NBA 2K ratings: How they are determined and why players care so much about them

NBA 2K ratings: How they are determined and why players care so much about them

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NBA 2K ratings: How they are determined and why players care so much about them

Three weeks ago, Ronnie Singh was attending Harrison Barnes’ wedding in Rhode Island when Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle put him in an awkward position.

For those who don’t know, Singh is 2K Sports’ digital marketing director and he’s become a social-media celebrity with over 840,000 Twitter followers on his @Ronnie2K account. He’s close friends with a number of NBA players, which is why he was at Barnes’ wedding, and he frequently messages back and forth with some of the league’s biggest stars.

At one point during the wedding reception, Wesley Matthews found out that his overall rating in NBA 2K18 is a 78. Singh estimates that there were about 40 NBA players at the wedding and reception, including Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kent Bazemore, Andrew Bogut and Devin Harris among others. Matthews’ 78 rating and how the 2K staff comes up with these numbers became a hot topic among the players in attendance.

“I was at Harrison Barnes’ wedding and a major point of contention was Wesley’s rating,” Singh said. “He found out that he was an 78 overall and he got pretty upset about it. He kept talking to Rick Carlisle about it. Well, Rick was the MC of Harrison’s reception. It got to the point that during the reception, in front of about 40 NBA players, Rick gets on the mic and says, ‘Ronnie, we have to address this rating thing right now. You need to come up here.’

“So during the reception, I’m up there in front of these 40 NBA players explaining why the ratings are the way they are and how they’re determined. And I’m thinking, ‘This guy is in the middle of celebrating his wedding!’ Harrison’s wife was probably like, ‘I’m going to murder Ronnie after this reception.’ (laughs) They’re both amazing people – just a great couple – but I just kept thinking, ‘This is not the proper place for this!’ But Rick orchestrated it, so unfortunately I had to participate.”

***

Today’s NBA players care about their 2K rating a lot. It’s become a status symbol of sorts. In the same way that some players try to top each other by purchasing luxury cars, expensive jewelry or fashionable clothes, many players are excited to find out their rating and see how they compare to their peers.

“Guys look at what other players around the league are rated and sometimes think they’re wrong or that they should be lower [than their own rating],” Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. said.

Last year, the 2K staff decided to let any NBA player – from superstars to undrafted rookies – find out their overall rating before the game was released. All they had to do to was send out a tweet asking for it. Over 200 players submitted a request for their rating last year, which was more than anyone at 2K anticipated. Last week, 2K once again made this offer to players.

So far, already 168 players have responded.

“I’m into it a little bit because all my boys back home will talk shit if I have a bad rating,” Indiana Pacers big man Myles Turner said. “The ratings are always too low for everyone, in my opinion. But they rise and fall as the season progresses based on how you perform, so I just let my play do the talking. I know my [rating] has risen each year.”

Turner said he’s seen some teammates take their rating in the game way too seriously and get really upset. Other players around the NBA said they’ve witnessed similar meltdowns over a 2K rating.

Some players will voice their frustrations directly to Singh or Chris Manning, who is NBA 2K’s community manager. Manning (also known as @LD2K) has a strong social-media presence of his own, with more than 5.6 million views on his YouTube channel and over 280,000 Twitter followers.

“The older players weren’t into games as much as this younger generation is, so now we have players who are entering the league that grew up playing 2K and their rating is somewhat sacred to them,” Manning said. “It’s something that’s really important to them and it’s a topic of conversation.”

It’s also easier than ever for a player to share how they feel about their rating. In a matter of seconds, a player can send out a tweet about it. That wasn’t the case a decade ago. Perhaps older players cared about their ratings, but the public just wasn’t as aware of it.

A recent example of a player angrily responding to their rating with a tweet was Washington Wizards point guard John Wall, who called Singh “a joke” after learning of his 90-overall rating.

“We’ve previously worked with John Wall and he’s a really good guy, but he’s obviously sensitive about his rating,” Singh said. “I’ve had a lot of in-person interactions with him and he’s honestly one of the nicer guys in the NBA. He’s definitely sensitive about his rating, though. That morning, John messaged me saying, ‘Hey, I saw the rating. How can I be this low?’ I told him, ‘Dude, take it to the people. That’s what Twitter is for.’ I didn’t know he was going to call me a joke (laughs), but he put that out there and then I called him salty by responding with the salt shaker. It was tongue-in-cheek and while all of that was happening, he and I were laughing at the reaction from people.”

Some players get legitimately angry and make it known to Singh and Manning.

“We get a lot of private messages from guys that are pretty harsh,” Singh said. “Last year, for example, Dion Waiters flipped out about his rating – and his rating was pretty good too. I want to say he was rated an 73 at the beginning of last year and, while he ended up having an excellent year, it felt fair at the time. He was just livid, though.”

