June 15, 2021

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NBA 2K21 brings a huge leap in realism for next-gen consoles

It’s been a long time since we’ve covered sports titles at Digital Foundry, but with the arrival of NBA 2K21 on the new wave of consoles, we’re seeing something genuinely fascinating here, with a proper generational leap in fidelity across the board. To illustrate that, we took a look at the game primarily on PlayStation 5 and PS4 Pro, but we also spent some time with both of the Xbox Series consoles.

Delivering such a big improvement in quality is quite an achievement in my opinion. While it may not seem this way on the surface, sports games are – from what I can tell – one of the more difficult genres to work on. Truncated development schedules require annual entries in each series, meaning less time between each release but more than that, these games have to match up to a properly ‘real’ experience, often delivered with a TV-like presentation. A game like NBA 2K21 needs to deal with real people in real places performing complex, interlinking actions. If you’re off by even a hair, you’re diving straight into uncanny valley.

So what makes this so difficult? Well, nailing down the arenas and player likenesses is a huge part of the equation but it’s the motion that makes this so difficult. Realistic animation, momentum and collision of each player on the court is a huge challenge. Developer Visual Concepts – whose work on this franchise dates all the way back to the Dreamcast era – is doing some great work here. While it’s easy enough to spot the imperfections in the visuals, if you just let the game wash over you, it really begins to look surprisingly authentic in action. When firing on cylinders, it really does look like basketball.

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