The row over whether loot boxes concealing randomized virtual items in video games constitutes gambling has rumbled on for years. However, new release NBA 2K20 has sparked further controversy by blatantly including gambling-like mechanisms to determine in-game prizes and rewards.
Developed by Visual Concepts and published by 2K Sports, it features slots, a Wheel of Fortune-style prize wheel and pachinko. And you thought this was a basketball simulation?
A promo video for the MyTeam part of the game shows NBA 2K streamers CashNasty and Kristopher “LSK” London opening virtual cards. They are also shown exuberantly playing pachinko, a prize wheel and a three-reel slot machine.
While this 21st iteration of the popular NBA 2K franchise retails for $60, these features are there to provide a lucrative, but divisive, additional revenue stream.
Indeed, 2K Sports has included special card packs and a prize wheel in previous versions of the game. But to shoehorn conspicuous casino elements into a much-loved sports game franchise could be asking for trouble.
Fans voice their NBA 2K20 outrage
Unsurprisingly, these mini-games in NBA 2K20 sparked a backlash among gamers on forums and social media. The trailer on the 2K Sports YouTube channel showcasing this controversial aspect of the game has so far drawn 20,000 dislikes.
Meanwhile, a video by popular YouTuber Joe Vargas angrily slamming 2K Sports for “glorifying gambling” and “putting a casino in my basketball game” has garnered 667,000 views and 56,000 likes.
Critics feel 2K Sports is exploiting fans of the game. And, more worryingly, the casino elements potentially normalize gambling in the eyes of minors.
Is NBA 2K20’s content age-appropriate?
The body that assigns ratings to video games in the US, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), inexplicably deemed it deserved an “Everyone” rating. This rating means its suitable for all ages. The board didn’t feel the gambling content warranted age restrictions.
In Europe, game rating authority Pan European Game Information (PEGI) had to defend its decision to give the game a 3+ age rating amid similar dismay among gamers across the pond.
In an email to Eurogamer, PEGI said it was aware NBA 2K20 “may get too close for comfort for some people.” The body added that these concerns were part of an internal discussion.
Nevertheless, there has been mounting criticism on social media channels that this game was waved through. This heat could perhaps force both PEGI and ESRB into rethinking their ratings.
The on-going furor over loot boxes
NKA 2K20’s unashamed move is bound to heap more attention and scrutiny on the games industry and, moreover, loot boxes.
These involve players paying real money for the chance to open boxes to claim randomized virtual items. They began appearing in video games around 15 years ago but have become widespread in console games in the last five years.
Players have no idea what they are getting until they stump up the cash to open a box. However, the industry insists it isn’t gambling.
In fact, the president of the publisher of the NBA 2K series said in 2017 statement that the company doesn’t view card packs and loot boxes as gambling.
However, the three leading console manufacturers – Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo – are aware of the public’s concerns. The trio recently unveiled a plan to be rolled out next year.
This plan will require all games with loot boxes to disclose the odds of players being awarded various items. As things stand, the math behind loot boxes is opaque, and there is the real danger that players are being exploited – and ripped off.
Blurring the lines between gaming, gambling
With so many games now including loot boxes and other random prize giveaways paid for with real cash, opposition to this form of monetization is growing.
You’ve got politicians and gambling regulators in numerous countries keeping close tabs on the issue. However, because video game prizes typically don’t have any real-world value, it can’t be classed as gambling.
But by essentially sticking a casino inside a basketball game, it is bound to hurt sales. Indeed, plenty of fans have vowed to boycott the game when it releases Sept. 6 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and Windows PC.
Casino games recently made an appearance in hit-game Grand Theft Auto 5 with the introduction of slots, table games and horse racing. Players can convert real money into GTA$ and gamble at the Diamond Casino & Resort.
Yet, Grand Theft Auto 5 comes with a mature rating (17+). And it isn’t a basketball game.
Indeed, 2K Sports introducing casino mini-games to a game played by children will be viewed by some as a step too far. The negative headlines the game has garnered even before its release back this up.
In fact, we may be reaching a tipping point. NBA 2K20 could mark the beginning of the end for loot boxes and other forms of in-game prizes.