A brief history of sweat and realism in NBA 2k

Over more than two decades, the design of sweat has become central to the evolution and reputation of NBA 2k.

To sweat in sports is to grind.

At the end of Game 7 in the 2016 NBA Finals, an emotional LeBron James speaks to Doris Burke with a bit of moisture on his left temple. He has just led the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 series deficit, earning the first championship for a city that has had a textured history of failure.

Facing off against Kevin Garnett in an open gym setting where teams are designated by shirts and skins would be hell. Aside from a maniacal approach to competition, defending a shirtless Garnett in the post would leave you humiliated and drenched. Maybe the only NBA-related take, which could be seen as objective truth, is that Patrick Ewing was the sweatiest player of all time.

Sweat is often lost in the chaos and beauty of an NBA game. It’s difficult to see and is one of the least interesting elements in any given arena. An afterthought or something to bring up in a hoops conversation because you’re terrified of silence. So why does its graphical representation in NBA 2k, a simulation aiming to provide the most authentic basketball experience, seem to be a focal point for the franchise?

According to Alfie Brody, a vice president of global marketing for NBA 2k, it doesn’t: “We didn’t actually set out to focus on sweat, it’s something that stands out on its own because of how much more realistic the players look when you add smaller details like that,” he tells me over email.

Despite no intention to emphasize sweat specifically, it’s hard not to… focus on sweat, at least with respect to 2k’s teaser trailers. Whenever a new generation of consoles is ready to be unveiled, digital sweat becomes unavoidable.

The release of NBA 2k6 coincided with the introduction of the Xbox 360, providing a look at what the future of HD graphics would entail. In addition to a noticeable leap in quality across the board, the future looked wet. The trailer opens with a medium close-up of Shaq looking off to his left. He’s sweating profusely. In the next nine seconds were greeted with a similar shot of Tim Duncan, Dwayne Wade, and a young LeBron James each with a similar sweat profile.  Even though his features are largely hidden behind a facemask, Rip Hamilton is noticeably dripping.

There’s a cinematic quality to the trailer — each of these players is introduced and framed like characters in a heist movie. The ambient instrumentals and jingles used in previous NBA 2k trailers were put on a 40-day HGH cycle. Instead of music that would never be heard on a basketball court, 2k got someone to rap the following bar over a Timbaland-type beat: “What game can be played that be better than this / from the drive, to the pass, to the shot, to the swish.” It’s something you could imagine hearing in an arena during a timeout or at least used to transition between scenes in Like Mike.

NBA 2k14 would line up with the release of the PS4/Xbox One and since the debut of HD digital sweat, 2k was in a much different position. The franchise was now the most dominant basketball video game on the planet and the next-gen trailer certainly leaned into this position. There were two trailers that only differed in the music that was licensed — one of them is cut to Phil Collins’s In the Air Tonight, and matches the slow build-up of the song before getting into action as the drums come in. Players are shown in the moments sprinkled between playing, whether that’s walking onto the court for tip-off or celebrating something mid-game. The other is rapidly cut to Macklemore’s Can’t Hold Us and progresses at 148 BPM. In both trailers, James Harden glistens in an armor of sweat that has a sheen to it. The game he’s about to play has not started yet.

Fast forward to last June. Sony held an event to introduce their next-gen console, the PS5, in an hour-long event that showcased a number of games, including the first announcement trailer for NBA 2k21. “Y’all are not ready for this,” Zion Williamson warns as he materializes on-screen with a single airpod in. A cut to black. Williamson can be seen in an empty gym, where the only source of light comes from the sun. He’s presumably on Jimmy Butler time — working out at an hour where 99 percent of the population is asleep.

It looks real but it’s actually Playstation 5 footage for the next addition to the NBA 2k franchise. The first close-up is of Williamson’s upper body. His shoulders and neck are drenched in sweat. Punctuating the trailer is an aggressive close-up of Zion’s face, where every inch of his forehead is moist. Overall the footage is gorgeous — lighting, shadows, skin texture, and the depth of color, all seemed improved. Yet what dominated the discourse was how sweaty everything looked.

Why has sweat become such a central feature to the aesthetic and identity of NBA 2k?

As 2k has become more dynamic, changes are best captured through digital perspiration. Chase Becotte, of Operation Sports, reiterates this idea over email: “I think the way the sweat is used — especially at the start of a new generation — does tend to be there to help accentuate the graphical leap. At times, it feels like developers back off the sweat a bit after a year or two into a generation because it just comes off as a bit silly looking, but it does usually serve a purpose at the start.”

Brody echoes this statement: “The graphic capabilities of next-generation consoles has allowed us to elevate a variety of seemingly small details that all add up to a new level of realism for our game. It’s much more than just sweat, it’s the attention to detail of an NBA player’s skin, movement of their eyes, and more that come together and put you right on the court with them.”

