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NBA 2K20 trailer sells the thrill of gambling | Opinion

The lurid online casino is wilfully shortsighted at a precarious time for the industry

The games industry is facing a crisis when it comes to loot boxes. Not like back in 2017 when angry consumers descended on Star Wars Battlefront II with pitchforks, but an existential threat from lawmakers around the world.

Combined with questions around gaming disorder, there are genuine ethical concerns to address, which makes 2K Games' latest trailer for NBA 2K20 all the more troubling. Demonstrating new features in the revised MyTeam mode, 2K has made gambling the central conceit, and really wants to stress quite how much fun it is.

The latest trailer for 2K Games' annual basketball title puts randomised loot front and centre, seemingly abandoning all pretence that loot boxes aren't demonstrably similar to gambling. The trailer looks like it belongs to a gambling website, not a video game, and it's a staggeringly oblivious way to sell your game in the current climate of scrutiny and threats of legislation.

Now included in the NBA 2K20 slate of features are slot machines, pachinko machines, and a knock-off Wheel of Fortune. From its lurid colour palette and suite of log-in bonuses, to the free currency and chances to win rare cards, MyTeam has been effectively transformed into an online casino.

This is where spokespeople from the ESA or 2K Games might offer a defence, but neither have responded to my requests to comment so far. But, this isn't my first "loot boxes are basically gambling" rodeo, so I'll do my best to present a justification of these systems before pulling it apart with my teeth.

Is NBA 2K20 MyTeam gambling? Well, that depends on who you ask, but the legal consensus from international regulators says no. As it stands, it doesn't matter how aesthetically or functionally similar they are to gambling, as long as you can't cash out, it doesn't count.

Belgium is the notable exception here, where the local gambling authority ruled that being unable to cash out winnings for real-world money was not a prerequisite of gambling. However, earlier this year, 2K Games halted the sale of virtual currency in NBA 2K19 for Belgian players effectively making it compliant to their nation's law.

"While we disagree with this position, we are working to comply with the [Belgian Gaming Commission's] current interpretation of these laws," 2K said at the time, before encouraging players to contact local government representatives and help fight the publisher's corner.

"The trailer looks like it belongs to a gambling website, not a video game, and it's a staggeringly oblivious way to sell your game in the current climate"

Almost every gambling regulator which has investigated loot boxes has raised valid concerns about how closely the mechanic replicates gambling, not just in function, but in aesthetics. The bright colours, the sense of suspense, and those glittery animations which reveal either jubilation or disappointment -- these are all components which gambling regulators have pointed to and said: "This is a concern." But regulators don't have power to change a nation's laws, only interpret and enforce them. So their concerns, while valid, are little more than whispers in a storm.

So technically, no, NBA 2K20 MyTeam is not gambling. It's just a fun little mini game with variable ratio reinforcement schedules, sensory feedback, entrapment systems designed to encourage further spending, and a ready, constant availability. So, even though it looks like gambling, and has all the psychological signifiers of gambling, it's not. Cool, right?

Last year I wrote that the industry was at war with itself over a technicality -- one that it uses to justify its behaviour. The industry approach to loot boxes was irresponsible back then, but now with more critical eyes cast our way than ever before, it's wilfully shortsighted.

Legislators are watching the games industry. They are picking it apart, looking for ways it could be harmful, and they smell blood in the water. In the UK, an inquiry into immersive and addictive technologies which has been underway for several months, has repeatedly embarrassed industry representatives trying to justify their ethically questionable monetisation strategies.

At this point, it feels like 2K and Rockstar (following its perfectly-timed casino update to GTA V) are careening towards the cliff edge, blindly ignoring all the warning signs, almost as if to say: "You think those other publishers are problematic? Just wait until you see this." And all we can do is watch as they pop a wheelie and plummet into the void.

"Gambling isn't so heavily regulated because the Fun Police don't want you getting too excited before bedtime -- it's because gambling can and does ruin lives"

The games industry spent the best part of 40 years convincing the world that it has cultural value, and isn't a danger to children. The debate around violence and video games has broadly been put to bed -- despite the best efforts of a few people to use them as a smokescreen -- and the medium has found mainstream acceptance. Video games aren't just for "weird nerds" anymore, they're for everyone, and are even considered art now, just like those big old paintings. What a time to be alive!

But it's all about the bottom line, right? And even when that line is higher than it's ever been, companies like Activision Blizzard won't blink at the prospect of firing 800 people. So of course a game publisher will use all the tools at its disposal to satisfy the thirst of its shareholders.

Until very recently, that's the way it has always been. Ethics will always play second-fiddle to profits. However, earlier this month one of America's largest business groups dropped the "shareholder first" ethos that's so intrinsic to capitalism.

As reported by the Financial Times, The Business Roundtable -- which generates $7 trillion revenue annually and has nearly 200 members, including the like of JPMorgan, Amazon, and General Motors -- added customers, workers, suppliers, and communities to its list of key stakeholders.

