Inside NBA 2K's Journey to the Top of Sports Gaming

Before it had Giannis on the cover or 21 Savage taking on Lil Yachty, 2K Sports was the underdog of sports gaming. How did it get to the top? It had to dethrone EA Sports—and its marquee franchise, Madden NFL.
Patrick HrubyContributor ISeptember 18, 2018

"It still feels like a kick in the nuts."

Years later, NBA 2K software engineer Shawn Lee should be over it. His company won and is now a gaming juggernaut. Last year, NBA 2K18 sold more than 10 million copies and was the No. 2-selling game in the United States, ahead of Zelda, Mario, Star Wars and Grand Theft Auto. NBA 2K has its own professional esports league, which is backed by the NBA. Some of the league's biggest superstars—including Karl-Anthony Towns, Damian Lillard and LeBron James—are ardent fans of the game. So are high-profile entertainers like Atlanta rappers Lil Yachty and 21 Savage. Spike Lee has directed an installment of NBA 2K's cinematic single-player story mode. Jay-Z once curated its soundtrack, which has run the sonic gamut from Drake to U2 to the Russian Futurists.

Yet even now, Lee remains salty about what happened in 2004. We're sitting inside a video game motion-capture studio in Northern California. Colorful promotional posters and other signs of NBA 2K's blockbuster success cover the walls. On a nearby court, a 2K producer is coaching an actor on how to mimic John Stockton's free-throw routine: "Five dribbles," he says. "And tuck your shooting hand back behind your ear before releasing." Lee's voice projects over the sound of the bouncing ball. He can't stop thinking about the time when all of this was in jeopardy. When ascension of the NBA 2K franchise nearly didn't happen. When he almost went back to the aerospace industry, where he had worked as an engineer.

"I wanted to go back to making airplanes," he says.

Looking back, it all seems so improbable: Once upon a time, NBA 2K was just an underdog game made by an underdog company. How did it get here? Before it could thrive, it had to survive. And its success was born of failure. That's the story you haven't heard—a story that starts with the biggest fumble in the history of sports games.


2K Sports is the brainchild of Visual Concepts, which was founded in 1988 by Scott Patterson, a programmer, and Greg and Jeff Thomas, brothers who grew up in suburban Chicago during the golden age of arcades. In its early years, the company worked out of a small office located above a bank in Novato, California, and cut its teeth on edutainment games for home computers. One was called Super Spellicopter, in which gamers "flew a helicopter shooting words and learning how to spell," Thomas says. That work opened doors for Visual Concepts to program Super Nintendo conversions of Electronic Arts' popular Sega Genesis sports titles.

Alison Yin/Associated Press

In 1995, EA Sports tasked Visual Concepts with a more critical project: create the first Madden for Sony's forthcoming PlayStation. EA wanted a showcase title for the Japanese electronic giant's initial foray into the console business. And Visual Concepts had big plans that could get them there. The company was using early motion-capture technology to translate real-world movements from NFL players into digital form—a quantum leap over the sprite-based on-field visuals of previous Madden titles. Off the field, the title would borrow from CBS and Fox, with hours of audio and video commentary from John Madden and broadcast partner Pat Summerall.

It was wildly ambitious. Maybe too ambitious given the production timeline. Madden was due before Thanksgiving. But that summer, producer Rob Jones noticed a problem. Unlike Sega and Nintendo's older, cartridge-based consoles, the PlayStation stored large amounts of data on CD-ROM discs. That data could make a sports game look and sound more like the real thing, but it also had to be loaded into the console's memory before features worked and levels became playable.

If that process took too long, it could ruin the whole experience. While testing Madden, Jones would toss a tennis ball against a wall, counting the bounces as he waited to go from calling a play to seeing his pixelated players break their huddle. "That's how we'd measure the loading times," he says. "We'd be like, 'Oh, it's better today. Only seven bounces.'"

Because Sony's new machine had yet to hit stores, Visual Concepts was working on development equipment that approximated the PlayStation's expected performance. However, that equipment had three times the memory of the actual console. There was no way to bridge the difference—not without giving Jones plenty of time to bounce his ball.

"The idea was that it would be a complete TV experience," he says. "Somebody forgot it needed to be a game."


EA pulled the plug, marking the first and last time a Madden title has failed to ship. The two companies parted ways. "It wasn't for a lack of effort," says Scott Orr, a former EA Sports producer. "But Madden is a crown jewel for the American market, the king of EA Sports. To not have something to launch with the PlayStation was a big blow to the company's ego."

