Updated on June 23 at 9 a.m.
In the highly popular video game NBA 2K20, gender equality only goes so far.
The game, released last year, was the first iteration in the 20-year-old series to allow gamers to play using teams and athletes from the WNBA — a move that was celebrated by female gamers and WNBA players. But even though users can play as female athletes, you can’t have a woman represent your team in the front office: It’s not possible to have a female general manager in 2K20.
It also does not allow players to make customizable female players, although the company has said it may work on that in the future. (Players can make their own male players and use them in other modes in the game.) The lack of customization for players on the court has splash-on effects for representation across all other modes, including the general manager mode “MyGM,” which lets users role-play as a basketball executive.
The game company, which is preparing to launch the next iteration of the franchise in the fall, confirmed that it’s not possible to create a female general manager in 2K20. When asked whether the game’s designers had discussed or considered adding the option, NBA 2K said in a statement, “We’re proud to have partnered last year with the WNBA to bring women’s basketball to NBA 2K and are excited to show what’s next this year in NBA 2K21.”
The inability to let gamers play women in those kinds of leadership roles should be corrected as soon as possible, according to Cheryl Reeve, head coach and general manager for the Minnesota Lynx. Reeve says 2K’s addition of female players was a crucial step, but it cannot be the only one.
“It is important to acknowledge the great work that 2K did do,” Reeve says, adding that she believes the game helped spur more interest in the WNBA. But failing to allow players to even imagine a role for a woman in the front office of an NBA team is a mistake.
“That is a huge oversight on the part of the 2K folks. This isn’t something we can give them a pass for,” she says.
The issue, Reeve says, is that the video game carries significant implications for showing younger women interested in basketball what’s possible: “The chance that you have to lead in this way is huge, and these issues too often go ignored.”
The question of diverse representation in games is one that plays out repeatedly. Adrienne Shaw, a professor of media studies at Temple University focused on representation in video games, says that many game makers still don’t think about including women in their initial design plans. That means creating female avatars becomes, in their minds, an add-on option — one that’d be nice to have. For many game companies, the default character in games is male — especially for extra game modes.
The issue has received increased attention in recent years. In 2014, for example, Ubisoft came under fire after Far Cry director Alex Hutchinson said Far Cry 4 was close to including playable female characters in its cooperative mode, but ultimately dropped the plan due to “workload issues.” In a separate interview the same year, Alex Amancio, Ubisoft creative director for Assasin’s Creed, said his team made a similar decision because adding women means “[it’s] double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets.” The company later released a version of Assassin’s Creed that allowed gamers to play as either a female or male protagonist.
In the case of NBA 2K20, it is true that the front offices of basketball franchises are overwhelmingly male. But there are women in leadership roles across the WNBA and the NBA. Indiana Pacers assistant general manager Kelly Krauskopf made history in 2018 when she became the first woman to hold such a position in the league. Krauskopf’s appointment came after a long and accomplished career in the WNBA, and managing the Pacers’ esports team; she is the only woman to hold a general manager title in the NBA. Of the WNBA’s 12 teams, three have female general managers: the Seattle Storm, the Indiana Fever and the Minnesota Lynx.
“I do think, overall, it’s still viewed as a man’s job, so to speak,” Reeve says of the general manager position. “Look at the representation in our own league.” Particularly early in her career, Reeve says, sexism affected her ability to get ahead. Media companies with visibility and clout such as 2K, she says, can help close the gap simply by normalizing having women and people of color in positions of power.
Given the increased attention to issues of racism in recent weeks, she says, this is a time to realize the power that media companies wield to move the ball forward.
There’s no doubt that adding new characters to a game takes a lot of work — as 2K20 itself demonstrates. Developers and gaming press wrote extensively about the process of adding WNBA players to the game, including getting athletes such as Candace Parker to come to their studios for motion-capture sessions to get the animations right. In addition to capturing movements accurately, other aspects of creating WNBA players in 2K20 required extensive research and effort. Animators had to capture the way a player’s hair moves as they run down the court, for example, and the full range of facial expressions players make.
Shaw, the professor, says that developing an equitable customization process, which takes hours and effort that could be spent on something else, is a “zero-sum game.” But, she says, companies that want to prioritize representation — or simply cater to player interests — can and should do more to examine their priorities at the highest levels. “As in any industry, it’s a question of inclusion. It has to come from the top; the top gets to decide how many resources are available,” she says.
Some games, especially sports games, have leaned on their desire to be realistic or authentic as a reason not to include more diversity, Shaw says. Game publishers often also say that their player bases are mostly men, who may not find it appealing to play as women. Yet, Shaw notes, even if it is true that men make up most of a game’s player base, that doesn’t mean they will only want to play men. She pointed out that, for 2K20, men make many of the videos showing mods — short for “modifications,” referencing home-brewed bits of code that gamers make to alter commercial games — to make female players in 2K20.
“People who want to play games want to play all the options, and to see what options might change things,” she says. Adding women in all the modes, and maybe adding the option for NBA and WNBA players to play together, is in the spirit of what video games ought to be, according to Shaw.
Before NBA 2K20’s release, NBA 2K producer Felicia Steenhouse and lead character animator Ann Sidenblad wrote in a Facebook post that adding the WNBA was an important step in representation. “Sports are an important public stage,” the post said. “It’s a space to lift up the best of us. Right now we find ourselves in an exciting time where women are getting to take their rightful place on that stage — front and center.”
But for Shaw and others, the progress can’t stop there. Shaw herself was never really into the NBA, but she was a WNBA fan — particularly when the league started hiring more women coaches. “I clipped out every story,” Shaw says. “It was when you saw more women as coaches that I realized: This is what I was looking for.”
NBA 2K has an important job in pushing representation further: “It makes visible what types of being can be in the world,” Shaw says.