Beyond the court: why NBA 2K21 on Xbox Series X and PS5 has an open-world City

NBA 2K21
(Image credit: 2K Games)

The NBA 2K games have always been about pace. Basketball frequently has games with scores in triple digits, and gameplay is far more end to end, much faster and much more frenetic than the stop-start nature of America’s two other big sports, baseball and American football. 

This quickness and basket-to basket-drama has always been something the NBA 2K games have nailed, so as the series prepares to launch on a new console generation - where the biggest selling point is speed - things are looking very exciting indeed.

We spoke to executive producer Erick Boenisch and gameplay director Mike Wang from 2K Sports about the unique opportunities next-gen machines offer the basketball sim, and where the game can go from here, now that load times look to be a thing of the past. 

While both the Xbox Series X and the PS5 come with hundreds of little improvements on their predecessors, it seems like - at least as far as NBA 2K 21 is concerned - these improvements can be split into two clear categories: a faster console, and a better controller.

A city of opportunity

NBA 2K21

(Image credit: 2K Games)

One of the most anticipated improvements next-gen controllers bring is haptic feedback, which has been improved with the Xbox Series X controller and replaces the PS4 controller’s previous rumble feature. Haptic feedback means rather than the whole controller vibrating, actions on screen can make specific parts of the controller react, heightening the sensation for players.

According to Wang, the increased haptic feedback of next-gen controllers can make the NBA experience much more immersive, especially when you add in the capabilities of the PS5 DualSense controller.

"It’s one of those things where a new console allows you to dream up new things that give you a little extra sense of being on the court."

Mike Wang - 2K Sports

"In the past, we had the old controller rumble for collision," Wang tells us. "The haptic feedback offers a different sensation, so you get different levels of feedback depending on how intense the collisions are, which is really cool.

“The thing that was even cooler was the DualSense trigger effect on PS5, where it offers resistance based on how hard you pull the trigger, so on that we were able to offer things like fatigue when you try to sprint. It’s one of those things where a new console allows you to dream up new things that give you a little extra sense of being on the court."

It’s not just next-gen controllers that are set to improve the NBA 2K 21 experience on PS5 and Xbox Series X. ‘The court’ is about to get a whole lot bigger on next-gen, too. 

On the current-gen version of NBA 2K 21, players can head online in The Neighborhood, a decent-sized online playground with a few courts for pick-up games or just to chill and practise in a basketball-soaked environment. But how can 2K build on this online space? Wang points to memory and performance "the two main things with new consoles," and NBA 2K21 is looking to use their full potential.

On next-gen consoles, the increased memory and performance available to developers on both the PS5 and Xbox Series X means there’s virtually no limits on what they can create, and The Neighborhood has grown into The City. 

"Honestly, it’s gotten so big that it could be its own standalone game," Boenisch says. "This is something we’ve wanted to do for years now, but having a city that big just wasn’t feasible on current-gen hardware. For us, The City is something we’re going to continue building on for years to come. We know our fans are going to love it, so we’re just going to take all the feedback we get this year and just keep building this thing bigger and better every year."

A game of fine margins

NBA 2K21

(Image credit: 2K Games)

The City offers several Neighborhoods in one, and allows you to join different factions around the city, as well as open-world dribbling around its expansive landscape.

Of course, the improvements under the hood of the new consoles are crucial to NBA 2K’s next-gen evolution in the base game modes too. "In current-gen consoles, we have to limit what we add with animations. You add some, you have to take some out," Wang says. "With next gen, we were able to just add and add more in, and never hit that limitation."

This all means there are hundreds of tiny improvements which can be made to every inch of gameplay, which all add up to make a big difference. 

"There’s much better motion-matched movement, much better physics for the ball, the players, the collisions," Wang adds. "We have a new impact engine for collisions in mid-air. There’s so many things that the next-gen consoles allow us to do because there’s a lot of complicated math that goes on, and in current-gen consoles we kind of have to pace ourselves and not update the game so frequently. In next gen, we can basically do it every frame."

Next season potential

NBA 2K21

(Image credit: 2K Games)

NBA 2K21 is a unique game for the series, not only in that it will be the franchise’s debut offering on next gen, but in that next gen and current gen were developed in tandem, with Boenisch and Wang leading figures on both projects. 

"We usually have visions on how we want things to go in the coming years. The City was one of those things, but we couldn’t do it because of the hardware limitations."

Erick Boenisch - 2K Sports

Going forward, the series will become next-gen only, giving the team more development time and more space to take advantage of the next-gen opportunities. 

"We usually have visions on how we want things to go in the coming years. The City was one of those things, but we couldn’t do it because of the hardware limitations," Boenisch says. "We set out and finished everything we targeted to do, but in the same breath there’s so many other things we wanted to do that in the back of our minds we were thinking ‘this is for NBA 2K22, this is for NBA 2K23."

As the next-gen consoles launch, it remains to be seen whether developers will harness the hardware’s power to provide a huge, immediate leap forward for their games, or whether they will simply utilize it to provide lots of much smaller tweaks which add up to a very different experience. The improvements to NBA 2K21 seem to mirror the latter. 

The City is a huge new game mode which acts as a perfect example of the next gen’s potential, while the on the court play offers hundreds of minor improvements which hopefully have a big impact when experienced altogether. With the increased speed and improved controller interaction, it seems like the next-gen NBA 2K21 will bring you closer than ever before to feeling like you’re holding the rock.

Stacey Henley

Stacey is a freelance games journalist with experience in OpEds, interviews, reported features and video. She has previously written for The Washington Post, IGN, Fandom, Polygon, VG24/7, EuroGamer, SyFy Wire, and NME, on topics from television to video games to music to comic books to film, and is an editor for Into The Spine.