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The Ongoing Help Defense Saga in NBA 2K22 (Part 1)

NBA 2K22 help defense

NBA 2K22

The Ongoing Help Defense Saga in NBA 2K22 (Part 1)

At the end of September and rolling into October, an NBA 2K22 patch/update was instituted to mostly touch on elements not related to gameplay. However, one “fix” that was put in place had to do with how AI defenders would defend cutters coming out of the corners. This was put in place for the “comp” scene for the most part, but it seems to have had an impact on the NBA 2K22 help defense in some other ways that are at times confusing and negative.

(Also just a heads up, this article links to the forum thread on this topic as well.)

Reasons For The Patch

For those who played a lot of head-to-head games online, one general tactic (before the patch) was to pull your defender away from a non-shooter in the corner to be a roaming help defender of sorts that would “bait” passes. This is logical enough from a video game perspective but was not sound basketball logic because someone cutting to the rim is an easy dunk in real life more than it is in 2K.

There are a couple reasons real life and 2K diverge here. The first reason goes back to the “god mode” perspective you have on the video game court. In real life, you can’t see people cutting behind you on defense unless you look at them, but in 2K you don’t need to turn your head around to see someone cutting. The other reason is that while 2K passes have more speed on them than most “real” passes, there are fewer ways to pass to space in 2K than there is in real life. Your options are basically either throw an oop or throw to the player.

Due to how passing works and how you can get away with playing defense the “wrong” way, you could take some shortcuts and really play up the lane and off the corner non-shooter with no fear. However, your opponent (especially in five-out scenarios) could make those players in the corner cut (or they would automatically do it), and what would happen is the AI defenders could not recognize that the human playing off-ball was baiting a pass to that player who was cutting — the AI defender does not think the cutting player is covered even if the human does.

From here, the only logical AI help defender would usually come from the opposite corner, which generally meant some good shooter was left wide open in the far corner. In 2K, open shots (especially at the higher levels) are makes most of the time, and due to green releases, the philosophy in the comp scene much of the time is to give up twos (even if they’re in the paint) rather than threes to make it a numbers game. Again, this is sound competitive logic, but not the best basketball logic in all situations.

In essence, the AI could not keep up with what the human was thinking. I 100 percent agree with the “comp” crowd that the help defense “over helped” in the specific situation they called out because these users were still generally covering these “non-shooters” who would cut. There was no need for the opposite corner defender to overreact and slide down to help, but the AI has clear rules for player placement, and that user on defense was usually way too high up.

On top of that, there was no real way to input a “don’t leave player X” option that overrides the help principles in the game. There is not really many ways to “override” help principles even after the patch, but now the help defense is also weaker in a general sense to help stop this “bug” from occurring. I’ll let 2K developer (and long-time OS HOFer) Da Czar explain the change below.

Now, in theory, this should not have made all help defense worse, but it seems to have had that impact — just not all at once. And that’s where this confusion sort of begins. If you read through a thread that was started by OS user alabamarob (and this article also links to the thread), around October 1 the help defense seemed to take a dive. What was happening was that straight-line drives and such were now leading to almost zero help in many situations. So if you got beat on the ball, it was curtains because the help defenders just were not going into scramble mode as much.

That said, people on OS chirped up because this seemed like a “bug” of sorts because this was not just a “two passes away” issue, this was help defense in a general sense not being there. You can see some examples here post-patch from alabamarob:

What was nice is that our input seemed to be heard as the help defense did seemingly go back to normal around October 4. Again, here is a video from alabamarob after what seemed like a “fix” was put in place:

I want to point out that none of us think the help defense was “perfect” even before all these changes started taking place, but the mistakes being made were within the realm of acceptable. If the AI played perfect help D all game, it would suck just as much because a big part of the fun in a basketball game is breaking down the defense. The “mistakes” we were seeing more fell into a bucket like this one with Butler helping too much on the initial pick-and-roll action:

This gets mitigated by Duncan Robinson rotating up and Butler sprinting to guard his new man. Here is another one where Brogdon probably should not come from the weak side when the strong side is flooded. Instead, Turner should be the one who has to step up at least halfway while trying not to give up the easy pass to Bam:

But these negatives are within the realm of acceptable from a basketball sense.

