Full disclosure: I currently volunteer as a moderator on NBA 2K's Discord server. I'm not an employee of and am not paid by 2K or Take-Two.

I've been playing NBA 2K since the original. I was always a Sega kid - Master System, Genesis, Dreamcast - and loved (still do) sports game. I'll still purchase the yearly iteration of the four major sports games even if they're nothing more than a roster update, which is oftentimes exactly what they are. Back in 1999, the basketball landscape was still being ruled by EA Sports...unless you were a Sega kid. Then, it was Sega Sports NBA 2K, developed by Visual Concepts, which was purchased by Take-Two in 2005 and now lives under the 2K label. I spent way too many hours in college trying to put precisely enough tension on those triggers to hit a free throw. Fast forward 25 years and 2K is the only game in town in what has become a sports game landscape that's controlled by game monopolies.

While back in the late 90s and early aughts the main mode for gamers was season mode, or if you were lucky - franchise mode, today's gaming experience revolves around (in EA's nomenclature) "Ultimate" teams. Essentially, in-game and/or real-life currency affords you the ability to purchase packs which contain the possibility of pulling a current or historical player cards based on "reported" pack odds. Somehow, companies get away with publishing something such as "<2%" which could mean a 1.9% chance or a .00000000001% chance of pulling a specific card. It's a mystery how this hasn't been government regulated in the US, but it's fitting if you consider our recent slide into accepting and promoting gambling. It's best to start them out young, no?

It had appeared that 2K in their NBA 2K24 release would buck the industry trend of an auction house, where users could list their cards to acquire more in-game currency in order to buy players/packs they wanted. Sometimes this strategy put certain popular cards out of reach of your regular 2K MyTeam player. So 2K announced the Player Market, which would allow users to purchase the cards they wanted directly from 2K for a set amount. It nearly eliminated the need to spend actual money on ripping packs, because why gamble when you can just buy the card you want using either in-game or real-life currency. But then the caveats began.

You want that Pink Diamond (the highest available gem level) Kobe Bryant card? Enter into the mix: lock-in cards. Well, you'll need to collect all 10 players to get that lock-in card. And you'll need to do that multiple times. There's no way to directly purchase that card you want without purchasing dozens of cards you don't want. Then there was the case of the Pink Diamond Michael Beasley card. A lower tier version of his card was popular with the no-money-spent crowd, so 2K put his higher gem card behind a Virtual Currency (real-money) paywall. This was part of the same set that gave us a lock-in for what many folks thought would be a top-tier Yao Ming card.

Don't be so sad, Yao

The Pink Diamond Yao Ming card. How does one explain it without using the phrase "2K trolled users"? This was a lock-in card everyone had been waiting for, yet, it was worse than almost every card that you needed to collect to get it. People still collected the set, thinking it was simply an error by 2K and they would eventually update the card to be good (they didn't). Then what was possibly the latest in a litany of last straws was the release of 2K's NBA All-Star 2024 series (with 2K24's first Galaxy Opal level cards) and their first ever 100 overall card. Somehow, all of these cards evaded/avoided the Player Market. And there was no mechanism to purchase the specific player you wanted. Gone is the auction house, and without them being in the Player Market or even a Michael Beasley-esque direct purchase, players are left to gamble with pack odds that aren't entirely clear (<2%).

Was this Kareem drop all about the money?

You add that debacle to an All-Star weekend where 2K showed in-game that earning a ring in their Unlimited mode would give you a free Pink Diamond Doc Rivers coach card (people actually wanted this, unlike having Doc Rivers coach your actual favorite team) only to change it to an "Unsellable" (unsellable is a misnomer that basically means you can sell it at an extremely discounted rate) pack from last season. There was also no Locker Codes or grindable All-Star content, all of which has been a 2K tradition. Then you have 2K tweeting out an incorrect graphic showing that those newly released Galaxy Opal cards everyone was angry about were now available in the Player Market (they weren't). And what might have been the most entertaining 2K apologist burner account that has ever popped up on (and subsequently quit) Twitter.

Whoops! 2K's deleted tweet image

The proverbial "any publicity is good publicity" isn't always the case. In their Q3 2024 earnings release (February 8th 2024), Take-Two specifically mentioned "some softness in mobile advertising and sales for NBA 2K24" as a reason for lowering their full-year financial outlook. As an example, to date, NBA 2K24 has sold in the neighborhood of 7 million copies. To compare, NBA 2K20 sold around 14 million copies (thank you pandemic!). They also blamed the lower outlook as being "largely due to the effect of lower unit sales on its (NBA 2K24) in-game monetization". This is while "average revenue per user gr(e)w 30% year-over-year". Since the earnings announcement, Take-Two's stock price has decreased nearly 11% (February 8th - 20th 2024).

So how will the folks behind NBA 2K24 react to such playerbase unrest? There's always the (in gambling terms) double down. It seems like that's what the 2024 All-Star release was. Maybe we can increase that revenue per user by enough that we can offset the weak game sales. But the problem is, in economic terms, that videogame demand is fairly elastic. You keep raising prices, and/or demanding more money to be on a level playing field with other users, and a portion of your userbase will flee - whether it's to a different game, a different activity, or maybe they'll freely go out and touch grass.

The problem isn't players not spending enough. The problem is not enough players are playing the game. So listen to your community. Do what Madden has done and create a VIP group of hardcore fans whose opinions can help direct the franchise. The community wants a reason to play. They want free, grindable content. Even if the rewards aren't the greatest, everyone loves getting something for free. This will have people speaking positively about the MyTeam game mode, which has had positive moments this year. That positive word of mouth should lead to more people purchasing the game (or at least downloading once it inevitably is free), which should lead to greater revenue for Take-Two. We all live happily ever after.

It kinda feels like the ball is now in 2K's court...

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