I love NBA 2K23 – but I'm not a basketball superfan. For me, its appeal extends far beyond shooting hoops and into the culture and fashion (specifically, sneakers) surrounding it. On the court, Visual Concepts and 2K's coveted NBA series is the best in the biz. From its deft interpretations of the sport's biggest stars, past and present – like Golden State's 'splash triplets', Curry, Clay, and Poole; and perhaps the most iconic sportsperson of all time, Michael Jordan – to its in-game commentary, half-time performances, and courtside analysis; it really is the quintessential reimagining of the real deal.
"However much you love FIFA or its tortured artist cousin eFootball, hand on heart it never looks true to the real thing. NBA 2K23 is different," said Phil Iwaniuk in GamesRadar's NBA 2K23 preview earlier this year, referencing the action on the hardwood. For me, the same can be said of the game's quieter moments. And as such, it's away from the actual basketball that I've found a home.
You see, I'm a sneakerhead, and there is no sport in the world that overlaps with shoe culture quite as much as basketball. Over the last 10 years, the mainstream appeal of streetwear has skyrocketed, particularly among athletes, especially basketball players – to the point where analyzing the pre-match and off-court attire of the most famous stars has become as much a part of the game today as the game itself.
The working-class, ground-level origins of streetwear closely reflect those of basketball – especially streetball, and the heady days of the AND1 early-2000s golden era – however, big-money sponsorships (i.e. Steph Curry's recent Under Armour lifetime deal), player-specific silhouettes (e.g. the Air Jordan line), and high-profile collaborations (such as the late Virgil Abloh's Off-White x Nike collection) have only accentuated the appeal (and resale value) of the latest kicks in the modern era. Mirroring the styles and looks of celebrities is hardly a new concept, but sneakerhead culture is now intrinsically linked with basketball – whether you enjoy the sport itself or not.
In NBA 2K23, then, I'm not that fussed about dropping dimes like Scottie Pippen, dribbling like Kyrie, soaring like Mike, or nailing buzzing beaters in the style of Kobe or LeBron, but I am interested in the shoes. I'm interested in its The Last Dance-aping return of The Jordan Challenge and seeing the GOAT strut his stuff for North Carolina at the 1982 NCAA finals in a pair of battered blue and white Converse. I'm interested in seeing him lift his first-ever Championship with the Chicago Bulls, wearing his now iconic 'Black Infrared' Air Jordan 6s. I'm interested in seeing him clinch his five other titles in his Jordan 7s (1992), Jordan 8s (1993), Jordan 11s (1996), Jordan 12s (1997), and Jordan 14s (1998). I'm interested in chasing my own big money shoe deal in the present day's MyCareer – starting out as a keen but average franchise player who tells the media he wants to be the next Larry Bird at the Celtics, but who secretly just wants to cop the Nike Kobe 6 Protro 'Grinch' colorway because, chef kiss, they're just so beautiful on-foot.
Just like the real thing, cultivating your own brand is a key part of MyCareer in NBA 2K23, and brand endorsements out on the field are a surefire way to boost your income and popularity among fans. Naturally, in order to catch the eye of the biggest manufacturers and nail down the most lucrative contracts, you need to do a fair bit of actual basketballing. Nike, it turns out, isn't interested in investing in talentless butterfingers, but it is willing to dip the quill for a player who's ascertained 420,000 Fans, 6 Corporate Levels, and 10 Solo Players levels. The Jordan brand, on the other hand, is willing to talk after achieving 415,000 Fans, 9 Flashy Levels, and 9 Fashion Levels; while Adidas is looking for someone with 390,000 Fans, 8 Free Spirit Levels, and 10 Music Levels. All of this requires a fair bit of on-court grinding, but as such has me playing as though NBA 2K23 is an RPG and not a sports simulator.
Teach a shoe dog new tricks
Which strikes at the heart of what I enjoy most about NBA 2K23: I see it as a story generator, beyond its technical capabilities and realistic reflection of its real-world source material. I'm delighted for all the keen basketball fans (and, admittedly, a wee bit jealous) who are reveling in the subtle tweaks their favorite series' latest installment has brought to the table: the finely-tuned adjustments to famous players' movements, traits, and skill sets; the smarter AI; the most refined interpretation of the sport from the TV studio to the locker room, the court, the boardroom and back again.
But it's the wider cultural stuff - the aspect of the game that I enjoy in the real world - that's sunk its hooks into me. Marilyn Monroe once said: "Give the girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world". I'll be sure to quote her when I'm lifting my first NBA 2K23 Championship, sponsored by Nike with my own line of sneakers.
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