Washington Mystics forward Aerial Powers is such a hardcore gamer that her teammates wish she’d either get her bags pre-checked or let them go through airport security first. Before every flight, they must watch her slowly pull out and place her Xbox One, plus its many wires and cords, on trays en route to road games.
But how else is Powers going play Call of Duty, NBA 2K19 and Apex Legends, three of her favorites?
“I need my games” mocks Natasha Cloud, one of Powers’ many non-gamer teammates.
Powers will soon see herself in one of the games she plays most, as NBA 2K, the biggest basketball video game franchise there is, will introduce the WNBA and all 12 of its teams in the 2020 edition available on Sept. 6. WNBA players have played as themselves in another basketball game, Electronic Arts’ NBA Live in 2018, but 2K is unanimously seen as the premiere hoops game.
“The graphics are a little bit better from what I saw,” Powers said. “The facial expressions are better, the hair is better. You can play online now. In ‘Live,’ you could only play whoever was around you or against the computer, so that’s dope.”
What separates 2K from ‘Live’ isn’t just the game’s popularity, but also the additional features it possesses. For the first time, gamers will be able to become a WNBA general manager and dip into the world of “what ifs.” In ‘Live,’ users could only “quick play” as one team against another, but 2K will feature WNBA “season” and “franchise” modes, allowing users to control an entire franchise, make trades and sign free agents, a spokesperson for the game told SB Nation. (It will not include the option to participate in fantasy drafts, a popular feature with the NBA.)
“I think it’s gonna bring more excitement to people who game,” Powers said. “People who don’t game, but like the WNBA, are going to get into it. And the people who don’t like the WNBA, you know we’ve got haters out there, but a lot of them play games, so I feel like a lot of them are gonna be like, ‘Let me see what they’re working with,’ especially when they go against other people.”
Through the beginning weeks of the WNBA’s training camp and the regular season, 2K face-scanned the players and head coaches for all 12 teams, taking stationary pictures in an all-white, soundproof van in an attempt to get the face metrics right. That’s come with mixed results.
“I just know that everybody’s saying we look ugly,” Indiana Fever guard Kelsey Mitchell told SB Nation. “Our faces don’t match how we actually look.
“I’ve played with DeMar DeRozan,” she continued. “I was like, ‘OK, I know for a fact that’s DeMar DeRozan.’ But when I see us, I’m like ‘Who the hell is that?’”
Las Vegas Aces all-star Liz Cambage posted pictures on her Instagram mocking 2K’s render of her. Later, she tweeted: “Excuse me @NBA2K you forgot my eyelash extensions.”
NBA 2K is far from the first sports video game that gets animation and image backlash. Last year, Seattle Storm legend Sue Bird went on the Players’ Tribune Twitter account to point out NBA Live’s issues.
Other new features for WNBA players inside the 2K game remain a mystery. The players SB Nation spoke to hadn’t played the game yet and were learning about it at the same time the public did. The first 2K trailer featuring WNBA players went live Aug. 8.
Proud to be part of the @NBA2K family! I'm honored to help #NBA2K20 pave the way for the WNBA in video games. We continue to break down barriers so young girls and boys can have female athletes as role models #ad pic.twitter.com/h0G1Jr9KiE— Candace Parker (@Candace_Parker) August 8, 2019
In a press release, NBA 2K said many of the top stars in the league were brought in to the 2K studios to have their bodies scanned for animations including the Los Angeles Sparks’ Candace Parker, the Seattle Storm’s Breanna Stewart, the Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson and the Atlanta Dream’s Maite Cazorla. Those scans will allow the game to recreate the players’ shot, passing and running mechanics to perfection. Mystics superstar Elena Delle Donne, the runaway 2019 MVP favorite, told SB Nation that she was not fully scanned. Only two players ratings have been released as of Aug. 9: Stewart (95 overall) and Parker (93).
It does not appear 2K will incorporate prominent WNBA broadcasters for pregame and halftime shows, like they do with TNT’s Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kenny Smith on the men’s side. Both ESPN’s LaChina Robinson and Ryan Ruocco confirmed to SB Nation they were not scanned for the game.
Still, inclusion in the 2K series provides a huge platform for a growing WNBA. NBA 2K19 sold 9 million copies worldwide, so at the very least, this game will give all 144 players a chance to have their name read and their game seen by a direct (and growing) target audience: hoops fans.
“That’s super dope for us,” Cloud said. “It’s a dream for us to be in the game too. We talk about evening the playing field, and this is giving us different opportunities to be seen in a different light. It shows a progression of us growing as a league, as players, as teams. It’s all part of the progression.”
For hardcore gamers like Powers, the WNBA addition to 2K20 provides a new opportunity to stream, too. She’s already bought a capture card and a webcam to go along with her Xbox. To her teammates’ dismay, those pieces will add to the growing number of electronics slowing down airport security when the Mystics are in town.
But before we’re able to watch Powers’ play as herself on Twitch, she must solve one problem that her non-gamer teammates can’t help with.
“I just need somebody to help me set it up.”