The basketball game’s art team designed and rebuilt its players from scratch, making it look very astonishing and visually polished. Here’s how it’s done.
For a while now, NBA 2K has been the gold standard for sports games over the years, and it just raised its standard again. Screenshots of NBA 2K18 players with their rankings are being shown ahead of its September 19 release. When I first saw it, I was so surprised, and I thought to myself “how in this world did they make it look this realistic?”
Steve Noah of the gaming site, Operation Sports posted a few shots of player models from last year’s game and compared them to a couple of player models for 2K18. I won’t call this a mere improvement, to me, this is a next generation console jump.
Player likenesses are captured by a self-powered mobile scanning RV from Pixelgun Studio. It is made up of 146 Canon cameras, which are updated as new cameras are being manufactured, and it can capture ultra-high detail facial scans and also player tattoos with up to 16,000 textures.
The 2K team captures different facial expressions. They refused to disclose what they call their “recipe” of expressions, but they did reveal a few of them, like the one which they call a “scrunch face,” where they maximise the compression to be able to get every single wrinkle on a player’s face. The “dunk face” is also known or popular. If a player possesses a signature expression, the team will also get it.
2K even scanned Steph Curry virtually with his mouth guard in so they could render the way his lips would form around it when he chewed on it, or when it was positioned up or down inside his mouth. Every single detail matters.
Every player cannot get scanned each year because they have hectic schedules, but 2K has a library of player scans that it has gathered over the years at very high resolutions.
“We went back to scan data, and we doubled the resolution of the face, and it was a ton of work,” says NBA 2K18’s Art Director Anton Dawson. “It allowed a lot of these likenesses to pop a lot more, and it’s a subtle thing, but it helps. Every little wrinkle and every little form that you can eke out help.”
The art team at 2K rebuilt player faces completely, with a higher resolution base mesh to handle more detail for forms on the face that are rounded like the ears, or the side of the nostril.
“When you strip down and go back all the way to rebuilding the face from scratch and having a new model, it gives you a chance to revisit a lot of things,” Dawson said.
The team at 2K wouldn’t say which of the players revealed so far were brand new scans against models improved from their library of scans, although most of the early comparisons look like the latter.
NBA 2K18m didn’t just rebuild only the faces; it also rebuilt the bodies, the jerseys and the accessories. There were just six body types assigned to players in last year’s game. Someone might be a “skinny” body type or a “beefy” body type, but when a player is matched with a body type that wasn’t right for him, it tends to change the way their face looks resulting to a disconnection.
The 2K team created a new body system which ensures that every player model is unique. There is no more fixed template. “The number of body types is infinite because it’s not binary,” Dawson said. The team can control proportions, wingspan, thickness and precise anatomical details individually so that every player model will be unique.
Nike is the new global partner for apparel with the NBA this year, and the 2K team made use of handheld laser scanners to capture a 10 million polygon mesh of the actual uniforms. It grabbed every tiny detail, ranging from perforations in the jersey, the size of the jersey font, the size of the number, the stitching, the thickness of the piping and the border size from the stripe to the edge of the jersey.
2K also separately scanned the jerseys to capture its true colours. “It was important for us to separate the colour of a jersey into diffused colour and reflected colour,” Dawson said. “We used a technique called cross-polarization to separate those two layers, and then we were able to sample the colours by breaking out diffused colour and reflected colour. The way it reads to your eye when it’s all put back together, the colour just looks exactly like the colour. The team colours have been spot on. That’s been something we’ve just been chasing for so long,” Dawson said.
The 2K team created unlimited body models, so of course, they had to make endless jersey shapes. The manner that a jersey and shorts fit a player’s body is also unique. The cloth of every jersey will simulate differently depending on how big their chest is and their body model beneath it.
Just like the players and the jerseys, over 200 shoes were also scanned. Signature accessories like arm sleeves were also rescanned for 2K18.
2K sports confirmed that the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X would be able to play NBA 2K18 at 60 frames per second (fps) in 4K with full HDR. Then the regular PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will run at 60 frames per second (fps). Some outlets said that 2K18 makes 2K17 look like crap.
“We haven’t seen those comparisons until this week of 2K17 to 2K18, and we’ve just been living with 18 for so long. It’s been gradually improving and gradually evolving all year, and now when I see those comparisons, I’m surprised. They are pretty striking,” Dawson says.
NBA 2K18 will be available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC on September 19.