The last two 2K cover athletes – Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Paul George and Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving – weren’t happy with their rating either.

“Honestly, two of our biggest gripers in terms of rating have been our last two cover athletes in the year that they were on the cover,” Singh said. “There’s video of Kyrie finding out his 90 rating this year and he wasn’t happy. Last year, PG was an 89. Really, there’s very little difference between an 89 and a 90. But it’s about perception, and it means a lot to guys because it’s a round number and some guys view the 90s as the top tier. When PG found out he was an 89, he was like, ‘I don’t understand…’ Both Kyrie and PG asked, ‘Doesn’t being the cover athlete give us a bump? Shouldn’t we be higher?’ That didn’t stop them from being extremely cooperative and loving the game, but we did hear from those guys.”

While players would never admit this publicly, some have gotten mad when a specific teammate is rated higher than them in the game. Players are extremely competitive and they know their teammates’ game better than anyone, so it frustrates them when they wholeheartedly believe that they’re the better player but have a lower overall rating.

In one instance, an Eastern Conference player recently direct messaged Singh on Twitter campaigning for his 2K18 rating to be higher than his star teammate because he’s been dominating offseason workouts and pick-up games.

Another player who feels underrated on 2K each year is Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. He admitted that he’s complained to the 2K staff in the past, but said he doesn’t take it too seriously since “it’s just a game.”

“I’m always lower on 2K than I am in real life compared to other players,” Gobert said. “But it’s always fun to see the rating.”

“He has a big chip on his shoulder about not making the All-Star team and he says to me a lot, ‘I’m basically an All-Star, so shouldn’t I be rated like one?’” Singh said of Gobert. “Center is tough. On defense, he really excels, but his offensive game and durability weren’t where he wanted them to be [in the game]. The sky is the limit for him, though. This year, he really has an opportunity to make a big leap forward and show what he can do since Gordon Hayward is gone. Rudy will be the focal point and it’s up to him to shine. If he does, his rating will reflect that.”

Gobert has also taken issue with the Jazz’s ranking in the game, which Singh understood.

“I talk to Rudy a lot – he’s awesome – and he actually had a legitimate gripe last year because we had Utah ranked, I think, 23rd overall and they were the fifth seed in the West,” Singh said. “It was understandable why he was upset and it’s something we updated during the year.

“A lot of guys bring up the team ratings; it’s not just the individual ratings that we hear complaints about. At the wedding reception, Harrison brought up Dallas’ team rating. He was like, ‘The team rating is really where we get hosed.’ I was like, ‘I’m pretty sure you guys were the third-to-last team in the West, though.’”

After the Golden State Warriors won their first championship, Klay Thompson expressed frustration that the San Antonio Spurs were ranked as the No. 1 team in the game. Eventually, Golden State moved to No. 1 after an update. Last year, Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond and Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns also made it clear to Singh that they felt their team was rated too low at certain points in the season.

Some players say they couldn’t care less about their rating, but it seems they’re in the minority.

“I can’t say I’ve looked at my 2K rating in about 10 years,” Philadelphia 76ers shooting guard JJ Redick said. “Although I did come across my digital likeness from NBA Live a couple years ago and it made me look like a drunk meth addict (laughs).”

“Honestly, I really don’t care,” Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard said. “I’ve become less and less consumed with the credit that I’m given. I think 89 is a solid rating. But I should be up there with the best at my position.”

Lillard did give a lot of credit to the game’s designers: “That’s the best I’ve ever looked on a game, bro. It looked great.” (Considering Lillard was the cover athlete for NBA Live 15, that’s very high praise.)

Even if a player doesn’t keep track of his rating or play the game, he will likely hear about it at some point from a friend, relative or fan. Brooklyn Nets forward Trevor Booker said he learned about his rating in last year’s game because kids at his basketball camp kept asking him about it.

Some of the players who care a bit too much have tried to influence the 2K staff to boost their attributes. Some will offer favors like promoting the game. On the other hand, some will threaten to boycott the game or refuse to cooperate with things behind the scenes like face scans unless their rating is adjusted. Either way, the 2K staff doesn’t budge when players try these tactics.

“We’re pretty good about the separation of church and state,” Manning said. “We won’t mess with the integrity of the system like that. Players can try to influence us all they want, but we’ll remain unbiased.”

“The ratings are strictly about on-court performance,” Singh said. “It’s really that simple.”

“Our ratings expert, Michael Stauffer, isn’t biased in any way,” Manning said. “There’s a complex formula that goes into creating each player’s overall rating. And as more and more data becomes available in real life, they alter the formula and use that information to make these ratings even more accurate. For example, the NBA introduced hustle stats, which track things like screens, deflections, charges and contested shots for each player. When the NBA releases new information, those are the kind of things that we’ll add into the formula and that will impact each player’s overall rating.”

