There’s a new narrative in NBA 2K20 called “When the Lights Are Brightest.” It’s produced by LeBron James’s social-justice-oriented Springhill Entertainment, which created documentaries such as the inspiring, unpredictable “Warriors of Liberty City” and the upcoming “Student Athlete,” an investigation surrounding college players who receive no payments in a billion-dollar industry. Add in the involvement of stars such as Golden Globe winner Idris Elba and Rosario Dawson, and the latest version of NBA 2K’s story mode projected a hope it could match the greatness of “Livin’ 'Da Dream” in terms of drama and sharp dialogue.
Unfortunately, “When the Lights Are Brightest” marks a step backward for the idea of strong, potent stories in sports games. The narrative in NBA 2K20 is below average at best. It’s hollow, even empty, at its worst.
The story of ardent Che making his way from college to the pros tries to hit the buttons of heart and soul in the way Lee did. Che, played by Deric Augustine, boldly and naively sticks up for himself and his injured teammate and friend who loses his scholarship, to the detriment of his career. But ultimately this tale is more about the process of rising through the ranks, dressing well, getting sponsorships and building a personal (ugh) brand.
The gravitas of Elba, who can convey the emotional depth of his coach character simply by looking askance, is almost wasted here. The empathy of Dawson as a college adviser and mentor is never allowed to blossom. Though she wants one, she’s not given any role in a man’s world of basketball. After being given the boot by Che, she comes back to congratulate the draftee on rising through the ranks. Did she suck up her feelings of rejection? Does she want a job with Che? Is she a long-suffering friend? Or does the maturity of real friendship never require Che to say the words “I missed you”? We don’t know the motivation behind her return, and it weakens her character.
And motivation is key here. So is backstory. Instead, we’re left with a story without nuance that fails to manifest much drama or emotion. When a shocked Che sadly and angrily says his mother has been threatened with death by haters on social media, you expect him to comfort his mother. I mean, she’s his mother. Instead, you never hear about his mother again. She’s not even at the NBA draft at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Did she die from doxing? Does Che not care about her anymore? We’re never told, because the story is focused only on moving onward and upward in the wide world of basketball and not on exploring the life and world of its protagonist.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with setting a course for your financial future as a pro — even with an internal craving for fame. The trappings are here. We see Che on a lot of planes, taking off and landing. We see him in a lot of meetings with James’s company. We hear him going rah, rah, rah for a possible Gatorade sponsorship. But Che, who calls himself a quiet guy, an introvert, never deals with the trappings of financial success. He just accepts them and occasionally has the chance to eschew them. We don’t know what he’s really thinking deep down inside.
Ultimately, the NBA 2K20 story is present to give players a tutorial. And it’s good to feel more comfortable with new gameplay, no matter how experienced you are, before you face the ups and downs of a full season. But the magic of video games should be that any portion of the game shouldn’t feel shoehorned into the whole. You know immediately that the mild redemption story is here as window dressing for learning to play. And when you know that, you somehow feel cheated. There’s little soul here, so playing through the story drags. It feels twice as long as it is.
When James, truly the greatest player of his generation, appears in a close-up to tell you to remember the tired and poor as you make your way in the league, it’s an important, honest moment. James has given back throughout his career, including most recently with a new basketball court at a high school he lovingly supports in Akron, Ohio. But wouldn’t these words of inspiration have been so much more powerful if they were shown in all their real-life worthiness, not told as gospel? Just as James dug deep into his soul against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals, this story could have been one to be remembered had it gone deeper into the struggle, showing how those with the odds stacked against them can win, how they can come back.
There are flashes of this. You play ball on a court at the Bronx’s Sack-Wern Houses. Scottie Pippen talks poignantly about overcoming his Arkansas childhood in a family of 12 supported by a factory-worker father. But they come and go too quickly, an intriguing but fleeting fragrance whisked away by the wind. These moments are strong and moving, but they don’t seem to be woven by a brilliant writer’s hand. Worse, they are not worked into the protagonist’s essence.
I mention all this because, despite annoyingly prevalent advertising, the rest of NBA 2K20 is a gem to behold. The motion capture of most players’ faces adds essential clarity. You do feel as if you are among these superstars when you play. They sweat. They gripe. They move in their powerful ballets to win or lose and thrive in a sport that’s distracted by stupid hot takes on social media. The men and women, cheerleaders and T-shirt-cannon folk, who do halftime shows are shown with respect in close-ups. It feels energizing and empowering.
The controls are responsive to even a feathery touch. The wide variety of things to do and see — from playing all teams in the WNBA to easy, off-the-ball offense to eye-catching menus for leveling up your character — is breathtaking. The thoughtful soundtrack mixes — including Travis Scott’s dazzlingly produced rap and the poppier, passionate Ariana Grande — display a sense of musical DJ genius. It all just makes the very average nature of the story stick out like a sore thumb. As they say in all sports, whether bitterly or optimistically, there’s always next year.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle and New York Game Awards. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.