NBA 2K23 is the most inspired sports game in years

There is no question that NBA 2K23 is the most inspired work in the series, or any other in all of sports video gaming. The real question is how much of its staggering depth most players will ever see.

It only took about 20 minutes — none of that spent in a game — to amaze me. All I did was go into MyNBA Eras, which is the new historical mode/franchise simulator hybrid that allows players to rewrite history in ways I didn’t anticipate. All I wanted to do is see what happened when I kept the Kings in Kansas City (they left for Sacramento in 1985). Obviously, I knew you could prevent franchises from relocating; 2K Sports took care to mention that crowd-pleasing fact in a series of previews earlier this summer.

What I didn’t expect was everything else that happened at the offseason league meetings — mostly because I haven’t played MyNBA that much since the mode was overhauled two years ago. I overrode ownership vetoes of a 45-second shot clock and a seven-team tournament to determine draft order (neither of these were actually proposed in real life) and saw them every year from then on. Rewriting history could go as deep as taking the 1984 MVP from Larry Bird and giving it to Moses Malone.

This is in addition to all of the standard things I could have done as the Kings’ general manager, but chose to simply automate for the sake of seeing how the not-Sacramento Kings looked in 1986. Somehow I ended up with NBA Hall-of-Famers John Stockton and Patrick Ewing — that’s what a draft tournament can do for you! — facing Ralph Sampson and Michael Jordan of the Houston Rockets on opening day.

Even Jordan’s boyhood idol — N.C. State legend David Thompson — was still in the league, with Golden State, rated 83. MyNBA Eras lets you start a franchise from the present day (the 2022-23 season) or three historical points (2002-03, 1991-92, or 1983-84). Thompson missed most of the 1983-84 season because he was in addiction recovery, and he was gone from professional basketball by age 29. In MyNBA Eras, that tragedy never happens.

A screenshot from NBA 2K23. Gary Payton, on defense, sizes up Michael Jordan in the 1996 NBA Finals.
The 1996 NBA Finals are part of the Jordan Challenge, and in the 40-year history spanning MyNBA Eras, you can keep Gary Payton’s Seattle SuperSonics from leaving for Oklahoma City.
Image: Visual Concepts/2K Sports

This is a level of historical revision I’d expect to find in a PC management simulation, not a console game, and certainly not one that also packs in the museum showpiece of the Jordan Challenge and a full WNBA career mode, now in its third year, for both individual players and clubs. Since the Jordan Challenge last appeared in 2010, the NBA 2K series has been what I call a “desert island” game — as in, with it and a console (and power), you could ride out isolation for a year. NBA 2K23 is a mission-to-Mars game. And back.

And yet, all of that value — which you get in the base game — feels threatened by the enormous audiences for MyCareer and MyTeam, and the game’s own relentless calls to spend extra money in both of those modes. Don’t get me wrong; I play them along with millions of others, and particularly enjoy MyCareer’s immersive lifestyle elements. I have also spent a shameful amount of money on my created characters’ progression and costuming. MyCareer and MyTeam both deliver quick highs, given their more compact playing experiences and immediate rewards, compared to the old-school slow burn of the career modes. And though I’ve so far managed to resist the siren’s song to top up my Virtual Currency, the review copy 2K Sports provided me is the $99.99 Michael Jordan Edition, which starts players with 100,000 VC.

The City, which is the hub world where your MyCareer player lives and plays street hoops, seems to be a sign that Visual Concepts realizes how much of its population may not see the rest of the game without some hand-holding. There’s a huge landmark where players are told about the Jordan Challenge (and can even launch right into it from MyCareer), for example, and there are in-world rewards galore if you can complete 40 of the mode’s 45 objectives.

The Jordan Challenge’s landmark in The City, within NBA 2K23
A renovated The City in MyCareer seems to acknowledge that many players won’t go looking for the Jordan Challenge unless they’re led to it.
Image: Visual Concepts/2K Sports

For those who might want a bite-size sampling of the immersion inside MyNBA Eras, the Jordan Challenge is a great fit. The showcase, which we’ve already previewed in great detail, is a period-perfect presentation of 15 games in his career, complete with a broadcast TV look and feel that includes old-school chyrons, CRT and scan-line filters, and even commentary from one of the actual announcers who followed most of Jordan’s career, NBC’s Mike Fratello. You’ll get all of these features for your games in MyNBA Eras, too. What you won’t get are the breathtaking — I mean, virtuoso — cutscene reproductions of Jordan’s biggest highlights when you three-star a game.

