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NBA 2K21 will include the WNBA. It’s a Start.

Female athletes and sports are nary the main attraction when it comes to sports games. But NBA 2K21 has flipped the script with 2K’s decision to put more of a focus on the WNBA and their teams in its game modes.

2K21

The WNBA is the premier women’s basketball league in the world. College and professional players from all over practice day and night to join the select few that can play the game they love for a living. Since its inception in 1997, the WNBA has been playing catchup with the NBA in more ways than one.

However, it seems as if the WNBA is starting to turn the corner: the league has seen a 68% increase in viewership in 2020 even amid a pandemic and various social justice messages. Even with all the progress the league has made, it’s not uncommon to see an inordinate number of male sports fans deriding the WNBA, be it the style of play or simply the fact that they are women.

But with NBA 2K21’s WNBA focus, the start of the inclusivity and the change needed in sports and in the video game realm is here.

For those unfamiliar, 2K is including a more fleshed-out offering regarding the WNBA for the next-gen version of NBA 2K21. This marks the second time 2K has incorporated the WNBA in a game – NBA 2K20 had WNBA players and teams. In 2K20, though, the inclusion was limited: players could only play one season with a WNBA team. 

With next-generation consoles becoming more and more powerful, 2K games will overhaul the WNBA experience for the next-gen iteration of NBA 2K21. Players will be able to create their own female “MyPlayers;” play a fully customizable, multi-season franchise mode with the WNBA; play online games with WNBA teams and more.

Although this change may seem minor, having a more pronounced focus on the WNBA and women’s sports in general is the start of something greater in the grand scheme of things. As it stands, there have been very few sports games that have included female athletes, with a bevy of them being tennis and golf games. 

But with male athletes such as the late Kobe Bryant supporting and backing women’s sports, the male-dominated sports games sphere could soon change. 

Even still, the hard truth is that even with 2K’s focus on enhancing the WNBA’s standing in NBA 2K21, some gamers just won’t be inclined to play it. Still, 98% of sports game players are men, according to Quantic Foundry. Additionally, the disparity between overall women and men gamers has worsened as well: since 2014, the percentage of female gamers has dropped from 48% to 41% in 2020. 

Not only that, whenever women’s sports are highlighted on male-dominated social media channels, those specific posts are often lousy with sexist, derogatory and misogynistic comments. More often than not, these comments highlight how female athletes aren’t as athletic, accomplished or worth paying attention to simply because they are women.

These attitudes and perceptions permeate and manifest themselves in how men – gamers or otherwise – treat female athletes and, by extension, how they receive female athletes in sports games. 

Nevertheless, if there’s one glimmer of light to be taken from the situation above, it’s that more men are beginning to call out those sexist and misogynistic comments. It’s through those subtle changes that more men will be able to accept that women’s sports and its athletes are here to stay. 

As depressing as it is to know that NBA 2K21’s improved WNBA offering and other future games that have female athletes may not get the play time that it deserves right now, these steps are paving the way for the future. As trite as it sounds, every journey begins with a single step. 

A cover for All Star Tennis ’99. Courtesy of Nintendo

The journey toward proper representation and inclusion started with All Star Tennis ‘99, gained traction with games throughout the 2000s and 2010s with the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series – among others – and now continues with NBA 2K21’s inclusion of a more-robust WNBA experience. 

Perhaps this step is one of the first for female professional esports players to get the respect they deserve as well: currently they are being accosted online and are subjected to a pay gap that amounts to 718% in favor of men. Along with Cloud9 breaking barriers with the first all-female team for Valorant, the situation is heading in the right direction. 

Who knows; maybe five years from now, female representation in sports games may finally get the attention that it deserves. Not just as a secondary addition to the game, but as the main game itself, because these women are here to stay. 

Considering how hard female athletes already work to just be seen as equal as their male counterparts, it would only be right.

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Jeff Fellenzer
Jeff Fellenzer
7 months ago

Really good piece, Jarrod! I'm going to share it with my USC "Introduction to Sports Media" class next week

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