NBA 2k20’s Inclusion of the WNBA Awesome But Needs More Integration

In early July, Twitter was set aflame when 2K Games revealed that NBA 2K20, the latest in the company’s series of professional basketball simulation games, would include gameplay featuring all 12 WNBA teams for the first time.

Basketball Twitter was engulfed in a brutal civil war between excited WNBA fans and sexist guys with My Little Pony avatars:

But let’s set aside the reactionary hot takes and boring kitchen jokes for a while. The 2K community has gotten its first taste of WNBA gameplay, with NBA 2K20’s demo having dropped last week, on August 21st, and some having accessed the full game early on 2K Game’s Community Day. Let’s focus on why the WNBA’s inclusion in NBA 2K20 is wonderful; not only for the league, its players, organizations, and fans, but also for the gameplay experience of NBA 2K.

As I said before, NBA 2K20 features the full rosters of all 12 WNBA teams, and has face scanned seemingly every player and coach in the league. Though as always there have been some complaints about the results of these scans, the technology is imperfect and you must appreciate the care and work that the 2K team has put into creating a realistic WNBA experience. The 2K team visited with WNBA teams and players over the past year in order to fully integrate the league into NBA 2K20, with Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson receiving a full body scan as early as February 2019. I feel strongly that these efforts will pay off as WNBA players become more recognizable to a wider community–it will become easier to put a face to a name for the casual WNBA fan.

NBA 2K20 builds upon previous WNBA video games by allowing players to manage WNBA teams in “season” or “franchise” modes for the first time, per SB Nation’s Matt Ellentuck. I am particularly excited by this, as managing NBA teams through NBA2K’s “Association” and later “MyLeague” modes is how I myself, along with many other basketball fans, developed a deep, encyclopedic knowledge of NBA rosters. I predict this will have a similar effect on the WNBA fanbase. Through managing one of the WNBA’s 12 teams, and messing with their roster construction, gamers will be able to familiarize themselves with who plays where, as well as with skillsets of players from stars to role players. Unfortunately, it has been reported that the WNBA franchise mode of 2K20 will not include the ability to fantasy draft teams from scratch, but still, the inclusion of a team management mode for the WNBA will help fans learn and get invested in the league.

With several gameplay videos having been released onto YouTube and Twitch, we have some sense of what playing as WNBA teams will look like in 2K20. The first thing that struck me watching these videos is that the WNBA gameplay is distinct from 2K’s NBA gameplay. The developers have accurately captured the unique style and rhythm of WNBA basketball, making the gameplay much more immersive and satisfying than if they had simply loaded WNBA player models into the game. Time has been taken to enter playbooks from all twelve teams coaching staffs, accurately recreating WNBA league play in game. The WNBA gameplay, compared to the NBA gameplay, emphasizes ball handling, passing and lay ups, has more open floor spacing, and features significantly more positional fluidity–i.e., “positionless basketball”. There are significantly more quick set shots in WNBA gameplay, as opposed to the NBA gameplay which features almost entirely jump shots from the outside. In addition to these distinguishing WNBA features, 2K Games has on the whole revamped the look and feel of layup animations, providing for a more dynamic and satisfying experience when laying up that helps capture the athleticism and acrobatic nature of WNBA layups. These idiosyncrasies help highlight the WNBA’s value as a distinct basketball product, and also bring new playing styles and strategies for 2K players to learn and master in game.

Even more than the gameplay itself, I’m impressed with the fully programmed play-by-play and color commentary that accompanies it. The WNBA commentary is comprehensive and smooth, though it’s being procedurally edited together, it sounds like it’s being generated in real time by actual human commenters. I was concerned there would be holes in the game’s library for the WNBA commentary, but it features a full register of player and coach names for all twelve teams. This is supplemented by a rich reserve of anecdotes, observations, statistics, and fun facts about players that will help educate newcomers on WNBA players’ personalities, skill sets, and storylines. There’s even nuanced discourse about the gigantic income  gap between WNBA players and NBA players right in the commentary track, an appropriate reflection the WNBA’s socially conscious body of athletes. 

Disappointingly, it does seem from the NBA 2K20 demo that the game will not feature the ability to play as a WNBA player in the game’s iconic MyCareer mode, where gamers can create their own custom player and simulate a career in professional basketball with a fully scripted storyline. The demo is built around an in depth character customization engine, where all elements of the players potential can be modified; however, there is no option to change your players assigned gender. I understand that allowing gamers to play as a pro baller in the WNBA requires the designers to animate and record an alternate storyline, which is a lot of extra work. However, WNBA inclusion in MyCareer is a realistic goal for NBA 2K21, and a worthwhile addition to a franchise that seeks to comprehensively simulate all aspects of professional basketball. While there at it, I would love to see historical WNBA teams added to the game, like the Cynthia Cooper-led Houston Comets from the late 90s, the Lisa Leslie LA Sparks that followed them, or the mid-2000s Phoenix Mercury built around Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, and Cappie Pondexter.

The next big step is seeing a WNBA player grace the cover of an NBA 2K game. Maybe being the main cover athlete is an unrealistic expectation, but certainly an alternate cover a la the recently introduced “Legend Edition” covers could be wonderful. The “Legend” edition celebrates an NBA veteran or retired legend (such as LeBron James or Dwyane Wade,) while also clearing room for a younger NBA talent to be featured on the main cover. In the same vein, the WNBA edition cover provides the chance to spread the love to another premier talent in the game of basketball. My pick for 2K21 would be Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics, currently slashing 50/40/90 on the way to a historic season where she’s likely to take home her second MVP. I think Delle Donne’s strong sense of personal narrative and connection to her family fits the story-driven way NBA 2K tends to frame its cover athletes perfectly. 2K’s covers always feature players who have changed the game, and this season, Elena Delle Donne is demonstrating that she’s one of the most dominant, efficient offensive players to ever play basketball, regardless of gender.

You can get your first taste of WNBA 2K action when NBA 2K20 is released September 6th, 2019 for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and for Windows computers. September 6th is the traditional release date for 2K games, but it just so happens to perfectly align with the end of the WNBA regular season on September 8th. My hope is that this will provide a new audience for the WNBA come the playoffs.

I personally cannot wait to dominate the paint and posterize as Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury. Which WNBA player or team are you most excited to play as?

Dani Bar-Lavi is a comedian, writer, and guest contributor to SportsAreFromVenus. You can find them on Twitter @dblfluidity. 

Image Source: twitter.com/NBA2K

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