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The unavoidable reality behind NBA 2K20’s avoidable microtransactions

About a week into NBA 2K20, my favorite pastime inside The Neighborhood, the game’s richly detailed, MMO-like hub world, is simply people watching. You can tell a lot about folks by comparing their fashion choices — or lack thereof — against the biographical card that pops up underneath everyone you meet.

That guy’s new. That guy bought the Legend Edition. That guy must have spent everything on clothing. That guy must have spent everything on ratings. That guy spent real money on both.

Measuring myself against others, and quietly judging them, is inevitable when you’re dealing with a game that is as social as pickup basketball, an anchor experience for The Neighborhood. It’s not that I don’t want my character to get humiliated in a 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 game, I know that’s more than likely coming; I just don’t want to waste my teammates’ time. Me hucking up a brick as soon as I touch the ball, or getting my ankles broken on the slightest hesitation move is one thing; my 62 overall rating and generic clothing are what really communicate that I don’t belong out here.

I can improve, by upgrading myself with the Virtual Currency that’s freely earned, in generous amounts, even if my character sits the bench for most of his NBA games. But the fastest way to fit in is to just buy better skills for real cash. The urge inside me to do so is powerful, even though the code 2K Sports gave Polygon was for NBA 2K20’s Legend Edition — which supplies a modest starter wardrobe and 100,000 Virtual Currency for the extra $40 on its price tag (the cash equivalent of the VC, without bonuses or volume discounts). Those starting funds can buy an 82 rating for my player before taking my first shot. Yet perversely, like I do when I buy something frivolous after finding money or avoiding a big bill, I briefly considered spending $60 on in-game moolah. Why not, I would have paid that for NBA 2K20 anyway, right?

Wrong, my self-imposed task here was to go through NBA 2K20 without spending any real money, and see if I could still have a good time. And yes, I can, as long as I focus on the truly single-player portions of MyCareer. NBA 2K used to reach into my pocket on every menu in MyCareer, and it no longer does that, or at least it doesn’t do it as much. But the social pressure to spend is still there, and the more I lean into the emergent exceptionalist fantasy of MyCareer — and that’s half the fun of a career mode — the stronger it is.

What’s 100,000 VC really worth? An 82 overall rating.
Polygon screenshot/2K Sports

MyCareer is set up with an excellent narrative dotted with A-list celebrities, skillfully written and performed, wrapping you in the ideal of being the league’s next big thing. In its gameplay, it’s very easy to reach the top tier of draft stock and set yourself up with both your preferred club and a big VC payday with them. The game-practice cycle that follows once you’re taken by a team is easily binged, and half a season will give me plenty of upgrade juice to be a respectable contributor in multiplayer.

I suspect most folks will start out this way — I’ll grind a rookie season, maybe get back into the flow, and come out of it with some ratings I can take to the streets. But I can tell it’s going to take enormous discipline to stay within that. Only a true ascetic would dump everything into player progression and still run around in the same sweatpants and green shirt that everyone gets at the beginning. But I’ve run across plenty of green-and-greys in my first week with the game. They just aren’t on any of the multiplayer courts.

But if you’re not buying extra VC for real money, you’ll probably start the career mode rated between 61 and 63. Here’s how I upgraded after my first pre-draft scrimmage.
Polygon screenshot via 2K Sports

The MyCareer mode is fairly criticized for the presence and unlimited influence of real-money currency — something Madden NFL and FIFA’s career modes never had, and MLB The Show cut down on considerably a year ago. What rankles me is a little more subtle than pay-to-win schemes, however. When the currency that buys cosmetics is also tied to progression, changing my look comes as a moral choice worthy of being presented by a father figure on an after-school special: Do you want to play like a baller, son, or do you just want to look like one? 5,000 VC — five games’ top-of-scale wages from MyCareer’s NBA games — can buy a sweet, look-at-this-hipster Hedo Turkoglu jersey from the NBA Shop, or it can add some improvement to my mid-range shooting.

So why not freely spend my way to both?

That sweet spin-to-drive move I saw someone use to blow off their defender for an easy layup is not purchasable, but the hoodie, shoes and even the 90 overall rating is. It looks like you get matchmade into Neighborhoods where most of the players are at your level — I was always seeing more people at a rookie level than pro, and none at superstar or legend, but that may be because it’s barely a week past launch. But I still felt self-gated by the humiliation of calling next with a rating in the 60s and that green shirt and gray sweatpants everyone starts with.

“When Lights Are Brightest,” the story mode beginning MyCareer, is very easy but still an enjoyable sports-movie fantasy
Polygon screenshot/2K Sports

Even if I can avoid the microtransactions (and I’ve never had much desire to play MyTeam, which had the more obnoxious casino games that got everyone exercised last month) MyCareer still seems governed by a caste system where anyone below an 80 rating isn’t excluded, but isn’t fully part of the experience either. This was my concern, and others were too, when 2K Sports first started mixing its career modes with Virtual Currency six years ago. And though the developers have steadily backed away from making everything for sale (as lineup changes once were, infamously), that social structure is still there, both part of the game and not really part of it. Just like me.

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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