Courtesy of Visual Concepts discusses NBA 2K16 development with Jeff Thomas, vice president of sports development at Visual Concepts. 

By Tim Newcomb
September 17, 2015

NBA 2K16 has plucked Spike Lee for the "My Career" narrative, but Jeff Thomas, vice president of sports development at Visual Concepts, the developer of the game, has a real pulse on the heart of every new 2K title. He told we can find players most like the players, the teams most like the teams, and the environment most like the environment.

For that effort, the developer team did an overhaul that included 5,000 new animations and this year went with what it has dubbed “living world physics.” The new effort includes players responding—on and off the ball—based on real-world information.

“In the post, when backing someone in, the physical battle is so much better represented,” Thomas says. “We are using physical data—the weight—to determine that battle and the outcomes.”

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Weight, height, and acceleration valuation come into play throughout the game, from off-the-ball cutting, bodies smashing into each other in the post, and even during foot-planting moves with the way the foot sticks to the ground and makes a cut.

“It is all part of the underlying engine,” Thomas says. A players’ weight, how fast they can stop, how much their weight shifts, “all those things help accurately represent how fast they can move in the game.”

Just like the physics of player movement changes, so does the in-game strategy. Thomas says that meetings with Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers has helped give depth to the non-movement portion of this living world concept, an addition that allows for players and teams to detect and adapt to patterns within the game.

The team-specific function of 2K16 filters down to the way teams call plays, run plays around certain players, and adapt to the way other teams defend. “We watch film like a team watches film,” Thomas says. “The AI guys and producers work so much like (video coordinators) do at a team, breaking down film, trying to bring all that into the game. We keep going deeper and deeper into the understanding of the game.”

Courtesy of Visual Concepts

Then there’s Spike Lee. The famed director was brought in to revamp the storyline and narrative behind the "My Career" mode. “That is the one area that most of our customers spend their time,” Thomas says. “It is a big part of the game. If gameplay is always number one, career mode is number two. Spike wrote this entire backstory that you live and evolve through. (What we did internally in the past) was nothing like what Spike Lee can bring to the table in writing and telling a story and getting a performance out of the actors.”

Thomas says the story helps to connect users to their character, but the section of the game is about more than just the story. Added this year is an off-day simulator, where you can choose between three different activities. Players can practice with their team using real NBA drills and a replicated Gatorade Sports Science Institute for testing, they can make connections with players and celebrities and gain in-game rewards, or they can choose to spend time with local and national sponsors, earning virtual currency used in the game.

“It is a robust experience,” Thomas says. “You get to decide what you do and every day juggle your time and put your effort into it.”

Also new in "My Career" is Spike Lee starting the player at the high school level. Lee’s narrative starts you from the beginning with high school games before your player chooses between 10 real colleges. Once you’ve moved to college, based on how you play there, your player then gets drafted into the NBA, creating  “a continuing story of being you and making it to the NBA.”

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With gameplay and career the focus, 2K also put a premium on details. “For us, that is an endless battle,” Thomas says, “and we are always updating.”

2K sends teams to map out every arena for accuracy and tap into television signals to get specific crowd sounds and music from each venue to make the experience as realistic as possible. Right down to the sneakers, as 2K now 3D scans hundreds of sneakers for detailed accuracy. From original Jordan sneakers to shoes that have cropped up over the years to the latest releases from all the major brands, 2K stays up to date with the latest looks.

The latest sneaker looks to the latest player looks, that is. NBA 2K16 wants a highly detailed story filled with real-life physics.

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, sneakers and design for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb

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