With all the drama of trade demands, free agency surprises, and draft reaches, the NBA is rarely out of the headlines during the offseason. The same goes for the NBA 2K series. Seemingly every day, passionate fans still debate the perceived failures of the last edition, add ideas to hopeful wish lists, and survey social media for locker codes that unlock highly coveted MyTeam cards. Now it’s time to turn our gaze to the series' next entry.
NBA 2K19 has a lot to live up to considering NBA 2K18 simultaneously became the best-selling entry in franchise history while also alienating some hardcore fans with its approach to microtransactions and server instability. While developer Visual Concepts isn’t talking about those elements of the game just yet, we did get our hands on the sticks for some limited impressions and talked at length with gameplay director Mike Wang and gameplay producer Scott O’Gallagher about how NBA 2K19 evolves the action on the court. Here are the eight major changes aimed at shoring up NBA 2K18’s deficiencies as well as moving the franchise into the future.
New Takeover System
One of the more noticeable changes coming to NBA 2K19 is a new game system that celebrates the idea that any NBA player can take over a game at any time. Think of this Takeover concept as a more nuanced take on the “On Fire” system from the arcade classic NBA Jam.
The way Takeover works is players of each archetype have unique ways to exert their dominance during a game. For instance, playmakers take over by setting up teammates for easy buckets, rim protectors change the trajectory of a game by locking down the paint, etc. As the player exercises his will against the opponent using his specialties, he builds up a takeover meter. Once activated, you will see an on fire badge underneath the player on the court, which indicates the player has unlocked a new tier of special animations and badges that align with their archetype. For instance, playmakers like Rajon Rondo won’t suddenly be raining down threes while on fire NBA Jam style. Instead, they may get Dimer and Ankle Breaker boosts.
Holding the left bumper button, you can check where all your players on the court are at in terms of activating their Takeover. Multiple players on the same team can activate Takeovers at the same time, as well, making for some intriguing combinations. But beware, if your players struggle they can also develop cold streaks. These diminish gradually over time, but you can try to accelerate coming out of their funk by calling a timeout.
"I like it, it's a little meta game to think about how you play with players,” Wang says.
Dramatically Reduced Clipping
The switch to the new motion system in NBA 2K18 brought some unexpected problems. Immersion was often shattered due to excessive clipping where limbs, heads, and basketballs morphed through players’ bodies. Making it worse, these rough animations weren’t just limited to the high-traffic areas; we saw them in one-on-one situations on the perimeter as well.
“It was embarrassing,” Wang admits. “There was a bug that we didn't find until very, very late with the collision detection. That's another thing that we're working on right now. We're spending a lot of time trying to make sure you just can't go through players and stopping them when you try to run into guys.”
I only played four or five games of NBA 2K19, so I’m reporting off a small sample size, but during each game, I paused and watched instant replays when bodies clashed in the paint and on the perimeter to see if the collisions were still compromised, and all the animations looked clean. Arms reacted naturally to contact and bodies slammed into each other instead of clipping through. Wang says Visual Concepts is continuing to hone this in the lead-up to launch to minimize clipping as much as possible.
“It's hard to make it foolproof because it's a game and if we made it so every time a limb got hit the ball would knock loose it would be chaos,” Wang says. “But you definitely won't see the major bodies going inside other bodies and heads.
Rebuilt Stealing System
We’ve all been in a situation defending off-ball and see an opportunity to swipe at an unprotected ball, yet nothing happens when we press the steal button. Visual Concepts has wanted to re-examine this system for a while now, and finally had the time to address it with NBA 2K19.
Successful steal opportunities are now governed by a zone system that judges vulnerability. Defenders who recognize prime stealing opportunities where the ball is exposed – during open-bodied hesitation dribbles and when post players aren’t protecting the ball from secondary defenders, for example – will be rewarded for their smart timing. Dribblers can’t just string together moves with no concern about the defender’s reach anymore. Reading those situations correctly and stealing at the right time will pop the ball out a lot easier.
But these aren’t always clean wins with unobstructed paths to the hoop; building off the more unpredictable loose balls of NBA 2K18, sometimes both players will scramble for possession when it's knocked free.