But you will get a sense of the gameplay tuning that Visual Concepts applied to each of the four Eras, almost as if the studio were building four separate games. Case in point: Playing the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons of 1989 with Jordan, I got a step to the baseline against my defender on a drive I can finish in my sleep with my MyCareer player, let alone someone like His Airness. But 6-10 Rick Mahorn stepped over and absolutely clotheslined me with a tangle of arms and legs that I’ve not seen before. The NBA was a much more physical league in those days, and NBA 2K23 really made me feel the bullseye that Jordan had on his back — which made me appreciate all of his feats, despite the physicality, even more.

In the main (and present-day) game, there are modifications to shooting, defense, and off-the-ball player behavior in which I can see the developers getting closer in a never-ending pursuit of authenticity. Still, I don’t feel that I’ve truly “gotten” them yet, so judging their effectiveness is hard. From what I have heard on social media, and read from others, there’s broad consensus that shooting is more difficult this year, even as the game gives players new menu options to give themselves a greater window on their release point.

It’s hard to explain, but shooting with the shot meter in past editions (as opposed to just using a player’s ratings and a background dice roll) has seemed either inscrutably tough or overpowered (particularly in the hands of skilled users online). 2K Sports seems to want people to focus more on watching their player’s animation, as opposed to a meter, and release either the shot stick or the X/Square button when they see him at the top of their jumper. There are four new options, ranging from Very Early to Very Late release.

Sue Bird of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm in NBA 2K23
Changes to shooting and improvements to defense and player AI help all modes of play, so don’t overlook The W, the WNBA’s career modes.
Image: Visual Concepts/2K Sports

I still haven’t figured out which ones are really for me, though. Some days I think I’m an early guy, then I’m rebounding my shot meter back into late territory, so I swap over to that. Then the shot feedback readout says I have early or slightly early release on a midrange jumper that I should nail easily. I sometimes can’t tell if my ratings are taking over (my MyCareer player, where I’m having the most trouble, is a 76 overall) or if I’m not focusing on my technique properly. Absent a more informed tutorial than the ones provided so far, I may just go back to shooting percentages and skip the meter.

On the flip side, there’s off-the-ball player behavior that had my created center dishing out three assists in his first game for the Charlotte Hornets — for reference, I went half a season before I got that many in a game in NBA 2K22. It was a breath of fresh air to be standing 15 feet away near the baseline, with my back to the basket, and when the shot clock hit 5, see an AI teammate flash behind me for an easy behind-the-back pass and two points. Unless I was calling for a pick-and-roll last year, my teammates either followed the designed play, or they stood in place waiting for me to do something.

There’s a new “get open” pass that I need to spend some more time in the game’s practice mode learning how to wing-off, though. It resembles the “lead to basket pass,” introduced in NBA 2K21, but which I forget to use. The passes I completed above were all initiated by the AI — which is great — but “player get open” requires holding down B/Circle, waiting for the AI player to recognize the call (signified by a basketball icon under him), and then hitting A/X at the right moment. I had some situations where teammates didn’t seem to pick up the get-open command. That’s probably because it can be counter-intuitive to flick the left stick at the guy you want to get open an instant before holding down the button.

Finally, defense is helped a great deal by a new shading mechanism used for on-ball defense, though it can be tough to understand at first. By pressing the left stick button, it will adjust the defender to the area where he has the best coverage against the ballhandler. If an opponent does move in that direction (and the defender follows), they’re going to be a lot less effective, either getting to the basket or taking their shot. It’s a lot to understand in the moment, and it’s tough to grasp how I can use the shading to force turnovers, as opposed to just reacting to someone’s movement and attempting an on-ball steal. It feels like a more visual callout of last year’s system, in which correctly guessing a ball-handler’s step would place them at greater risk of a steal or picking up their dribble. But combined with a reduction in power on blocks and straight steals, NBA 2K23 more properly emphasizes fundamental on-the-ball defense over dramatic measures intended to stop a score.

starting cards for MyTeam in NBA 2K23
As ever, MyTeam presents plenty of rewards and a quick high. But it’s by no means an inexpensive one.
Image: Visual Concepts/2K Sports

There is a lot to evaluate in NBA 2K23, and a lot of that evaluation is yet to come from its restive community, various influencers, and people like me. But NBA 2K23’s appeal and value, for once in a very long time, far outweighs its raw and constant calls to spend money, and the guilt and icky feelings that brings. As I said back in August, if nothing else, no one can complain that Visual Concepts did nothing for its franchise mode. So if the microtransactions truly bother you that much, you can always go to MyNBA Eras and rewrite 40 years of history at no extra cost.

NBA 2K23 launched on Sept. 9 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X; versions lacking many of the features in this review also launched for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on Xbox Series X using a pre-release download code provided by 2K Sports. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.