LONG ISLAND CITY, NY - AUGUST 11: Lavish_phenom of the Blazer5 Gaming plays the game during the game against the Pacers Gaming on August 11, 2018 at the NBA 2K Studio in Long Island City, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
Michelle Farsi/Getty Images

Visual Concepts returned to its arcade roots by making a pair of shoot-'em-ups, and was close to partnering on a title with NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon when Sega made a request: Could the developer build a basketball game?

"We passed on racing," Jeff Thomas says. "It was probably the smartest move we ever made."

Released for the Sega Saturn in 1997, NBA Action 98 didn't sell particularly well, But it contained elements that continue to inform NBA 2K. Gamers could call actual plays. They couldn't drive and dunk with NBA Jam-style impunity. The three-dimensional court was presented end-to-end, like the "2K cam" in today's games. "It gave us a starting point," Thomas says, "and a vision of what we were capable of."

That vision impressed Sega, which completed a 1997 purchase of Visual Concepts in the spring of 1999 and had the company working on NFL and NBA games for the fall launch of its next console, the Dreamcast. EA, hoping to squash a budding competitor, offered to make sports games for the console so long as neither Sega nor anyone else did the same. Sega executive Bernard Stolar rejected the offer. A rivalry was born.

But before the Visual Concepts-EA battle could officially begin, Sega's sports games needed a namesake. A brand identity. "We were hitting the deadline for packaging and couldn't come up with a name," Peter Moore, then an executive with Sega, recalls. "Everyone at the time was scared of the Y2K bug, so that's how it came about."

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 09:  JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers speaks on-stage about 'Madden 19' during the Electronic Arts EA Play event at the Hollywood Palladium on June 9, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. The E3 Game Conference begins on T
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When NFL 2K launched, it became the Dreamcast's top-selling game, beating out an anticipated title starring corporate mascot Sonic the Hedgehog. NBA 2K also sold well. But less than two years later, Visual Concepts was forced to shift its sports games to the PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox after Sega halted the production of Dreamcast and exited the console business. Around that time, EA approached Greg Thomas about buying the company. "Greg said no," Lee says. "He basically said, 'We're going after you and your licenses.'"

By 2004, the rivalry between EA Sports and 2K Sports had blossomed into one of the fiercest in gaming. The most intense competition came in football—though in sales and mindshare, 2K was David, perpetually looking up at EA's Goliath. EA's Madden NFL franchise was a full-blown pop culture phenomenon. Fans lined up at shopping malls to snag new releases when they dropped at midnight. Disgruntled NFL players complained about their in-game speed ratings to John Madden. Meanwhile, despite the fact that hardcore gamers loved NFL 2K—and reviewers often scored it higher than Madden—it was the sort of title you heard about, maybe, from a friend of a friend who worked at GameSpot. 

"The most frustrating part about competing with EA was just getting folks to try our game," says Lee.

Visual Concepts knew it had to do something to shake up the market. At the time, new titles typically sold for around $50. So when it came time to release NFL 2K5, the company decided to undercut Madden's price point, selling its game for only $19.99. The gambit worked, boosting sales and forcing EA to drop Madden NFL 2005's price to $29.99. Moreover, NFL 2K5 was considered an instant classic, an innovative title that looked like an ESPN broadcast, included celebrity cameos from Jamie Kennedy and Carmen Electra—remember: this was the early aughts—and won numerous awards.

"We worked so many years on the principle that if we made a good game, people would buy it," Lee says. "We finally made our best game, finally were being rewarded, and then..."

Two weeks before Christmas, EA announced an exclusive licensing deal with the NFL and its players. For a reported fee of more than $300 million, Madden became the only NFL game in town. Visual Concepts was devastated. Dethroning EA's football title had been the company's white whale. "It was a terrible day," says Jeff Thomas. "We'll probably never forget that."

Dan Steinberg/Associated Press

EA's exclusive NFL pact was ingenious. Sports games were becoming more expensive to produce; without official licenses driving massive sales, they had no chance of making money. A once-diverse market—home to NFL GameDay and NBA In The Zone and NCAA GameBreaker—increasingly was dominated by one title per sport. "Back then, football was the big market," Thomas says. "No one had any idea that you could someday sell many, many millions of copies of a basketball game. We felt like we were getting downgraded."

Shut out of football, Visual Concepts refocused on a different sport.

"We put our heart and soul," Jeff Thomas says, "into the NBA."


In early 2005, Sega sold Visual Concepts to Take-Two Interactive, the publisher of the blockbuster Grand Theft Auto series. Thomas figured it was time to leave the 2K brand name behind and come up with a new concept. "Take-Two said, 'No, we want 2K, we're really going to build around that,'" he says. "We said, 'OK.' But we were thinking to ourselves, What the hell are we doing to do with 2K10? It's going to look really weird on the game box."