Essentially, this reflects a growing demand from consumers for ethical business practices. People are beginning to reject unchecked capitalism, acknowledging the harm that solely profit-driven motives can inflict, and demanding better standards.

If NBA 2K20 MyTeam looks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it's gambling. There isn't even anything necessarily wrong with such brazen similarities to gambling, unless of course it's rated E for Everyone, and uses the same tricks and lures as the gambling industry -- like bonus currency or free goes on whatever colourful machine is pumping out character cards.

Gambling isn't so heavily regulated because the Fun Police don't want you getting too excited before bedtime -- it's because gambling can and does ruin lives. It's not just people losing their home to an ill-advised game of craps at a dodgy Vegas casino either. It's the sinister escalation, from an innocent flutter courtesy of your friendly online gambling website, to an all-consuming compulsion.

Lots of people can and do gamble responsibly, but there are plenty who don't. Every person out there is susceptible to manipulation in small ways; we all have a vice, and the underlying psychological flaws that leave us vulnerable can easily open the door to more than just junk food or cigarettes. We crave the good stuff, whatever that might be, and it takes tremendous force of will to not engage with something that is being so actively pushed in your direction.

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Latest comments (10)

Eddie In Product Manager - Games, Mobile, Boss Fight Entertainment2 months ago
I can see why 2K's marketing team did this, kinda. Pack opening videos are some of the most viewed content in any sports title. Content creators go so far as to game the opening videos themselves to add more flair (giveaways, taking a shot of hard liquor, stripping on stream etc.. when a rare card is pulled). 2K is clearly trying to appeal to this group of fans.

That said, there are a lot of folks, including some content creators, who are upset over 2K showing (in this video at least) they are more about packs than the game.

For 2K, sales data will show if this decision was correct. Can you imagine if 2K20's overall revenue falls below expectations? Heads will roll. On the other hand, if 2K20 and MyTeam revenue goes crazy despite this outrage, 2K will feel their actions were totally justified. #VoteWithYourWallet.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Eddie In on 29th August 2019 8:36pm

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David Cornelius Software Engineer, Dire Wolf Digital, LLC2 months ago
@Eddie In: Much of the "outrage" from about loot box systems is from the most online, self-identified gamers. I don't think a random trailer or how people perceive it will register at all for much of their market, if revenue is low it would be more of a built-up fatigue for the franchise manifesting. The yearly sports franchises have gotten a lot of mileage out of their microtransactions (Madden, FIFA, NBA2K, etc.) and people are still paying into them.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 months ago
It is hard for articles such as this one to try and be the voice of reason, when the act of being unreasonable in this matter can be a highly profitable business on both sides of the argument. Voting with your wallet is not what determines the result, it is how troops are mustered on Patreon and Ingame Cash Shops. It is how people ascend to become Generals in this asymmetric culture war. Asymmetric, because one side fights for its right to earn money every way they can and the other side fighting for whatever reason people can be made to fight, starting with honest concern of addicts all the way down to for the lols.

Hence I am a little bit anxious about asking people for their hobby these days. 'Fighting a proxy war against a video game publisher by heavily contributing to a public shaming campaign against the actual licence owner on social media' is a bit too close to the sub plot of an uncomfortable read of a book. The one about the protagonist wiping out an entire alien species due to his inability to learn to listen and communicate, because he is being trained by the military as a relentless child soldier. Ironically the movie version cuts out the very sub plot that was employed by emerging social media to throw the movie under the bus because the author essentially made the same mistake than his creation, albeit with fewer casualties as a result.

One could say both sides proved how spectacularly they both failed that test and many if not all hashtagged outrage campaigns since then follow in their footsteps, but one should make sure not to say this with their Twitter handle attached. Such is the limit of thinking today. As a society, we may identify the line in the sand somebody has drawn, but we do not ask about how their brain arrived at that line and what to do about it, we just do a conformity and acceptability check for that line and if that test fails, we go into annihilation mode. Convenience and attached business model, I am sure, you understand.
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University2 months ago
article is naive.

For one corporations didn't suddenly change. They just changed their marketing. And it's nothing new. That sort of thing was done before in 70s and other eras.

SEcond, so many bigger problems in the world than simulating opening packs of cards in videogames.

Third, opening packs of cards has been around for 50+ years. I know it was there in the 70s and 80s.

Fourth, videogames have negative effects on people as it is. There have been young adults that have died from playing a game for too long. People lose marriages and relationships over games. People literally have seizures paying videogames!!!!!!

But oh let's get outraged about loot boxes.
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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch2 months ago
@Bob Johnson: Well said. It's nice to see some new games industry blood with a focus on business realities and social proportionality. If you're not careful this attitude will get you quite far! ;)
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Haydn Taylor Staff Writer, GamesIndustry.biz2 months ago
@Bob Johnson: Thanks for reading the article.

