof.
Hint: your inclination is going to run towards fairness, but if you’re new, just bump your favorite franchise to the #1 pick in each round of the draft. Don’t be ashamed. You still won’t win all your games at first. When you’re good enough to make running the best team in the league less of a challenge, then go to a random-order, serpentine draft. You’ve got to learn to succeed before you can fail in this game.
NBA2K23 also offers a “MyCAREER” mode where you can create your own NBA hopeful, watch him get drafted by your team of choice, and run him through a role-playing storyline that’s part 2K, part dating sim, with a light brush of Grand Theft Auto thrown in.
This experience is hit or miss. The mode is great for teaching you the basics of gameplay. The NBA atmosphere is present full-force. You can “level up” your character by meeting in-game criteria and choosing options in dialogue trees, press conferences and interpersonal. True to life, your player is concerned as much with managing narrative and brand as practicing crossover moves.
The voice acting and characterizations are superb, down to characters misspeaking slightly, sounding like actual people talking. But that’s where the reality ends. Like a Vegas casino front, if you look at it from the right angle, it’s impressive. Get close, or deviate your view, and you see the charade.
Your character gets around town by walking. In the first seconds, it seems GTA enough that you’re wondering whether your first-round pick is going to end up robbing somebody. But the city is RPG-generic no matter where you’re drafted, the population doesn’t do anything, and you’re just getting from Plot Point A to Plot Point B in a more visual, but also much slower, way.
The mode is hampered by what you want to do, but can’t. Your character can get around faster by using a skateboard, earned early in the process. Whether that violates your contract clause against unnecessarily dangerous activities is beside the point; i’s meant to be fun. But there are no physics. The board glides across grass like it was sidewalk, hits invisible walls before making contact with rails...it’s like playing an Tony Hawk alpha graphics demo in a full-fledged NBA simulation. The whole thing is parsley by the prime rib.
Similarly, the characters are voiced well enough that you start developing role-playing attachments to them. I don’t know what this says about me, but I was halfway crushing on one of my custom player’s publicists, and it was definitely NOT the one he was in a romantic relationship with. What can I say? She’s my type. I haven’t yet finished all of the storyline, but I doubt switching romantic entanglements is an option, or getting your player to say something that doesn’t make him sound like his own brand ambassador, or having any of the NPC’s step out of their carefully-crafted, but monochromatic, personas. Like thirst-mavens on Twitter, you want to say more to these people, but their DM’s aren’t open.
These flaws don’t detract that seriously from the enjoyment. It is what it is. But one imagines the designers envisioned more than that description when crafting MyPLAYER mode. It feels like these aspects should have been either more or less than they were. Perhaps this is an evolutionary step to something truly engrossing, but we’re not there yet.
I will say I enjoyed the MyPLAYER presentation in 2K23 more than in previous incarnations. This is the classic case of the ultra-fast baseball shortstop almost fielding a ball that nobody else would have gotten close to, thus earning an error for his effort instead of remaining clean. You want them to keep making the attempt, but maybe get more efficient next time, paring back the mission and making each aspect more engrossing.
You could easily get lost in all NBA2K23 has to offer, and probably will. You’ll be thinking about your next draft choice longer than you probably should, or wondering why Anfernee Simons didn’t pass the ball for that last shot you needed to complete your character’s in-game goals instead of taking it himself. (Yes, you made the shot, Anfernee, but I needed that bucket!)
In the end, it all comes down to how much fun you have playing the core game. If you draw your circle small enough and are patient, you should be able to work yourself into proficiency. If you dare to play against more experienced players, though, making up the gap will be hard. When we played against each other, a certain 14-year-old assistant reviewer owned my soul, sliced it in ribbons, and fed it to baby birds multiple times. One can only imagine what online competition is like.
The game also has a plethora of features and modes I haven’t explored yet: online play, Michael Jordan moments, music and video clip experiences, WNBA rosters, NBA eras, and more.
If you’re already an NBA2K expert, you know what you’re in for. New rosters, animations, and an expanded storyline in MyCAREER that lets you get your Minsc and Boo on along with your Inner Jordan should entice you enough to invest in this year’s edition.
If you’re new to the franchise, or haven’t dabbled in a while, enough has evolved this year to merit a serious look. This is not just the deepest, but one of the most accessible, incarnations of NBA2K ever. Just remember to use your coaching mind as much as your arcade thumbs—and stay away from teenage sharks—and you should be fine. The chance to watch players you adore, and some you remember with misty-eyed nostalgia—move at your fingertips is worth the price of admission.