Returning Skill To One-On-Ones
Last year’s new motion system made it easier to blow by defenders with speed, but it went too far. Even lockdown defenders could be taken right off the dribble with startling regularity. This has been reworked in NBA 2K19 to make stick skills matter more than before and restore balance to the one-on-one interactions.
"We have to make this game more about bringing back the skill gap and making it about the users, the skill on the sticks to be successful,” Wang says. “It's all about matching your stick to where the guy's trying to get to. That's where you'll get the set-offs, the brick walls. You'll get blow-bys if the guy's stick is the wrong way."
Defenders also can’t just rely on holding the left trigger to be in the ideal situation to contest a shot. The automated contest system has been removed, so defenders need to actively get a hand in the shooter’s face by using the right analog stick if they want to affect the shot.
Offensively, the dribblers have some new tools at their disposal as well. Flicking the right stick activates signature walking size-ups. Wang also says good ball handlers should find NBA 2K19 a lot more responsive and fluid in terms of branches and combos.
Unique Streetball Moves
Those playing in the park or blacktop have a lot more entertaining dribbling moves for taunting and embarrassing opponents in NBA 2K19. Visual Concepts brought in streetball players to motion capture new park-specific handling moves like wrapping the ball around the defender’s head and nutmegs.
“I can't wait to show them off, they are pretty insane,” Wang says.
These moves don’t fit the feel of the NBA, so they will be only available in the street modes.
Shot Meter Improvements
One of the biggest annoyances in NBA 2K18 was the lack of a shot meter on lay-ups. Good players commonly missed wide-open lay-ups, and players had no idea of what they were doing wrong. Visual Concepts heard our complaints and is including a shot meter on all lay-ups in NBA 2K19. Each lay-up animation requires different timing, so you’re going to need to practice a bit to familiarize yourself with the nuance of the system.
Speaking of meters, many users preferred the shot meter from NBA 2K17 to last year’s version, so Visual Concepts is including options for both in NBA 2K19. You can choose a meter that goes by the players’ hands, the players’ feet, turn on both, or turn them off altogether. In addition, you can customize the color of the shot meter. The options I saw included team colors, white, and magenta.
The shot feedback system needed some revision coming out of NBA 2K18 – far too many open looks were marked as heavily contested last year, diminishing the likelihood of making the bucket. Based on my limited time on the sticks, the shot feedback system in NBA 2K19 seems much more in line with what I was actually seeing on the court. When I ample space to shoot coming off a pick and roll but the late-arriving defender still got a hand up, these were now correctly classified as lightly contested attempts.
Stronger Interior Defense
Going into the paint won’t be such a breeze in NBA 2K19. When moving into high traffic areas, the new stealing system gives bigs the awareness to take a swipe at exposed balls, and Visual Concepts also did work to make the contact in the paint more difficult to push through.
“Interior defense was really rough last year,” Wang says. “When we went to the new motion system we ended up taking out a lot of the multi-actor animations that we had in the past, so it made it really tough to protect the rim. That's why there were so many missed lay-ups, it was kind of a band-aid to fix all that because you could pretty much get them at will. That's a lot better now, and so is the hit detection of when you are actually covered and when you are not.”
Every year, gameplay producer and basketball strategy enthusiast Scott O’Gallagher works the phones to talk with NBA personnel about how the game is evolving and applies that knowledge to the A.I. and defensive settings. This year, his team implemented several changes to make the players around you sharper.
The new steal system demanded that they up situational awareness for A.I. players, so they are more mindful of when they need to protect the ball or look for a potential double team. Once a team doubles, the A.I. is also more aware of cutting opportunities.
To combat players who tend to spam the same move over and over, the A.I. is better at identifying overreliances and understanding how they are being beaten, adjusting accordingly. If you are constantly jacking threes out of the high pick and roll screen, they will start pressing outside 23 feet.
Visual Concepts also did work to improve the transition game lane principles so players fill the lane appropriately and space into the corners for kick-out threes.
NBA 2K19 launches for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC on September 7. We’ll have much more news on MyGM, MyCareer, and other popular modes in the coming weeks.