***

So how does Stauffer come up with each player’s rating?

“There are about 50 individual attributes that make up a player’s overall rating,” Stauffer explained. “There’s this myth that I just pick a player’s overall rating; some people think I just look at, say, Kevin Durant and decide, ‘Hmm, Kevin Durant’s overall rating is a 96!’ No. I’m entering in about 50 individual attributes and there’s an overall formula that factors those in along with things like position and player type and that’s what determines these overall ratings. Some people will say, ‘Hey, he should be a 93! How can he be a 96?’ The answer lies in the individual attributes.

“We try to make the individual attributes as accurate as possible by watching a ton of games and clips to evaluate each player. We’re watching games and clips every single night. We also mine through stats – and there are so many statistics and advanced analytics available these days, even compared to just five years ago. We have more information than ever these days, so it’s important that we get this right.”

Throughout the season, player ratings increase or decrease depending on how an individual has been performing in real life.

“We’re always re-evaluating a player and their skills; it’s a year-round process,” Stauffer said. “We work really hard to make the game as realistic as possible. There’s always that debate about how many games during a specific stretch a player has to do well in before seeing their attributes increase. We talk about sample size a lot. If he has just one good game, he may not get bumped up. But if we see it over the course of a week or two – which is basically a five-game stretch – then they’ll likely see an increase. We try not to make knee-jerk reactions based on a small sample size.”

Stauffer admitted that it’s easy to decide when a player’s rating should increase because they will likely be getting a lot of mainstream attention for their strong play. Some players are their own advocate too, messaging Singh, Manning and Stauffer their stats and highlights to push for a ratings boost.

However, it’s tougher to determine when (and how drastically) to lower a player’s rating if they’re struggling during the season. Typically, Stauffer gives the player a chance to play their way out of a slump before their rating decreases. Also, he tries to take things like injuries, an adjustment to a new team or fewer minutes into account before he drops a player’s individual attributes.

When it comes to midseason changes, there are other factors that Stauffer tries to account for too such as the strength of the competition or how efficient a player has been when posting strong stats.

“You do have to take those things into consideration, and that just goes back to watching games and clips to see a player’s true impact on the court [and understand the context],” he said. “You do have to look at certain things like the competition the player faced or, say, who is on the court with them and how that impacts their production. Those are certainly some of the things that make this job more difficult, but it’s fun too. I like looking into that kind of stuff.”

When asked whether he cares about his 2K rating, New York Knicks shooting guard Courtney Lee smiled and said, “I’m a role player, so I don’t expect the 2K people to worry too much about my attributes.”

However, Stauffer enjoys working on role players and accurately depicting them is extremely important to him. While the ratings he assigns stars may receive the most attention, role players make up the bulk of NBA rosters so getting those individuals’ attributes right significantly affects whether the game-play feels realistic. Also, many role players find it surreal that they’re in the game and it’s not something they take for granted. Stauffer knows this and he wants every player – even the last man on each bench – to be able to have a fun experience when they pick up a controller and play as themselves.

“I take a lot of pride in getting the role players and fringe guys right,” Stauffer said. “I try to look at it from everybody’s perspective. If I was an NBA player, I’d want my abilities to be accurately reflected in the game – whether I’m a star or a role player. When the league became more specialist-oriented a few years ago, we actually added seven different overall-rating formulas per position. So now, a player’s attributes may be put through an overall-rating formula specific to their position and style of play like, say, defensive point guards or outside-shooting small forwards. I think that’s allowed us to rate some of these role players more accurately.

“It’s certainly more challenging to get those guys exactly right because they play fewer minutes, so there’s less film and statistics available, but that’s where we’ll rely on specific clips and things like that. It’s very important to me, though. I want every single player to be able to play 2K as themselves and feel like they’re properly represented. At the end of the day, everybody feels that their rating should be a little bit higher, but we take a lot of pride in being as accurate possible.”

As Stauffer mentioned, most players feel their overall rating is a bit low or they’ll have at least one issue with their attributes. For example, Lee pointed out that his outside shooting was a C- last year even though he shot 40.1 percent from three-point range. Like Singh and Manning, Stauffer occasionally receives complaints from players. When a player feels an attribute is inaccurate, Stauffer will hear them out and look into it.

“Look, if a player makes a strong case for why one of their individual attributes should be higher, I will re-evaluate the film and stats to see if I might have been a little bit off,” Stauffer said. “I do take those things into consideration. They’re the experts here; I’m obviously not an NBA player so it does help me to talk to some of these players and get their thoughts. But typically we’re confident in what we have because of amount of work we put in to get it right.”

“We’re pretty firm,” Singh added. “There have been times where a player – or even a number of fans – have made a really good case so we’ll re-assess something, but changes don’t happen based on that very often.”

