NBA 2K21 Preview -- The Last Two Minutes

Visual Concepts is introducing a few things in NBA 2K21 to push the franchise on current-gen forward, but a next-gen cloud looms large on it.

August 28, 2020

This late in the current console generation, I think we all pretty much know what NBA 2K is: an annual product that holds a deep admiration for the game of basketball, but one that really wants you to pay a premium for it and then some more every 12 months. NBA 2K21, due out September 4, isn’t going to break that mold. There will be a MyCareer story featuring big-name Hollywood actors, an online hub world that will let you compete with and against others through your MyPlayer. There will be a MyTeam trading card mode that can either be a massive grind or a massive drain on your wallet. Then there are all the other modes that have become the standard for the franchise in the past seven years.


While the development team at Visual Concepts is bringing on some changes that it believes will improve this year’s experience, in all honesty, I’m finding it tough to get excited for NBA 2K21 given the bizarre circumstances it’s launching under.

Obviously there’s the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken a massive toll on the world and drastically altered the ways both the video game industry and professional sports operate. But then there’s the next-gen cloud that has loomed large over NBA 2K21 ever since we got a glimpse at a completely new PlayStation 5 version back in June. During a developer Q&A on Wednesday meant to highlight the current-gen changes, Visual Concepts alluded to big things they have in store for the next-gen version multiple times, but wouldn’t go into any further detail.

Then there’s what happened in the NBA after the Q&A ended. The Milwaukee Bucks didn’t take the floor for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake by Wisconsin police, another move made by NBA players in protest of racial inequality and police brutality in the U.S. The demonstration postponed the rest of the day’s games and, for the next 24 hours, had the remainder of the playoffs in serious jeopardy.

Look; gaming, sports, the U.S., the world at-large – it’s all in a weird place right now. But NBA 2K21 is still arriving next week, regardless. So here’s what it has in store:

On The Court

On the gameplay side, Visual Concepts has changed the Pro Stick control scheme in an effort to give players an expanded arsenal for dribbling and shooting.

Timing-based shooting can still be performed through the face buttons, but shooting with the stick is now based on aim. In my limited time trying out the new approach in the demo released earlier this week, there’s going to be a learning curve with that.

Pulling down the stick starts the player’s motion, and instead of letting go when they reach the apex, you’re instead trying to slide the reticle over into the shooting meter’s target window. The size of the window and where it falls on the meter can vary based on the given player’s ratings, the distance to the basket, how well the shot is contested, and the overall difficulty of the attempt. The new aiming system also applies to layups too, where putting the reticle at the center of the window as you drive toward the basket will give you the best chance at overcoming contested shots.

Since the priority is on aiming rather than timing, you won’t be penalized for releasing a shot too late or too early. That said, if you can get your aim and timing perfectly in sync, it’ll be about as close to an automatic shot as you can get (indicated visually through a green flash in the meter and underneath the player’s feet).

“We’re an evolving beast and have a laundry list of things we want to do every year,” NBA 2K21’s gameplay director Mike Wang said of the franchise’s progression. The Pro Stick changes this year, he said, came out of a desire to make the game more skill-based, wanting to “reward you for making the right plays on the sticks, but not punish you for being new.”

With shooting on the stick now mapped to pulling down, dribbling has opened up too, allowing you to tap or hold the stick in any direction (up, left, or right) to access a bigger, more responsive, and chain-able set of moves to create space with.

There’s also a new batch of authentic size-ups and player motions coming with NBA 2K21, some of which were mentioned in a community blog post a couple weeks ago, like James Harden’s around the leg dribble, Kevin Durant’s hesi cross, and Kobe Bryant’s size-up dance. And the MyPlayer creator now has an option for over-sized point guards, upping the max height for the position to 6’8” at the request of current-gen cover star Damian Lillard.


Every year, Visual Concepts and 2K manage to bring together an impressive cast for the MyCareer story, and NBA 2K21 is no different.

This year’s campaign, “The Long Shadow,” has your MyPlayer — nicknamed Junior — try to live up to the legacy of his father, a former and beloved baller, while trying to carve out his own path to the NBA.

The cast includes Jesse Wiliams (Grey’s Anatomy, Detroit: Become Human), Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire), Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond, Guardians of the Galaxy), Mireille Enos (The Killing, World War Z), and cover athletes Lillard and Zion Williamson (next-gen), who will appear throughout the story as your MyPlayer finds his way to stardom.

High school and college integration also make their return to MyCareer after a several year hiatus, offering a selection of 10 schools to go to — Florida, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Syracuse, Texas Tech, UCLA, UConn, Villanova, and West Virginia — and a chance at more gameplay sections before reaching the NBA, something senior producer Ben Bishop said the team wanted to offer players given the new Pro Stick mechanics.

Bishop kept narrative details close to the vest, but said there will be choices to make along the way that can dictate the path of your MyPlayer’s career. One example he was willing to share was a choice between agents and different perks they can offer, with one of them granting you the notoriety to earn fans by playing in the Park of this year’s Neighborhood.

Speaking of the Neighborhood…

2K Beach

2K Beach is the site of this year’s Neighborhood, put together with inspiration from the beach communities that surround Visual Concepts’ LA office.

The courts, minigames, and facilities all return, albeit with a lot more virtual sunshine to soak in this time around.

The MyCareer/Neighborhood trailer released today gave fans a quick look through 2K Beach, with one of its standout being an in-game mural paying tribute to Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash back in January.

Since his passing, Visual Concepts and the NBA 2K player base have come up with their own unique ways of paying their respects to Bryant within NBA 2K20, and executive producer Erick Boenisch said that will continue into NBA 2K21Bryant is already the cover star for 2K21’s special “Mamba Forever Edition” which has its own cover variant for current and next-gen.

“I wish it was under different circumstances,” Boenisch said. “But we’re going to pay homage and honor him.”


Boenisch detailed this year’s MyTeam mode pretty heavily in a blog post last week. The main point he wanted to highlight in Wednesday’s Q&A was the addition of seasons, something he said he’s been wanting to add to the mode for the past couple years.

Boenisch made it clear that MyTeam seasons in NBA 2K21 won’t come through a Battle Pass style, pay-to-play format. Access to them will be free for all players, bringing new challenges and prizes regularly throughout the year to keep the mode fresh and its fans continually engaged.

So “the game you play on September 4th won’t be the game you play on April 4th,” Boenisch said.

About Next-Gen

Wednesday’s Q&A was for the current-gen version of NBA 2K21, but let’s face it, next-gen talk was unavoidable. And while Visual Concepts could only say so much for right now, they didn’t try to avoid the subject entirely.

Here’s what we know so far about the next-gen versions of NBA 2K21:

  • Your collection and progress in MyTeam will fully carry over from current-gen to next-gen, so long as you upgrade to the matching next-gen console (i.e. PS4 to PS5, or Xbox One to Xbox Series X).
  • MyCareer on next-gen was described as a different beast, and that something else is in store aside from current-gen’s 2K Beach. Only your earned Virtual Currency on current-gen will carry over into the next for the mode as a result.
  • The WNBA returns to NBA 2K21 with a league-specific season mode and Play Now for current-gen. But just like with MyCareer, the team teased that something bigger with the WNBA is in store for next-gen.
  • Boenisch said Visual Concepts always wants to be at the forefront of sports game development, and called back to NBA 2K14 and how much it impressed launching alongside the PS4 and Xbox One in 2013. He said NBA 2K21 will do the same for the PS5 and Xbox Series X.

The current-gen version of NBA 2K21 will launch for PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, and Stadia on September 4, with its next-gen versions for PS5 and Xbox Series X to follow at a later date.


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