“I will be honest, I am not a big ‘gamer,’” Union Los Angeles owner Chris Gibbs tells me over email. “Never have been.” But when the long-running NBA 2K video game franchise approached Gibbs, offering to put him inside the game along with his clothes and sneakers, he knew he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. For starters, there’s the fact that these days, NBA players spend about as much time perfecting their outfits as they do their jumpers. The chance to convert an audience of gamers into Union shoppers is another welcome side effect. But most critically for Gibbs: “I guess selfishly I was most excited about the possibility of my kids and I sharing this experience and me maybe being able to dunk on one of these fools!!!”
The opportunity for Gibbs to dunk on one of these fools is novel, but not exactly new. This is the second year NBA 2K has made a pointed effort to include folks from the world of fashion in its games. Last year, Don C and Fear of God designer Jerry Lorenzo were guinea pigs. The latter’s very-hot-in-real-life collaborative Nike shoes released at the same time real life and in the game world, where customers could shell out virtual dollars (and avoid real-life sneaker bots) to outfit their created players. This year, 2K is bringing more than 20 designers into its virtual world. Which might sound weird, until you remember the state of basketball in 2019. Making an NBA game without fashion designers is like building an aquarium without water.
“The life of a basketball player includes what he's wearing,” says Ronnie Singh, better known as Ronnie2K, who is 2K’s digital marketing director, and spearheaded the game’s fashion component. “It's part of the life, and it's part of how our fans connect with their favorite basketball players.” So, in 2K, you can play as these designers but most will probably browse their clothes in the game’s “Neighborhood” feature. It is what it sounds like: a neighborhood setting where players can join games with others, get a tattoo, make a visit to the barbershop, or buy clothes at a shop (last year’s was called Swag’s Main Street Clothing). Most importantly, it’s also a place to show off those in-game outfits.
All of the digital garms are meant to make 2K’s simulation as accurate a reflection of real life as possible. Singh spent much of last season in what he describes as the “luxurious position” of having conversations with NBA players about the designers that should go into the game. LeBron James put Singh onto Rhude, while Paul George plugged brands based in his new home of Los Angeles: Staple Pigeon and Diamond Supply. Kemba Walker suggested one of his favorite brands: Ih Nom Uh Nit. And all that gear will have a new way to be shown off: this year, NBA 2K will start showing the signature tunnel walks NBA players make in real life. Paradoxically, seeing a player wearing your gear in a video game can be even more powerful than seeing the player wear it in real life: “I sent [Ih Nom Uh Nit designer] Chaz Jordan an image of Kemba Walker wearing his clothing and I thought he was going to cry,” Singh says.
And that’s only scratching the surface. Eventually, virtual clothing collections will drop at the same time as real ones and mirror the clothes. Singh even brought influencers like Bloody Osiris and Zack Bia onto the game. This, too, is meant to reflect exactly how the hype cycle churns in real life. “Who does Drake send OVOs to?” Singh asks rhetorically. “Zack Bia.” He lays out a hypothetical situation where 2K pulls Bloody Osiris into the game to promote the release of the next Travis Scott Jordans coming later this year. “We could put out screenshots and leverage both Travis and Bloody Osiris's social media,” Singh says. “That was the concept there.”
This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds: last year, 2K released a pair of Travis Scott’s Nikes and, just like in real life, they became the simulation’s hottest sellers. And while Singh likes that the virtual world offers fans a chance to buy a pair of shoes they couldn’t in real life, he can see a future where these digital shoe releases replicate the analog world’s frenzied drops. “For certain collections [limited releases] might make sense and if it's something that’s important to the fashion designers it's something we'd considered,” Singh says. “We do want to build urgency.”
I joke that at some point, the game could even have a virtual version of a secondary market like StockX or Goat. Singh doesn’t miss a beat. “I definitely think that’s something that’s coming,” he says. Style, whether virtual or IRL, does not come cheap.
Even a self-professed non-gamer like Gibbs understands the appeal of making a basketball game so fashion-heavy. “As hard as it might be for me to believe,” he starts, “I think the players enjoy seeing a more robust offering of gear for their avatars than just basketball clothing. It makes the game experience seem more real.”
Bridging the game and real worlds, though, comes with its own complications. If you follow the world of 2K, you might have noticed that Singh gets bombarded on Twitter, with NBA players messaging him about their clunky jumpshots or too-low ratings. Now, he’s already envisioning a world where players complain to him about their wack fits. “With this whole fashion thing, I'm sure [players are] going to be concerned with what they're wearing,” Singh says. “But just like we do with the ratings, it's watching the games that informs us on that stuff.” The only question left is: Who will be the first player with a 99 style rating?