Candace Parker, a two-time WNBA most valuable player, takes her place at the free throw line. She stretches her body, loosening up.
A woman on the sideline cues her — but not to shoot. She tells Parker to make a T with her hands, bend down and touch her toes; to lift one leg, then the other. The movements seem better fit for a yoga class than a basketball game.
That’s because Parker didn’t come to Petaluma, Calif. — a city full of sprawling farmland, with no major sports arena in sight — to compete.
Instead, she, along with two-time WNBA All-Star Breanna Stewart, are at the 2K Motion Capture Studio to assist in creating virtual versions of themselves. Parker, who plays for the Los Angeles Sparks, and Stewart, who plays for the Seattle Storm, are wearing black, full-body suits. Small motion sensors are velcroed as closely to the women’s joints as possible.
Their movements will soon be transferred to their digital characters in the video game NBA 2K20, which is being released in September. While NBA 2K has been around since 1999, this is the first version of the game that will include WNBA players. Fans have long been speculating about the addition of the WNBA to the NBA 2K franchise, but the news that all 12 WNBA teams are making their debut wasn’t made official until Thursday.
Adding the WNBA to the game isn’t an insignificant step, given the recent conversation around equality in professional sports — not to mention the fact that NBA 2K’s professional esports league includes only one female gamer, Chiquita Evans, among its 100-plus men. Parker and Stewart, for their part, both say they play the highly popular video game. (Its NBA 2K18 iteration was the highest-selling sports video game of 2017 and the second-highest-selling game of any genre.)
Parker says that gaining equality is a process; she acknowledges that the WNBA is still only 23 years young. “I understand we’re kind of the pioneers of the game and we’re continuing to make it grow,” she says, “and I think this is a huge step in that direction.”
As its title suggests, NBA 2K20 simulates professional basketball games. Many people are probably familiar with the popular game mode “Play Now,” in which a gamer selects their team and plays an opponent in a standard virtual game. Gamers can choose to go multiplayer (and face off against their friends), challenge the computer or play other 2K gamers online. But players can also opt for other game modes such as “My Career,” in which a specific NBA player’s storyline is depicted — from their drafting to their retirement ceremony. (For now, the WNBA will only be featured in the “Play Now” and “Season” game modes, and WNBA teams will only face off against each other, not the men’s teams.)
This isn’t the first time NBA 2K considered featuring WNBA players, but it is the first time they felt like they could actually get it right.
Mike Wang, gameplay director at NBA 2K, says the team had tried putting WNBA players’ likenesses on the male players they already had in their digital library. But it didn’t feel complete.
Of course, Wang says, there’s a lot that women and men players do virtually identically in real life, such as passing the ball. But when it comes to jumping and shooting, there’s a bit more variety, he explains. The NBA 2K team wanted to make sure they were capturing the nuances of women’s play.
To start, the NBA 2K team motion captured a number of amateur female basketball players and added their movements to their library. For most WNBA players, the NBA 2K team will pull from that library to create their digital renderings. But for the legends — such as Parker and Stewart — they’re capturing signature moves to make them look as realistic as possible.
In time, Wang says, they’ll continue motion capturing more WNBA players, as they’ve done with many NBA players.
According to NBC, a WNBA player’s salary starts around $50,000 and caps off around $110,000. The starting salary of an NBA player, on the other hand, is around $560,000.
Stewart says that the talk of equal pay shouldn’t just be “on the court”; it extends to all aspects of the professional basketball world, video games included. Indeed, Stewart has long been outspoken about the level of attention and money given to the NBA compared to the WNBA.
Being added to NBA 2K, Stewart says, will give WNBA players promotion they haven’t had before. And hopefully, she adds, it will be a positive cycle. “Who knows, maybe they’ve never watched a WNBA game before, but now that they have 2K20, and the ability to play with us, maybe they’ll play with us, and then maybe they’ll watch us.”
Outside of the equal pay conversation, it’s also important that young girls who are thinking about a career in basketball see themselves in these video games, Stewart says. If she could’ve played as WNBA greats Lisa Leslie or Sheryl Swoopes on the screen, for example, then it would’ve made the idea she could do the same much “easier.”
Parker chimes in: That’s one of the main reasons why she decided to participate in motion capturing for the game.
The first woman drafted into the NBA 2K esports league, Chiquita Evans, says she’s excited about the WNBA being incorporated into the game. But she also knows that there’s still a long way to go. “The WNBA still doesn’t get the respect that it deserves,” she says over the phone.
Evans adds that she knows a lot of female gamers were hoping that the WNBA would be added to other aspects of the game — not just “Play Now” and “Season” modes. But she’s hopeful the WNBA’s presence in the game will expand in the coming years.
These female players’ place in history is important, no doubt. But so are their ratings in the game.
Every year, NBA 2K doles out ratings for individual players. Although the ratings only correspond to the game, they become a status symbol of sorts in the real world; emotions run high and feelings get hurt. One NBA player, John Wall of the Washington Wizards, took to Twitter two years ago to express his discontent with his rating, a 90 out of 100. He tagged Ronnie Singh, the digital marketing manager — and public face of — NBA 2K, calling him “a joke.”
The ratings for the WNBA players will begin rolling out this week. Stewart had been anxiously awaiting her rating; when she found out that LeBron James’s NBA 2K19 rating was a 98, she had said she wanted a 98, too. The Lily has early access to a screenshot of Stewart’s avatar, which shows she has a rating of 95 for NBA 2K20.
Back at the 2K Motion Capture Studio, Parker and Stewart enter a small RV, one after the other. There are 146 cameras covering the walls and ceiling. Parker stands in the middle of the RV, where she’s asked to make a series of facial expressions. A man shows photos of Drake on an iPad to provide examples of what they’re looking for.
“Okay, now give me the face you would make if a ref just made a horrible call,” he goads her.
Parker immediately launches into action, scrunching her forehead and opening her mouth as if she’s about to yell.
These photo scans will help inform Parker’s mannerisms in the game; they’ll be incorporated to make her rendering as close to the real deal as possible.
The RV’s walls are bright white, save for a large signature written in Sharpie. Parker can’t make out the name, but she can tell it says “’06 MVP.” She thinks about it for a couple minutes; she wonders if it was Kobe Bryant. Then it clicks: “Dwyane Wade,” she says aloud.
A decade later, Parker would win the same award, the Finals MVP, for the WNBA. And two decades after NBA 2K’s inception, gamers will finally be able to choose to play as the female legend, too.