No longer splitting its resources between two sports, Visual Concepts was better able to reimagine what a basketball game could be—building new modes that borrowed from non-sports titles such as Diablo and broadened NBA 2K's appeal beyond hardcore fans. "The deal with the NFL and EA to box us out of football was the best thing that ever happened to NBA 2K," Lee says.

John Storey/Associated Press

The team had ambitious ideas for what was next. Visual Concepts gameplay director Mike Wang, who joined the company in 2004 before the Madden snafu, had figured out that every player in NBA 2K pretty much moved and shot the same. If you stripped away their texture-mapped faces and team jerseys, there was little difference between Brendan Haywood and Shaquille O'Neal. "It was robotic, and that bothered me," Wang says. "The NBA has so much personality. That's what sets it apart from other leagues. Shaq should feel like Shaq—like he's a [end-of-level] boss in a comparable [non-sports] game."

In the 1991 Sega Genesis game, Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs, a handful of star players had specific scoring animations based on their real-life moves. Michael Jordan could perform a hanging, double-clutch reverse layup. Tom Chambers could (infamously) throw down a two-handed jam from just inside the three-point line. For NBA 2K7, Wang took that idea to the next level. Donning a motion-capture suit—essentially, a wetsuit festooned with reflective pingpong balls whose movements are tracked and recorded by infrared cameras—he pantomimed the jump shots of about 30 NBA players, including Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki. "When we brought in athletes, it was hard for them to change their regular shot and motion because it's ingrained," Wang says. "It was easier for me because I'm not at their level. I played intramural basketball at Indiana, and that's it."

The mimicry didn't stop there. To ape Steve Nash, Wang says, "I did the motion for him licking his fingers. I was studying a lot of film." Today, NBA 2K contains around 40,000 individual animations that are continually being refreshed and replaced, most of which are coming from former college players who have replaced Wang in 2K's motion-capture suits. The process remains as much an art as a science. To simulate botched catches, producer Zach Timmerman directs players to make fists and then toss basketballs at them. "We used to tape their fingers together," he says. "Telling them to mess up on purpose looks ridiculous." The hardest thing to stage? One player dunking on another. "Once the guys get to know each other, they're like, 'He can't dunk on me,' and don't want to do it," Timmerman says. "They have too much pride." He smiles. "But that's also one of the more fun things to shoot."

Matt York/Associated Press

Years ago, Visual Concepts' ambitious vision for Madden on the PlayStation capsized the title. But today, NBA 2K's makers stress over not being ambitious enough, with efforts to replicate the real-life NBA that border on obsessive-compulsive. The game features both a pregame show hosted by digital doppelgangers of TNT's Inside the NBA crew (sans Charles Barkley) and multiple in-game announcers—who sometimes are joined by drop-in guests such as Bryant, Kevin Garnett and (!) sportswriter Bill Simmons. "You have to find that sweet spot," Thomas says. "You can't measure it, but you can tell in your gut when you're playing." NBA 2K's fans now expect nothing less—down to getting the shade of blue for the New York Knicks' uniforms exactly right. "We fly our artists to NBA areas to take pictures in the exact lighting the teams use," Jones says. "Then we come back here and try to replicate it. We argue about it! Our artists have color calibrators, and they show you that you're wrong. And I've still walked out of their offices thinking, No, this looks funny. Your eyes are not right."

He adds: "You're continually chasing every single detail."


None of NBA 2K's details inspire more excitement—or controversy—than digital athletes' assigned numerical ratings, which range from 1-100 across a myriad of skills and attributes, from three-point prowess to defensive intelligence to their propensity to, uh, chuck shots when they touch the ball. Gamers often complain that their favorite players are being shortchanged. Unsurprisingly, those players tend to agree.

After a 12-block game in 2015, Hassan Whiteside joked that he was "trying to get my NBA 2K rating up." When 2K marketing director Ronnie Singh attended Harrison Barnes' wedding last summer, Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle forced him to explain to the 40 or so NBA players in attendance why Wesley Matthews only received a 78 overall rating, according to HoopsHype. Mike Stauffer, the game's ratings guru, says that he once read an article where Lavoy Allen thought his rating was too high. "That's the only time I've seen a player say that," he says.

