Kenny Smith walked off the NBA on TNT set in solidarity with the players who chose to protest rather than play in late 2020. Smith, an ex-player himself, felt it was right. At that moment, mid-pandemic and additional cases of police brutality filling newsrooms, the league took a stand.
None of that is in NBA 2K21. Kenny Smith is. The players are. Yet, for its masterfully realistic textures, authentic stadiums, and advancing gameplay, there’s no real world momentum in this series. It doesn’t reflect what the pro sport became in the past few years, now under the supportive leadership of Adam Silver.
Separating the NBA from the social issues is to not represent the NBA at all. There’s a difference between NBA 2K21 and Madden. Not that the NFL isn’t driving conversation, but Madden dodges abuse scandals and player behavior. In the NBA’s case, players were allowed to wear jerseys sporting a message – “Say her name among others – once play resumed after a pandemic stoppage. That’s not in NBA 2K21, not even as an option.
It’s understandable why, say, the “bubble” stadium at Disney isn’t selectable. Not only was NBA 2K21 developed during COVID’s challenges, this version undoubtedly afforded less leniency as the first on new hardware. Rendering a new court and replicating the presentation takes resources. But, a phrase on a jersey, or a court adorned with “Black Lives Matter” seems a relatively attainable goal, even in these conditions. No matter how accurate NBA 2K21 renders LeBron’s face or how engaging Brent Barry’s color commentary is, the essentials aren’t there. Life matters more than basketball; it’d be nice to see the simulation support that.
It’s the best basketball videogame to date, but not much of an NBA one.