The Designers of 'NBA 2K21' Weigh in on the Intersection of Fashion, Gaming and Basketball

On his 2010 debut album Thank Me Later, Drake rapped, “I swear sports and music are so synonymous, cause we want to be them and they want to be us.” A decade later, in a world where the intersection of mediums is more possible and prominent than ever before, this fusion of the internet, rappers, designers and ball players has created an ecosystem that allows for collaborative art and entertainment to be commercially accepted at an unmatched pace. NBA 2K21 sets the bar for cultural mashups in the world of gaming, where everybody wants to live in each other’s worlds — and there’s no place you can make that dream come to life more vividly than within the title. “My whole thing at 2K now is trying to put all of these people — fashion, music, sports, gaming and all these cultural extensions — together, and understand how we can be a platform for them,” says Ronnie 2K, the Face of NBA 2K. And as for the game itself? Well it’s truly grown into a phenomenon of its own, infiltrating the real world unlike any other franchise. For example, after a 12-block game in 2015 against the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat Center Hassan Whiteside joked that he was “trying to get his NBA 2K rating up.”

At this point, 2K has its own professional Esports league, which is backed by the NBA. Some of the league’s biggest superstars, including Karl-Anthony Towns, Damian Lillard and LeBron James, are ardent fans of the game. So are high-profile entertainers like Atlanta rappers Lil Yachty and 21 Savage. Spike Lee has directed an installment of NBA 2K‘s cinematic single-player story mode. Jay-Z once curated its soundtrack, which has run the sonic gamut from Drake all the way to U2. Now, with the addition of in-game clothing drops, top streetwear designers are injecting their own custom pieces, available through the various apparel stores in NBA 2K’s neighborhoods. The first batch of brands that will be featured in the latest edition are Mike Cherman’s Chinatown Market, Tracey Mills’s Visitor on Earth and Eric Emanuel’s eponymous label, as well as brands like Daniel Patrick, Deon Point’s Concepts, Nicky Diamonds, Palm Angels and SoleFly. In the video above, some of these designers speak to working on the game while showing off in-game footage of Tracey Mills sporting his own label Visitor on Earth, Ben Baller in Chinatown Market, Zack Bia in Eric Emanuel and Ronnie 2K in Concepts. The aspect of community has become overwhelmingly essential in the game and developers have given users opportunities to spend real money on digital currency that can be used to improve an avatar’s basketball abilities or buy virtual drip.

HYPEBEAST caught up with the face of NBA 2K21, Ronnie 2K, to discuss the latest development of in-game drops, the addition of brands like Chinatown Market, Eric Emanuel and Visitor on Earth into the game and what the future of 2K sports looks like from its position at the center of a new cultural conversation.

Do you find that today’s culture is intersected with the game of basketball like never before, when it comes to music, fashion, et cetera? And if so, why do you think that is?

Absolutely. Gaming culture, basketball and all the lifestyles between — fashion, music, et cetera — are joined at the hip. I think that’s because the players are having to tell a story about their own brands a lot more now. Every time we add a fashion brand or a musician [to the game], these NBA guys already know about them and they’re talking about it themselves. I think it’s because they’re also thinking about the way they promote their own brands through those vehicles. So it’s all very connected because everybody’s focused on personal brand building and the game, along with music and fashion, are an extremely innovative way of doing that storytelling.

Yeah everybody’s really tapped in now, it’s cool to see the players allowed to be themselves. Not too long ago, it was kind of looked down on to bring the culture aspect to the game of basketball.

Again, what’s important is for these players to tell their story and that’s why they’re using their platform in a lot of ways that includes fashion and music, but it also includes social justice too. So whether that’s racial inequality or another thing that these various players talk about, they’re trying to use their platform to change the norm and challenge the things they’re passionate about. A lot of these guys are starting to use our game in the same way, too. So when we did the Black Lives Matter initiative where we shut down the game for awhile, a lot of these guys were participating in that protest of our game, but they’re also wearing the BLM clothing before games and on the court to get that message out there as well.

I’ve told this story a couple of times, but a couple of years ago when Travis Scott was launching his album, Astroworld, he called me to help him with that a few days before they opened the basketball concert in his hometown of Houston, [Texas]. The reason that’s important is because we’re reaching the same audience at this point. I remember he had dipped in the charts right before that and then when we launched the shoes and clothing in the game and Astroworld came out that week — and he went right back to number one on the Billboard top 100 after that. I just think that gaming is a platform for these guys to story tell.

Why was it important to get streetwear brands like an Eric Emanuel, Chinatown Market or Visitor on Earth into the game?

Three years ago, we had Don C and Jerry Lorenzo kind of lead the way as our two brands. We just saw that people really liked wearing these brands in our game and trying to stand out. So then we wanted to give them more options, but we also wanted to be a platform for aspirational people in the fashion world, so you while we had Don, who’s obviously extremely built-out already, we kind of took a flyer on Chinatown Market last year — and obviously they’ve turned into a massive brand in the last couple of years. I feel the same way about Eric Emmanuel. Tracey is actually a really good example as well.

Tracey is very known in the basketball world, but his brand is not as known and we have to be aspirational and believe in his growth. I wanted to give him the opportunity to get Visitor On Earth in the game. It’s a way for these guys to see like, hey if it does well in the game, maybe I got to think about it releasing it out in the real world. That’s an innovative thought process: to leverage the digital then make the physical without having to spending a lot of money trying to find out whether it’s going to work or not. I think it’s pretty brilliant.

Even getting someone like Zack Bia into the game was in-touch.

Yeah that’s another really good example. I mean, you wouldn’t think of Zack as a traditional basketball influencer, but I kind of thought about signing him a couple of years ago because I knew that we were involving all these fashion brands. We signed a couple of guys in that world, who are known in the fashion world and not in the basketball world. If we could get them to wear stuff in games and also be a connector to their people — like Zack’s really close to Drake — it encourages the growth of fashion in the game.

Can you explain how the idea for the in-game drops came about and how they work?

We wanted to give our games the ability to express and differentiate themselves in the way any NBA player can through their story telling. Fashion has become a key component to that and, so we have partnered with the hottest names in that space to offer digital clothing options for gamers to fit on their players. We do digital drops from each of our partnered clothing brands and try to align with their corresponding physical releases when we can to be another extension for them in their marketing campaigns. The frequency depends on time of year as you’ll see more during the holidays, basketball events [like NBA All-Star] and fashion events [like Milan Fashion Week, etc.].

What do the in-game drops say about the intersection of fashion and gaming?

Fashion is so important to our gamers and so it was important for us to allow the celebration of those moments with our own in-game drops. Aligning where we can on these moments really allows them to be lifted up in culture in a new, innovative way.

Who’s getting the best tunnel ‘fits off in the game today?

I like really loud clothing. So I’m a big fan of Russell [Westbrook] and James [Harden] and some of the things that PJ [Tucker] wears. I also think lowkey the upcoming Superstar in that world is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. I’ve gotten to know him a lot recently. He’s a good kid.

Are there any other Easter eggs with regards to fashion moments in the game, new 2K merch or collaborations for the future?

Yeah I think that that’s probably the next iteration — thinking about how we connect with these brands who have had a lot of success in the digital space with us. We’ve had a bit of that in the shoe world, but partnering with these clothing brands in the future to release capsules and collections and all of that is definitely something we’re thinking about for sure.

Watch the video above that features the designers from the latest brands to enter the game — Chinatown Market, Eric Emanuel and Visitor on Earth — and head to NBA 2K‘s website to learn out more about how you can cop all of these fire fits.
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