Even after the patch when help defense decides to work, we’re still seeing “obvious” problems (even ones that include that corner shooter being left), but still ones I would say are acceptable:

Here the drop coverage is solid by the big, but then the corner defender helps too much. He should stunt rather than go for the full tag on the roller, and his help is late anyway because the ball handler ends up taking the ball towards the opposite side of the court. That said, the AI in 2K is not so smart that the corner shooter knows to “fill” the wing to receive an easy pass for an open three (especially if that big were to seal off two defenders on the dive) and so the defender is able to recover to the corner and contest.

Either way, the point is that after a couple days the help defense seemed to revert to not being there anymore. There was no patch, but it’s become clear either some “bug” is still in there causing an issue, or something was done by 2K to tweak the help defense behind the scenes.

Perhaps it’s worth noting at this point that one of the (somewhat) valid complaints about the defense at launch was that on-ball defense was too hard to beat (all defenders sort of felt the same in some ways). This was partly because people were just getting used to the game, and since that point we’ve now figured out more subtle ways to get around on-ball defenders. But that feeling was out there. This tied in with bigs being too fast and thus having some wild closing speeds at times to make plays.

The feeling in some circles on OS was they would have liked to put the help defense from 2K22 with the on-ball defense from 2K21. I’m not sure I agree with that entirely, but at launch in NBA 2K22 one of the real highlights of the successful launch (beyond the servers working) was that the defensive improvements really did shine.

Here is an example of the pre-patch help defense really singing from OS user EarvGotti:

This sequence is beautiful, and it’s why a lot of us were having a good time both offline against the AI and online against other people the first couple weeks. In the video, the opposite corner digs because he needs to be there for the dive, and then he recovers to his man.

The key here is that Earv is “usering” but he’s not playing free safety. He’s following standard team-defense principles and gets rewarded for it because the AI defenders understand how to work in unison with him on those rotations. Earv gets beat a bit trying to play 2-on-1 defense as the big, so the opposite corner man “digs” down to stop the dive, and then hustles back to the corner to force the drive, which then kicks the next rotation into gear and ends with solid help at the rim. That’s basketball.

However, when you throw in some of the “comp” players, you get into situations where they’re doing things that aren’t strictly “basketball” plays on defense, rather they’re video game plays. This isn’t me making a value judgment, it’s just me pointing that because you can play this game how you want the AI is not going to be able to keep up with every type of user.

This leads into a topic about game development, what issues are at play here, and some other aspects I want to touch on more below.

Game Development Is Hard

I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole, but as someone who worked in game development for three years (on sports games), I will be the first to back Czar and anyone else who says game development is both incredibly difficult and very misunderstood a lot of the time. Before I was in game development, I thought I had some general understanding about game dev and how it worked. Having been on the media side for quite a few years before going to game dev, I had spoken to enough people to get some high-level ideas about things and so forth, and so I wasn’t totally unprepared when I went over to that side of things.

That said, the hardest thing to try to explain to an “end user” is how game development might be 10 decisions you think about as a player (and that’s being generous to those who play games — no offense because it’s not your job to think about these things), but really just about every decision you make as a game developer, you need to answer about 100 questions that no one is going to even think about a lot of the time when they’re just playing a game — again, nor should they. This becomes more and more true as you incorporate AI elements and other portions of the game that all ram into each other.

I won’t belabor the point, but if you want to understand more about where Czar is coming from when he (or really any game developer) makes changes, you can watch that all here:

This is not me saying Czar or any game developer is infallible, rather it’s to say that if you think of things in the simplest terms, you’re not wrong to think that way but things are rarely that simple. For example, with this “bug” that led to the patch, the “simplest” concept would be to say “don’t leave player X in the corner no matter what” to make all parties happy. This in theory was already in the game, but many individual defensive settings do not work (at least not away from the ball), and this is not news to folks who have played the game for years. This is also one of the problems I’ll talk about more in part two.

In short, I point this out because it ties into the general aspects at play here and how I want to talk about them. I’m coming at this from the viewpoint that 2K’s AI is not deep enough or smart enough yet to handle certain things, so choices end up being made to make the best out of what’s there now. In this case, the help defense principles that are in place cannot generally be overruled by users doing things on their end. I won’t get into all the whys, but Czar explains some of them in that video, and I get where he’s coming from and what he’s saying.

With all that in mind, in part two of this feature I want to get into some of the “issues” at play here now and what could happen in the future.

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