In March of 2020, NBA 2k20 was added to Xbox’s Game Pass service. In hindsight, this is ironic timing as March of 2020 was also the month COVID-19 exploded in the United States. One of the early regional events was an outbreak of the disease at a nursing community near my home of Seattle, but I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say the country really took notice of the disease, its spread, and its seriousness only after Rudy Gobert of the NBA’s Utah Jazz tested positive and suddenly games were postponed and cancelled.
I was fortunate in that my job was not seriously affected; I had some travel cancelled but the work remained. Still subject to lockdown or shelter-in-place orders, I had time on my hands. Animal Crossing took up plenty of that time, but I was looking for a new game. Long disillusioned with the NHL series, I decided to give NBA 2k20 a shot. I’m not the biggest basketball fan but I could recognize most players’ names and teams...or a team that had played for recently at least. Plus, I was I intrigued by “MyTeam,” the mode that let you mix and match a team of current and former stars - provided you could acquire their cards via in-game challenges, an auction house system, or by the luck of the loot box.
Throughout the NBA’s pause and eventual return, I played a lot of NBA 2k20, and I spent even more money on it than I invested time. I want to be clear about something: I have a good job, I have disposable income, and I don’t spend beyond my means. But money that would previously go to dinner with friends? A trip to visit family? Dry cleaning (It was clear we weren’t going to be working in offices or around others ANYTIME soon)? Buy a couple boxes of digital basketball cards - chase the guys you remembered from when you were a teenager, chase the players you’d come to know from a new interest in the game, or put together the Celtics Big 3 you used to watch with your dad - no, not KG, Allen, and Pierce, the originals of Bird, McHale, and Parrish.
I acquired a LOT of digital basketball cards.
Like every sports title, the season wound down after the NBA’s bubble return, and content for 2k20 stopped in anticipation of NBA 2k21. The new title brought a new concept, cribbed from other sports Ultimate Team modes, known as “seasons.” 6 weeks of timed content. Bite-sized breakdowns really of the chase for the best cards, facilitated by daily and weekly and season-long XP challenges. I liked the sound of fresh, regular content and shorter term goals to work towards. Plus, NBA 2k21 was a next gen launch title when those were few and far between.
The game launched, and I was back in my hamster wheel of buying packs, trying cards, and grinding XP for questionable digital rewards. As a mostly offline player, some things were flatly not available to me, and others seemed out of reach. Seasons 1 and 2 continued this way, but with Season 3 I felt like if I dedicated myself, I could earn the season’s ultimate reward, a “galaxy opal” tier Dwayne Wade for future use. I grinded, and grinded, and grinded. I played modes I didn’t enjoy when there were rewards for doing so that didn’t require winning. I added Dwayne Wade (a player it should be noted I had no historical or emotional connection to) to my squad. And a few days later...it started again. The season 4 chase would be for Kawhi Leonard, another great card built a player I had no connection to historically or emotionally.
I did it again. For 6 weeks. I didn’t enjoy playing digital basketball for...the last two? Maybe three of those weeks?
So when Season 5 started, I read the dev blog with all the news of what was new; there are always new players beyond just the season end goal. And I just decided I was done. No more packs, no more daily or weekend-specific XP challenges. No more playing a few games while listening to podcasts to kill some time and earn the next card. I’d like to say I’d have come to the conclusion I did no matter what, but a high-level Larry Bird (my dad’s favorite player) might have broken my resolve. But I walked away.
I’ve been happier playing in the sandboxes of Hitman 3, testing out the Bravely Default 2 demo before this weekend’s launch, and downloaded the Control Ultimate Edition as part of PS Plus. I don’t know if there’s a broader lesson to be learned here - the addictive qualities of loot boxes are well established and not even the major takeaway here - but I know what I’m taking from it personally. Life is too short and, even in a pandemic, free time too limited to waste on games that you’re not truly enjoying. I hope I can remember this the next time I start to think “I’m just not digging this as much as I used to.”