Oftentimes when a player expresses frustration over something, all it takes is Stauffer explaining what goes into determining an overall rating or specific attribute and the player will back off once they have a better understanding of the process.

“When I talk to players, I just try to explain that the overall rating is largely based on their individual attributes, so I’ll discuss those with them,” Stauffer said. “I may point to a certain attribute and say, ‘You’re an 84 in this,’ and they may feel that they should be higher. But then I tell them that they’re actually the second-highest in that attribute among players at their position and then they’re like, ‘Okay, that makes a little bit more sense then…’ It’s all about context.

“Players sometimes find me through social media and reach out or I’ll have a chance to talk to players when they visit the 2K office. I honestly do feel bad if a player feels that they aren’t being represented properly. But I’ve come to learn over the years that very few players will say, ‘My rating is right where it should be,’ or, ‘My rating is too high.’ It’s natural for these competitive, confident players to want their rating to be higher than it is.”

Stauffer can only think of one instance of a player admitting that they were rated too high in the game. During a question-and-answer session through The Indianapolis Star in 2015, Indiana Pacers big man LaVoy Allen was asked about his 75-overall rating in the game and gave a surprising response.

“It’s way too high,” Allen said through the outlet’s Twitter account.

“Lavoy Allen is the only player I’ve ever seen or heard of who said that his rating is too high,” Stauffer said with a laugh. “He may have been joking. But, as far as I know, he’s the only player who’s said that.”

Current players who feel their rating is too low must keep in mind that NBA 2K now includes all-time greats, which has significantly impacted the rating process. Now that the game features legends like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson among others, today’s players are judged on the same scale as those iconic players (whereas they were previously just being evaluated against their current-day peers). When these Hall of Famers were added to the game, overall ratings for most of today’s players dropped.

“A couple years ago, we made the switch to a Hall of Fame scale since we have so many historic players in the game now; it just felt wrong having some of the higher ratings that we did in the past because that means you’re putting players on the same level as these legends,” Stauffer said. “Across the board, we definitely lowered the ratings a bit in recent years because we take that into consideration.”

“You now have Michael Jordan as the benchmark for a 99, which is something to think about when considering ratings,” Manning said. “When we tell a player his rating and it’s something like 89 overall, they may think, ‘Man, I’m not even in the 90s?’ But you have to think about where someone like Gary Payton falls compared to someone like Damian Lillard or where Jordan falls compared to today’s shooting guards. Is LeBron James a 99? Because that puts him on the same level as Jordan. That’s the kind of thing that our ratings team has to consider now.”

***

While ratings elicit the strongest reaction from players, they do care about their in-game appearance too – especially now that 2K’s graphics have improved to the point that the design team can be extremely precise with features.

“Before, artists were working to create these players to the best of their ability, but now we’re talking about photo-realistic graphics with face scans,” Manning said. “Now, if you’re a player who doesn’t do the face scan, you sort of stand out in the game since everyone else looks so realistic. These days, players expect accuracy because they know what the technology is capable of in terms of getting the features so precise. Every player plays like himself and looks like himself. We try to get every detail right, down to the smallest things like a guy having stretch marks on his arms or how a player releases the ball when he shoots. Getting Lonzo Ball’s unique shooting motion, for example, is something that we wanted to get right in this year’s game and I think our team did a great job.”

NBA players are much more visible than other professional athletes; you get to see each player’s face and tattoos and accessories,” added Ryan Peters, who handles NBA 2K’s public relations. “Fans are so familiar with each player’s appearance and how they play, so we have to make sure we’re as accurate as possible. That means when Mike Conley changes his haircut, we have to update it the game. That’s something we’re working on right now. If we don’t do those things, we’ll get slammed on Twitter.”

For the most part, every player that talked to HoopsHype was complimentary of the game’s art.

“They have the graphics looking crazier and crazier each year,” Turner said. “It’s amazing.”

“I think they do a great job on each player’s appearance,” Nance Jr. said.

The only complaints were minor. For example, Minnesota’s Towns was happy with his 91-overall rating, but he did have an issue with how skinny he looked in the game.

“Why do I look malnourished?!” he jokingly messaged Singh.

Towns isn’t the only player who was frustrated his bulked-up body wasn’t on display. Gobert said he “was too skinny in the last game.”

Whether it’s individual ratings, team rankings or in-game portrayals, players may find little things that they disagree with, but there’s no question that the game has a come long way in terms of overall realism in recent years. It seems players have such a strong reaction to the game because it’s really important to them. NBA 2K has become part of basketball culture, and many of these players grew up playing it in the limited free time they had after school, during the summer and on AAU road trips.

Because they grew up with NBA 2K, it’s no surprise these young players want to be depicted as accurately as possible once they’re finally in the game. Seeing their likeness in 2K is a lifelong dream for many players in this generation – something on their bucket list, just like getting a college scholarship or being drafted by an NBA team.

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