You're absolutely right, there are bigger things to worry about than loot boxes, but that implies we have to tackle problems in order of importance, and we don't. Perhaps we should though, because then we'd all be out trying to halt climate change, but here we are arguing about loot boxes :)

Also, if you're interested in why loot boxes might be more problematic than they seem, and why the comparison to card packs is a false equivalence, you should read this article I wrote on the topic: https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2019-08-02-the-flawed-kinder-egg-defence
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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch2 months ago
@Haydn Taylor: First, while we don't have to tackle issues in order of severity it highlights an approach driven by emotion over logic which bring any notion that there will be a sensible approach to solving any such problem into question.

Second, no one has really explained why Kinder Eggs and card packs are a false equivalence on the grounds that people complain about loot boxes. Kinder Eggs, LOL Surprise dolls etc are mystery box items, you pay for something and you don't know what you're going to get and worse, they are made specifically for children and not aimed at a wider consumer base. The comments from Dr.King are about personalised drop rates based on some number of criteria but I don't know of any studio actually doing that.

You say they are 'problematic' but where is the problem? Where is the proof of harm? It's still stubbornly absent despite all this attention and investigation.
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Haydn Taylor Staff Writer, GamesIndustry.biz2 months ago
@Ian Griffiths: People fixate on the similarities, rather than the differences. That's what a false equivalence is. Apples and oranges are both fruit, yet remain completely distinct from each other. I think the article above makes it quite clear.

It's not a black and white issue where loot boxes are inherently and unequivocally bad. It's about recognising the myriad problems and concerns around certain implementations of loot boxes (such as putting casino in a basketball game, complete with the aesthetic and psychological tricks of a gambling website), many of which are being raised by lawmakers and legislators.

I've covered this topic extensively over the past two years, and I've drawn my conclusions from the reports, interviews, academic studies, conference talks and everything else I've poured over. It's not about emotions over logic or vice versa, it's about seeing an existential threat to the industry, and paying attention.

I've written plenty of unbiased news pieces about this, but as somewhat of an expert on it these days, I feel fairly comfortable contributing the opinions I've developed from my work.

In reference to this piece in particular, it's the brazen and frankly irresponsible disregard 2K Games has for the wider social context in which it released this trailer, not just the mechanic of loot boxes.
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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch2 months ago
@Haydn Taylor: I'll start by saying I welcome your reporting and opinions on the subject. I don't doubt your knowledge nor am I critical of your approach. I'm simply stating how and why I disagree with what I think some of your opinions are.

I don't agree that loot boxes are a false equivalence to blind box toys and TGC games in the areas that people raise as concerns for loot boxes.

The main differences raised by Dr.King in the article are for things that he doesn't know actually happen; profiling and adjusting drop rates are not universal in loot boxes in games. Linking your credit card? Well, Amazon has my information. Trading? Go try a Valve f2p game, though I'd also point out that it's the ability to trade that actually causes problems for loot boxes. As for being able to spend thousands, I just looked at Amazon and it let me add £4,417.35 worth of LOL Surprise! Dolls to my basket, limited only by the amount of stock. I could also buy £2,781.90 worth of MTG booster packs if I wanted to.

I'm not saying there are no differences or that they are exactly equivalent, I'm saying that for all of the concerns raised TCG, blind box toys operate on the same basis; paying money for a random payout.
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As for this My Team part of NBA 2K20, I don't see why it's irresponsible. First, they're not hiding away from what they're doing, it's right there in the trailer. Second, plenty of loot boxes and social casino games exist on mobile platforms. Third, I don't view this as bringing this into a basketball game, this is the My Team mode and that is what they are making this game into, they don't have to be hampered by what has come before.

I think there's another element that we can't ignore; snobbish and classist derision of what are typically seen as working class vices which include gambling. Sports games are typically played by a much wider audience including non-traditional gamers, there are people who only play sports games and a lot of them are working class. Can we really say that we would see this kind of response if this game were, 'Ascot Racing 2K20' with all the associated gambling-themed elements?
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Harry Debelius Localization Project Manager, Keywords Studios2 months ago
I think that, regardless of your opinion on loot boxes and other "surprise mechanics", the real issue here is having the game rated E/3+.

I don't support these practices, but it's obvious that there is a certain public who caters to this. So, as long as it doesn't directly interfere in the game experience, I can accept the presence of these in my games.

However, this, in my opinion, hurts badly the reputation of a self-regulatory body like the PEGI ratings system, maiking it totally unreliable. If I was a parent and bought this game for my kid, labelled for ages 3 and up, I would be, and with reason, pissed. I hate these mechanics in games, but it's clear some people do enjoy these; but labeling it for kids is a big no-no, and the real culprits here are the ESRB and PEGI rating boards, who should be owning their responsibility in this issue.
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