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NBA 2K23 Jordan Challenge.

NBA 2K23 Jordan Challenge. (NBA 2K23/TNS)

I’ve spent several weeks playing NBA 2K23, and I’ve started a franchise at least eight different times, using no less than six different teams. Each time, I find myself quitting after just a few games — mostly because I decide I want to try something else. Mostly, because there are that many compelling combinations.

Mostly because I’ve never played a sports game quite as painstakingly well-crafted as NBA 2K23. The latest game in 2K’s long-running basketball game series is indisputably the finest sports game ever made, and it’s a love letter to the most ardent basketball fans and sports historians.

And it’s all because of the incredible detail that developer Visual Concepts packs into every part of the game. NBA 2K23 is a undertaking in a different way than most sports games, which essentially tout tiny iterative adjustments each year. Instead of doing that, 2K23 rethinks why you play a sports game, creating a framework that lets every sports fan lead the league in any fashion they choose.

The centerpiece of all of this is the NBA Eras mode, which replaces your current franchise — or rather, includes (but is not limited to) a classic franchise mode. Instead of simply letting you take the helm of any NBA team of your choosing (standard franchise-mode stuff), NBA Eras lets you take the helm of any NBA team of your choosing in one of four different eras. Run the Bulls in the 1980s, just before Michael Jordan (the legendary cover guy of this legendary NBA game, by the way), or grab the Magic of the 1990s, or play as the Seattle Supersonics of the 2000s, before they headed for Oklahoma City. (You can also start a traditional franchise in 2022, of course, if you’re a sports gaming purist.)

This mode is made even more exciting and immersive by the details placed into it. Each era has era-specific rules, outfits, and courts — and even a unique style of play. Start a franchise in the 1980s, and you can expect fewer three-pointers. Start in the '90s, and you’ll see longer shorts. Watch as teams rebrand and move to different cities — or veto those moves and keep hand-checking and change the course of the league.

It’s a blend of RPG qualities from running a team, and world-building as you manage like Adam Silver, and it’s all wildly accurate thanks to the most realistic (and deepest) rosters you’ve ever seen. NBA 2K (and other sports games too!) have mixed in all-time greats and all-time teams for a decade or so, but, especially in NBA 2K, the players on those rosters routinely fell short. You’d get a 1992 Chicago Bulls team or 2001 Lakers team with four or five fake players, and while you might have fun playing as a classic team, when David Johnson came off the bench, it would break your immersion just a bit.

That’s far less of a problem because whoever builds the rosters in NBA 2K23 went the serious extra mile. Miles, actually. To make the Eras plan work, you need nearly-complete rosters; getting the greats and key role players from an era is half the fun. And NBA 2K23 works hard to deliver. Such luminaries as Tyus Edney (a smurfy UCLA guard drafted by the Kings in the '90s), Earl Boykins (the 5-foot-5 guard out of Eastern Michigan), and Marcus Fizer (a failed early-round Bulls pick in the days after MJ) are all in here. There are still a few glaring roster omissions (Reggie Miller among them, and it’s a shame Chris Webber isn’t here for the first time in years), but, by and large, the players of the era are captured in addition to the feel.

The entire experience plays out with only minimal bugginess: The game still adds in randomly generated players as your franchise wears on, breaking your immersion (or leaving you to correct the problem as you go), and, oddly, you can’t turn off the G League in the middle eras. But these issues are largely minor; point blank, this is the most robust sports game ever, no matter how you play it.

This immersion translates beyond Eras mode too, into the Jordan Challenge. It’s been years since 2K built a Jordan Challenge, a series of iconic moments from the NBA’s preeminent legend, Michael Jordan, that you play through. And the current generation of consoles is built for this. Again, era-specific details shine, and in vast moments, you’ll get goosebumps. No sports game has ever chased this much detail. And no sports game has delivered on those fronts quite this robustly, either.

Even more impressive is that this framework comes as 2K continues to improve its on-court game. On the floor, the title plays much as you know and love, but 2K continues to tweak things for realism. The biggest addition this year is an “adrenaline” boost concept: In addition to a standard energy meter, each player also has 3 “boosts”. These turbo-charge your speed, but at a cost: Use them all up, and your players energy will drain ultra-fast. This should keep players from spamming turbo for an entire game, although it’s also not fully balanced: Every player, regardless of position, gets three speed boosts. Long-term, you hope this is altered so lumbering big men don’t get the same boost power as, say, Allen Iverson or Ja Morant.

The game also throttles back on the three-point shooting this year, with a slightly tweaked shot meter. The new meter definitely rewards skill even more, and it can be customized so you have to time your shot stick release either early or late. It’s precise enough that you won’t hit as many 3s with questionable big men, but at times it’s almost too precise. Meanwhile, the post game gets a boost; spin moves and dropsteps feel a bit more natural and useful in 2023.

And in 1993. And 1983. Because NBA 2K23 has all those eras, too. This is, quite simply, the finest sports game ever made, a game that rethinks what a sports game can be – and will keep you entertained for an impressively long time. If you can avoid constantly restarting and rethinking your dream franchise, that is.

Platforms: Xbox platforms, PlayStation platforms, Nintendo Switch, PC

Online: nba.2k.com/2k23

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