NBA 2K20, the latest in the annual basketball franchise from publisher 2K, came out late last week and it’s already getting review bombed by users on Steam and Metacritic. That makes it the third year in a row that the series’ latest entry has received overwhelmingly negative user scores, with NBA 2K17 being the last release to get even a marginal rating.
Examples of review bombing in games can be found going back to the early 2010s, but the phenomenon seemed to really take off starting around 2015 when Bethesda introduced paid mods into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Angry players responded by plastering the game with negative scores. Since then, increasing numbers of players have evidently begun to see review bombing as a valid tactic, bombarding games for any number of reasons, from leaving players feeling shortchanged by going on sale shortly after release, or becoming free-to-play, to simply launching as platform exclusives. Recently, PC games signing timed exclusivity deals with Epic has led to mobs of outraged players.
In the case of NBA 2K20, the review bombing is largely a response to the game’s aggressive use of microtransactions. As of this writing, the game has a user score of 0.5 on Metacritic and nearly 85% of its reviews on Steam are negative, with most criticizing its microtransactions or calling NBA 2K20 “a gambling scheme” and “literally a casino.” Others call it out for adding too little to the previous year’s game (with some reports that it even uses the NBA 2K19 logo as a desktop icon on PC) and containing bugs.
Review bombing is often a clear response to something other than the game’s quality, but cases like NBA 2K20 make it more difficult to tell how much of the concern is legitimate. Even NBA 2K20’s marketing campaign was based around its heavy reliance on microtransactions, particularly its infamous casino trailer, but the sheer vitriol around it in user reviews calls into question whether reviewers are actually experiencing the other problems they write about or simply looking to trash the game as much as they can.
Users often use review bombing to try to punish publishers by driving down sales, but there’s conflicting evidence about whether this actually works. While the practice can obviously damage a game’s reputation - at least among potential players whose first exposure to it is through an affected storefront - that doesn’t necessarily translate to lost sales. As PCGamer reported in 2017, the creator of SteamSpy said that the publicity generated by a review bombing campaign actually increased sales for Payday 2 and Ark. Nonetheless, companies like Steam and Rotten Tomatoes have taken steps to try to curb the practice.
Whatever its effect on sales of games like NBA 2K20, review bombing does seem to poison the community to an extent. When players use review scores to take revenge on publishers rather than share opinions on a game, it diminishes the value of having user reviews in the first place and sets up an adversarial relationship between developers and players. In the worst cases, it can pave the way for harassment, abuse, and even threats against developers. It’s easy enough to ignore review bombings as a potential player, but the damage done behind the scenes can be much more serious.