Reviewing the New WNBA Modes in 2K21 Next Gen
The latest release made a significant step forward in available game modes, but how much more room is there for improvement?
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With Microsoft and Sony releasing the next generation of their consoles—the Xbox Series X and the Playstation 5, respectively— in the middle of November, the video game developers at 2K had an excellent opportunity to create a bigger and better version of NBA 2K21 that utilized the new consoles’ improved processing power.
Last year’s edition of the game, 2K20, was the first game in the franchise to include the WNBA, marking a significant and long-overdue step forward. But leading up to the release of the newest edition, dubbed NBA 2K21 Next Gen, countless people were hoping and pleading for significant improvements to the bare-bones WNBA features that had been included in last year’s game. WNBA leagues could only be played for a single season, while the NBA leagues could be played for upwards of 100 seasons. WNBA leagues had trades, but no system to account for player value or contracts. There was no online functionality, so you couldn’t play with people remotely. Many player scans were inaccurate, and the coaches were mostly a generic white man.
Most significantly, in my opinion, you couldn’t create new players or new rosters. Aside from the mere representation of the WNBA within the game, being able to create players and rosters is the most crucial aspect in engaging fans.
Let’s take a look at all of the additions that fans were hoping for and assess how well they have been addressed in 2K21 Next Gen. Note: All of these features are only available on the Next Gen edition; the version for the old consoles does not include these game modes.
A career mode like NBA MyCareer was the most requested feature for 2K21. In the NBA version, you can create a player from their looks to their skills on the court and play along their journey from high school to college and into the pros. The story is basically a short movie with a basketball video game spliced in until you make the pros, and it makes it way easier to get excited about improving the player you have created.
2K’s answer to the requests for a WNBA MyCareer mode is The W. In The W, you set your player’s appearance and skills using a very similar interface to the NBA version. Unlike the NBA mode, there is no journey to the league; the mode starts with the first game of your rookie season. The actual games are exactly the same as the NBA mode, where the camera locks in on your player to give the feel of a first-person game while still allowing you to see yourself and most of the court.
Your goal in The W is to max out a handful of categories, including WNBA popularity, teammate chemistry, and skill progression. Playing games boosts your skill progression based on how well you play, and between each game, you have a chance to choose from a selection of off-day activities that boost various categories.
The W provides an interesting way to facilitate career progression, but it would be cool to see the game show your player doing the off-day activities. It doesn’t have to be too advanced, but 2K has shown it can do this on the NBA side. In the NBA mode, you get intermittent chances to play 1-on-1 with NBA stars in front of crowds or join a charity event with professional players. We’ll return to the idea of head-to-head matches against WNBA stars in the section on online play.
One fun addition in this mode is the inclusion of real WNBA media outlets in the social media influencer section. This shows up in your player’s phone interface as well as some randomly selected “film sessions” where your player can talk hoops with an outlet or reporter on their off days.
Overall, this addition is a major success, especially for a game mode that did not exist in the previous iteration. As I mentioned, it would be nice to include more visual features because the game can become a bit repetitive just playing game after game with little action in between. It would also be nice to see a version of The Neighborhood, which is the NBA mode where your player can go to a virtual city with shops, minigames, and courts to face players from across the world. More on this later.
This is a hugely underrated addition. The Next Gen game now allows users to create new rosters (and draft classes!) and fill them with a mix of real and created players. This sandbox ability opens players up to a whole world of creative ways to play the game. These modified rosters can be used in single games or an entire league. Want to build out upcoming draft classes to include in your playthrough of the next few seasons? Now you can do that. Want to see what would happen in a game between five Sue Birds vs. five Diana Taurasis? Now you can! And even though the game doesn’t include historical teams, an enterprising fan could make some themselves.
Users can also upload these league rosters for other fans to use so people who don’t have the time to build out a roster of 144 or more players can jump right into using them in creative ways or build off of the work to make it even better. I give this change a huge thumbs up.
I have sunk so much time into this game mode because the level of customization is incredible. You can take total control over league meetings, voting on and changing league rules like the shot clock, the draft lottery, or the salary cap. There is finally a logic for trades, allowing you to put players on your roster on the trading block and receive somewhat logical trade proposals as the season progresses.
You can also begin the mode with a fantasy draft, filling your roster with players from all 12 teams. Most importantly, you can play more than one season, making trades and contracts and player progression actually factor into your strategy. You can play all your games yourself or act as a team owner and simulate everything but the front office decisions. I’m a fan of roster building throughout the season and then playing out the WNBA Playoffs.
There are a few bugs in this mode, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them patched in the coming weeks. Most notably, the league MVP in the first season of any league is awarded the league Rookie of the Year award as well. This reportedly happened on the NBA side as well, indicating that the game wasn’t handling player histories very well and treated everyone as a rookie in year one of the league.
Overall, I am very pleased with this mode. The unique combinations of rules and set up configurations means it is hard to run out of new ways to play. This is a big leap from 2K20’s single-season mode that got old very quickly.
After having no online modes in 2K20, 2K21 Next Gen added two pieces of online play. The first is the ability to bring your custom leagues online, where you can compete with friends to chase a WNBA title. This is essentially the same as a standard league but with some timing mechanisms built in to give all users time to act in free agency or other first-come, first-serve activities that the front office has to go through. This is a solid addition that doesn’t need significant changes.
The other online mode that was added is The W Online. In this mode, your created player from The W is paired up with two other random players across the globe in a 3-on-3 matchup with three WNBA stars. The mode is fun and the setting is visually impressive, but it is very limited compared to the expansive options that are available on the men’s side.
I like the addition in general, but I hope that they open this mode up in some way in future editions. There’s no way to play against other created players, only with them, and there is no ability to tweak the game mode. The NBA side has outdoor courts that vary from 2-on-2 to 5-on-5, I would like to see something similar for the WNBA going forward.
General Gameplay Experience
In terms of graphics, the face scans of real-life WNBA players are definitely better. Players who had pretty good scans already now look even more lifelike, while a lot of players who looked way off (especially 2020 rookies) as a result of not getting to use the fancy scan technology that 2K has are now fixed. There are still some less-than-great scans in the game, including Cheryl Reeve and Sabrina Ionescu, but that is something that the developers fix intermittently. These updates have been hindered greatly by the COVID-19 pandemic and not being able to bring in players for scans at team media days, so I’m optimistic they’ll improve going forward.
In terms of on-court aesthetics, I really like the changes that 2K made. Across all game modes, the movement is far smoother and contact between players looks far more natural. Pre- and postgame routines and action are really impressive, and there is a level of detail that previous games didn’t have. Seeing the Lynx run back to their locker room through their actual tunnel at halftime instead of a vague clip of players mingling and walking aimlessly is a neat addition.
One other small change that I noticed is how the ball interacts with the rim. In previous games, the ball seemed to be directed into bouncing off the rim a certain way, while the Next Gen game looks far more natural. That added attention to detail was nice, albeit not terribly impactful.
Overall, all of these additions are great to see and a necessary step forward. They were long overdue, and there is still room for improvement, but it is good to see the progress. Although the new platforms are pricey (about $500) and consistently out of stock at the moment due to the high demand around the holiday season, I highly recommend the game.