Players and coaches also use the game as a learning tool—a Super Spellicopter for basketball. Aaron Fox, the father of Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox, told B/R that his son learned how to read pick-and-rolls from NBA 2K. Scott O'Gallagher, who's responsible for making sure the game is faithful to real-world defensive schemes, talks to NBA assistant coaches frequently to stay current on their playbooks. "At least twice a month, just to make sure we're up to date," he says. "There's a crazy level of detail in the game. Most of our users don't even know it's there." Some are happy to explain what their teams are doing. Others are tight-lipped—at least until O'Gallagher, a former NAIA All-American guard at Warner Pacific, shares that he once played professionally overseas. "Then they'll kind of divulge," he says.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Two years ago, NBA 2K17 outsold Madden NFL 17 in the United States at retail, an outcome that was once unthinkable given the NFL's popularity and EA Sports' domination of the sports-gaming market. For Lee, the moment was especially sweet. "EA will always be the big boogeyman waiting in the closet," he says. "Even though our game is [successful], they're still Goliath as a company. They still have the brand, and we still have to fight an uphill battle." When people learn Lee makes a basketball video game, he says, they assume he works for EA: "No. It's like people saying Kleenex. Every tissue isn't Kleenex."

The bigger NBA 2K becomes, however, the more constituencies Visual Concepts has to satisfy. Offline gamers want a computer opponent that mirrors human intelligence. Online gamers want mechanics that can't be exploited by actual intelligent humans. Some players think scoring is too hard; others, too easy. Online, some have complained that the game includes too many "microtransactions," opportunities to spend real money on digital currency that can be used to improve an avatar's basketball abilities or buy virtual outfits to dress them in—but those same microtransactions bring in millions of dollars of yearly revenue.

Lee and Co. listen to as much fan feedback as they can, but sometimes, all they can do is laugh it off. With NBA 2K15, the company introduced a feature that allowed gamers to put their own likenesses in the game via mobile phone face scans. The problem was, some of those likenesses resembled refugees from The Island of Dr. Moreau. "We made Halloween masks of those around the office," Wang says.

Last year, Houston made more regular-season three-point shots than any team in league history. But in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets missed 27 consecutive triples against the Warriors, setting a postseason record for futility. Wang, who sets and tweaks shooting effectiveness in NBA 2K, watched in disbelief—and with a creeping sense of dread. How should the game account for that?

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

"We have a large user base who would want to see that you could miss 27 in a row," he says. "And then we have others who are like, 'Why do I ever miss a layup?' We'll never appease everybody."


"It's not all there yet."

Lee sounds exasperated. He's back at the motion-capture studio, discussing everything that goes into a replicating the signature facial expressions NBA 2K's players make when dunking, like Ben Simmons pursing his lips. There's the three-dimensional, high-def head scans of real-world athletes that cost $10,000 a pop; the artists who marry those images to the game's underlying digital geometry; the animators who ensure that virtual lips and eyes and (no, really) forehead wrinkles move naturally enough to avoid the uncanny valley; and the engineers like himself who sync all of those primal howls and mean mugs to in-game events to ensure they trigger at the right moments—and not when, like, Jose Calderon receives an inbounds pass.

"Each dunk is different, so you have to manage that," Lee says. "Some guys scream before dunks. Some scream as they're coming down. Some scream after they come down and gather themselves to celebrate. You have to account for that, too, and you have to have the faces line up with the audio—not just the audio coming out of the player, but what the broadcasters are talking about."

He sighs.

"The first time you do it and it's out of place and he's yelling, the user has to ask, 'Why is he yelling?' You've already killed it."

Making video games can be a grind. In the weeks and months before a game's release, 80-hour workweeks aren't unheard of. Burnout is commonplace. While most major games take two or three years to create, sports titles ship every 12 months. Thanks to downloadable roster updates and gameplay tweaks, those same titles are never really finished. "It's like changing the oil in a car as we're driving down the road," Lee says. "We can't stop the car and not do anything for a year except build the next game. We still have to update the game that is already out there."

Alison Yin/Associated Press

Lee has worked at Visual Concepts for two decades. No one would blame him if he bailed out for a cushier corporate gig, removed from the daily struggle to ensure that Jordan's rendered tongue sticks out just so. Instead, he's still slaving away on NBA 2K. So are Jones and the Thomas brothers, all of whom worked on the original game.

"We're all much older now," Jeff Thomas says. "But we still want to push and make something great. We were the small guy for so long. We still have that scrappy mindset."

Stauffer is married with a young daughter. There are two televisions in his living room. "Most of the time, we have Moana on one and basketball on the other," he says. "But if there's two good games, I always win that battle."

Wang works on NBA 2K all day. When he gets home, he still grabs a control pad. "Literally every night," he says. "My wife thinks I'm a workaholic. But I have fun doing it. Sometimes I can't fall asleep unless I've played our game."

    

Patrick Hruby is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, editor, and journalist whose first basketball video game was Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One for the Commodore 64. Contact him on Twitter at @patrick_hruby or at www.patrickhruby.net.

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