The newly released NBA 2k20 contains possibly the most egregious use of loot boxes in any video game so far. The new features for the game's MyTeam section are essentially completely randomized, thanks to its new method to gain and upgrade new players. Publishers like to say that loot boxes are not gambling but NBA 2k20 has a literal roulette wheel! It has a pachinko machine! (The very thing that the Japanese use to circumvent their own gambling laws.) It even used to have a slot machine but this had to be taken that out because it was too obvious. Or was it?
NBA 2k20 has a mode called "MyTeam," where you can build your own team using players you earn through card packs you earn. The card packs, similar to sports cards in real life, are random. You can buy card packs using real money if you don't have enough yourself to unwrap but that's not the egregious part.
Within MyTeam mode is a challenge called Triple Threat. This is where all the gambling machines come into play. When you start, you are randomly given three cards of three different players. Each card has a reward attached to it but you're not told what it is. What you need to do is play a game of 3on3 in order to win the rewards attached to the cards. This is the part that used to be a slot machine, where you would line up gems for rewards that you would now play for. However, it's still random and it's still for rewards. It's ostensibly still a slot machine.
After playing and (hopefully) winning the game, you'll get your rewards from each card. But depending on how you did in-game, you'll gain access to a vault, which will reward you directly with something else, or get an opportunity to win something else via the roulette wheel or pachinko machine. It's not subtle, it's not clever and it's not even attempting to try and hide what it is.
The Internet has reacted in a variety of ways. Many are calling this the most blatant form of loot boxes in a game to date. (See the almost 30,000 YouTube dislikes on NBA 2k's MyTeam trailer.) Sports fans defend the practices as enjoyable and only happening because people complain about them. Nevertheless, there hasn't been any word from the US government or any publishers about the controversial practice of loot boxes despite the recent outcry.
The Pan European Games Information, or PEGI, has responded to complains about the game. It ruled that NBA 2k20 does not qualify for the gambling descriptor as the game does not teach or encourage players to gamble in real life. Also, simply the act of gambling in the game is not enough as depictions of gambling for story purposes or the mechanic of selecting the option, regardless of how it looks, does not teach or encourage gambling. This does make some sense as this refers to video games in which crucial choices need to be made, such as in an adventure game like Telltale's The Walking Dead.
That being said, PEGI has acknowledged that this is getting very close to the real thing: "We are very aware that it may get too close for comfort for some people, and that is part of an internal discussion that PEGI is having for the moment." It appears that PEGI is considering that its definition of what is and what isn't gambling may be out of date. Hopefully, there will be some meaningful change with the PEGI system soon and that will cross over to the States. However, it might be a moot effort because the issue has already been dealt with.
THE FTC SUMMIT
Earlier this year, the FTC held a summit to discuss loot boxes and microtransactions in video games. Numerous special interest groups convened and pleaded their case for and against the practice. More importantly, several researchers were there as well and gave information about the consequences of loot boxes, both good and bad. Before the summit was over, the Entertainment Software Association announced that the three major console manufacturers, as well as numerous other game publishers would implement a mandate that any video game with random odds would have to disclose those odds directly to the consumer.
Not all publishers agreed to do this, such as Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite and 2k Games, who make NBA 2k20. However, since Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony have agreed to do this and are requiring all games that are published on their platforms to disclose the odds of loot boxes if the game has them, all publishers will essentially be required to do this if they want to publish their games on any console. PC and mobile will be the only place you could get away with this. This is planned to go into effect next year.
THE BIG BAD BEAST IS TAMED
With this happening, it seems like NBA 2k20 is like the last hurrah. The initiative doesn't begin until the following year, therefore, the publishers -- in this case 2k Games -- is going to squeeze as much as it can out of this practice before it becomes self-regulated. Therefore, while this is quite possibly the industry at its lowest point, we won't see it again this way. Loot boxes may still be a problem after this initiative goes into effect, but it won't be as bad as this anymore.