For such a straightforward concept, you’d be hard-pressed to find a random NBA 2k fan whose first thought about sweat in the series is simply an easy way to show progress from generation to generation.  Almost like getting to leave class because of an unplanned fire drill, the introduction of next-gen through an eye-popping trailer breaks up the monotony of what video game fans, especially in the sports space, have been conditioned to expect: Anticipate the release of a yearly title, buy it, and then complain.

Nostalgia can feel stronger when applied to the video game experience, especially for a series that has been around long enough for its history to be divided into periods like 2k. “I always try to be really careful when thinking about gaming discussions and how they change between eras. I’ve been on sports game forums and then later Reddit, etc. since I was like 12. People have always been more negative than positive,” Becotte outlines over email, when asked how general attitudes towards 2k have shifted over the years.

Thinking back, it’s hard to imagine what 2k really felt like five to six years ago, let alone a decade. For every change and development related to the playing experience, there have been significant tweaks to other, less essential aspects of the game. Brody summarizes it well: “NBA 2k has become a lifestyle. An ecosystem for not only NBA basketball consumption and entertainment, but a platform for expression and discovery … creating a game that mirrors real-world sport goes far beyond the actual gameplay elements.”

The NBA 2k franchise began in 1999 and was originally a Sega Dreamcast exclusive. A few years later, with the release of 2k2, it was available on multiple platforms like the Gamecube, Xbox, and Playstation 2. Over the course of the next two decades, 2k would not only become the most dominant basketball game available but also one of the most successful franchises of all time. Despite being around for five more years, the NBA live series, which poses the only real competition to 2k has sold 30 million units to the latter’s 90. Granted, sales numbers for Live only account for the series up until 2010, while 2k’s were published in an end of 2018 fiscal report from their publisher, Take-Two interactive.

The depth of 2k’s prominence as the primary basketball game goes far beyond a rough comparison between units sold. Aside from providing a high-quality basketball simulation, it immerses players in a separate universe. This universe has its own economy, one that relies on Virtual Currency (VC), which is used to upgrade player attributes and can be attained through the same level of commitment required in a part-time job or by purchasing with real money. Idris Elba, Rosario Dawson, and Thomas Middleditch speak to you during MyCareer, 2k’s story mode. In a collaborative effort with the NBA, 2k has its own esports league with 23 teams and occasionally broadcasts games on ESPN. The players themselves are fans of the series and actively participate in the cultural discussion surrounding every new release. Damian Lillard premiered two of his songs under his rap alias, Dame D.O.L.L.A, on the NBA 2k21 soundtrack.

Looking at the history of 2k’s trailers and ad campaigns will reflect the game’s transition from a static experience to something approaching immersion. Take the TV ad spot for NBA 2k2, which featured various groups of dudes gathered around their TV sets, reacting to gameplay like it carried the stakes of a real NBA game. There was a clear separation between gamer and simulation — we see people literally playing a video game. Nike sued Sega over the commercial, for its resemblance to the former’s Frozen Moment advertisement. This kind of legal action is inconceivable to think of now, considering 2k recently had a partnership with Nike, allowing players to acquire virtual sneakers by completing challenges in MyPlayer mode. Doing so opened up the opportunity to buy these sneakers in real life. Contemporary trailers, aside from showing improvements to graphics and look, function like music videos and only include footage within the game engine. Instead of demonstrating a product to be played, they depict a world to join.

“Over the years, we have learned how to push the bandwidth of what is possible for an annual release while simultaneously improving at planning out the next game while the current one is in its finishing phase…Along the way, we have created tremendous companion experiences to our on-court gameplay in features like MyCAREER, MyLEAGUE/MyGM/MyNBA, and MyTEAM,” Erick Boenisch, an executive producer at Visual Concepts (2k’s developer), tells me over email.

The sheer size of 2k is often lost on a fandom that has seen features stack up gradually over two decades. Criticism is leveraged against the franchise, and other sports games, because of the monopolies they have created. With no real competition, why would 2k, Fifa, or Madden bother to implement wide-scale changes? However, the supposed golden era of 2k took place while NBA Live was floundering.

“If competition was all that mattered, then PES and FIFA should be way ahead of everyone else by now since they have always been attached at the hip, and that’s not the case,” Becotte points out. That’s not to say 2k exists without faults. Microtransactions still exist and unless the US senate intervenes they will probably continue to be at the core of the game’s design.

There is a notable lack of simplicity in 2k these days and the franchise has been reckoning with it.

“I’ll always say sports games are like nine games in one now, and they are some of the biggest and most complex things out there on the field/court. So a lot of the time we talk about stalled progress, but it’s not concentrated in any one spot, and it varies year to year and in various games…Plus, with these games being so large now, I almost think about modes and gameplay experiences as separate games sometimes,” Becotte explains.

Gone are the days where you and some friends will turn on 2k or any other sports title just to play a few head-to-heads on the couch. Instead, laughing at digital sweat is another way for the fandom to come to terms with a game that has become too big to implement unanimously approved changes year to year.

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