I’ve never envied the development cycle that comes with working on an annual sports game series. When you consider how much time and money goes into any other big-budget project, asking a studio to constantly churn out a game that is both functional and consistent but also fresh and exciting every single year seems unfair. NBA 2K23 is incredibly impressive regardless, but even moreso in light of this tight dev cycle. With a deep suite of fun game modes, improved on-court gameplay, and a deeper social experience, it feels like the team at Visual Concepts managed to freeze time and spend longer than the typical cycle on this exceptional NBA sim.
It’s hard to know where to begin with NBA 2K23 because, in ways both big and small, there’s a lot of new stuff to see. For me, though, it starts with The Jordan Challenge. For the first time since NBA 2K11, you can relive highlights from the career of the greatest player in NBA history. More than just a rehash of a mode absent for over a decade, this renewed Jordan Challenge is like a modern remake of that original concept.
Beginning in his college career at North Carolina, you’ll play through 15 of Jordan’s biggest games and work to recreate statlines and other outcomes like a time traveler seeking to not disrupt the proper timeline. Where Jordan dropped 63 on the Celtics and set a playoff scoring record, now so can you. Where he won his sixth and final NBA title, you too can perform his last dance. These and other forever-on-replay basketball moments are yours to relive.
Conceptually, this is as it was before, albeit now with five more games than the original iteration, but the finer details are where The Jordan Challenge really shines in 2K23. Era-appropriate filters, retro on-screen graphics, and even long-gone arenas and fittingly-dressed spectators work together to transport players to the time and place of each game spanning the ’80s and ’90s. Before each game, the Visual Concepts team includes new interview segments with players, commentators, coaches, and others who witnessed the greatness of Michael Jordan firsthand. Collectively, it gives the whole mode the feeling of an interactive museum to unrivaled basketball achievements, and playing it has been the first time in my life that a sports game gave me goosebumps.
This allows you to position your team to draft or trade for the contemporary or incoming stars of each era and recreate basketball history from that starting point, like creating alternate realities where Larry Bird played for Philly or Jordan never retired for two years in the middle of his prime. The league will change as you go, too, with rulebooks getting updates, dominant play styles changing over the years, and teams relocating–or not, if you decide your NBA alt-universe keeps the Sonics where they belong, for example.
Both The Jordan Challenge and this new MyNBA feature, called Eras, represent ways this year’s game feels like it goes above and beyond. Other sports sims just aren’t offering this type of content for their players. It’s a remarkable thing and feels handled with care and attention from a studio that must be full of real basketball fanatics. The love of the game is pouring out of these two modes and would merely by themselves qualify NBA 2K23 as a must-play for basketball fans.
Though these marquee features are by no means small, NBA 2K has long been a series that sweats the small stuff, too. Wildly lifelike player animations, best-in-class commentary, and unmatched broadcast-style presentation all return with impressive added touches, like different commentary teams depending on which mode you’re playing. NBA 2K has long put some other sports series–which I won’t name, but you can probably guess–to shame with such attention to detail, and these little things have an outsized effect in the end, making this series the most enjoyable sports game every single year.
Those touches separate this series from the pack even when NBA 2K itself was sometimes lacking in the actual basketball gameplay, but concerns regarding last year’s overemphasis on shooting have been addressed. Though the NBA itself generally favors the three-ball in real life, that’s not the case for all players, of course. But last year’s game made sharpshooters out of anyone with an open look. It was unrealistic and altered what is arguably the most important aspect: online pick-up games with friends and rivals. 2K23 focuses largely on giving power back to the strong finishers and slashers of the league, preventing back-to-back years where everyone looks like Steph Curry.
Modeled after the play of Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, this year’s game feels better balanced right away for different play styles. Those who aren’t natural shooters have regressed to something more realistic, while those who lean into the paint and bully defenders now feel just as dominant as a shooter from behind the arc. In turn, this has made online PvP games more enjoyable, as they no longer feel like three-point contests.
Knowing that, the team has designed this year’s game to give you narrative reasons for running around The City completing quests for dozens of NPCs like it’s an RPG. You’ll be winning over districts of fans like a San Andreas turf war, but here your weapons will be charity work, endorsement deals, and the occasional viral tweet.
After years of The City (and its predecessor, The Neighborhood), the mode still feels like an accomplishment. Like The Jordan Challenge and MyNBA Eras, this social hub is something only NBA 2K is doing and helps separate it from the rest of the pack, making it easy for fans of multiple sports games to know where to invest their time with tons of modes and attractions, some of them rotating in on a daily basis. The big new addition is The Theater, which is the place to head for limited-time modes with oddball changes to scoring or the rulebooks. The City does return a few nagging issues, however.
First worth mentioning are the game’s modes of transportation. For those who don’t want to run from quest to court and vice versa, skateboards and bikes are back, but they control so poorly–and always have–that I’m more likely to stay on foot and accept the speed decrease. Thankfully, new fast-travel points have been added in the form of subway stations and this year’s city is actually about 30% smaller due to fan demand for a more dense cityscape. Still, both quests and travel distances will sometimes call for using skateboards, but they’re frustratingly unwieldy. It’s odd to complain about a basketball game’s skateboarding mechanics, but it’s a choice to include this kind of stuff, and this year’s game has not resolved this long-standing issue.
If you’re not new to the series, you likely already know how invasive the microtransactions (MTX) are. Even at its past heights, the pay model has been the thing taking this series down a peg or two, and it’s still an issue here. The problem is twofold. On one hand, the game’s MyTeam mode is just as bad as any comparable mode such as Ultimate Team in EA Sports games. It’s pay-to-win, without a doubt, given how any player can simply buy up unlimited card packs until they’ve landed a dominant team. But the game’s MTX continue to dampen The City, too, as the same Virtual Currency that can upgrade your squad in MyTeam can also dramatically improve your MyPlayer protagonist too.
As that player eventually migrates out of the story and into The City, it causes a MyTeam-like rift between those who grind for greatness and those who paid their way up the ranks. It’s clear some percentage of players may prefer the game lets them upgrade right away, but then to have to face them in The City’s courts and other PvP modes feels like getting stuck in a first-person shooter lobby with wall-hackers and aimbotters. Making it so the same currency buys tattoos, repaints skateboards, and upgrades your player feels like a long-broken feature that the game just keeps returning to each September.
The City is also smothered by product placement in a way that is so over-the-top it would be hilarious if it wasn’t giving me such a dark preview of the so-called metaverse. Virtually everything is a commercial, from Gatorade and Nike to Mobil and Nokia. It feels like I can’t even high-five a teammate without it being brought to me by Mountain Dew.
These issues, especially due to their persistence year after year, do hinder NBA 2K23 from being historically great, but for annual players who have gotten used to these problems, they’ll likely sting less. What remains after you forgive (or just try to forget) those issues is undoubtedly still an exceptional basketball game made with an intense attention to detail and a love of the game. On the court, NBA 2K23 looks and feels lifelike and exciting in every drive, and the new and revamped modes treat the NBA like a revered historical monument. In those important ways it does its best to reflect Jordan’s greatness and shows both NBA newcomers and historians what it’s like to play like Mike.