ESRB Responds to NBA 2K20 In-Game Gambling Controversy


My thoughts on Lootboxes are quite simple - I hate them. They shouldn't exist, that's something of a fairly simple statement from me. This is most certainly the case when these loot boxes, slot machines, whatever form they take, can be purchased using real money. In this particular case, this is all about backlash from the very gambling oriented NBA 2K20 My Team trailer and the ESRB's response to this.

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So, the backlash we're talking about in particular came from YouTuber Angry Joe, who on the 29th of August made a video regarding the trailer. Needless to say, I saw the trailer and just decided right there and then that 2K would not see a single second of my time when it comes to NBA, though I can't honestly say I find myself wanting to try it even now, despite our own Nathan giving it a score of 8.5/10.

This isn't the first response towards the backlash though. PEGI responded considerably earlier than the ESRB, a whole week ago, stating:

The trailer includes imagery that is generally known from casinos (wheel of fortune, slot machines). Using this sort of mechanic to select an item, or character, or action by chance is not the same as teaching how to gamble for money in a casino. These differences currently prevent us from applying the gambling descriptor.

The ESRB Responds

So now we come to the ESRB response to Angry Joe, which is covered in a video here if you would like to watch it. Should you not want to watch it, I will summarise the reply here, covering a number of different areas. The first area is specifically on the definition of gambling to the ESRB, in which they state:

The definition of the Simulated Gambling descriptor is partially dependent upon the presence of a wager. While we do consider how things are visually communicated, a spinning wheel by itself does not alone constitute Simulated Gambling because there is no actual gamble. Taken in context, we cannot assign a gambling-related descriptor without a "gamble"

The logical follow-up question was already asked then, stating that if you are paying for these loot boxes, slot machines - again, whichever form they take - surely by that definition, it is gambling? Not according to the ESRB response, which states:

Not quite. Random rewards have always been apart of video games and random elements alone do not mean that something is simulated gambling, regardless of how it looks. For example, we can draw a parallel to baseball cards. You purchase a pack of baseball cards without knowing the rewards, but you always know you'll receive something. There is an element of randomization there, not simulated gambling.

For the record, we know that some players do not like these mechanics, and we want to be sensitive to that. But in most cases, they do not satisfy the established criteria for Simulated Gambling and assigning it could be misleading to parents and consumers at large.

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While it is true that the trailer never shows an actual wager, a game should most assuredly be rated on its release content, not loosely provided trailers and descriptors that are custom-picked by the company to achieve a more favourable rating. I should make it clear right now that the ESRB states that a game is rated based on a video up to and over an hour-long, showing multiple aspects of the game, also with a questionnaire featuring multiple long-form questions.

It is stated that a company that misleads or lies in their video and questionnaire can be fined up to $1 million. Now, a good question here would have been to ask with such as Activision-Blizzard who have repeatedly patched in, after the rating, in-game microtransactions and loot boxes.

I would also like to make clear that the ESRB and PEGI are self-regulatory bodies and, in my opinion, are completely beholden to the industry as a whole. The ESRB is part of the ESA, the same company that recently was revealed as wanting to pay for favourable content at E3. Also, PEGI is a part of IFSE, the federation that promotes the video game industry. In addition to this, the past has also seen companies having chairpeople who were also very high up in the games companies they were supposed to be policing. For example, in 2015 Strauss Zelnick, the CEO of Take-Two Interactive, was also the Chairman of the ESRB.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the sooner governments step in and regulate this mess, the better. We've recently had recommendations by the UK parliament towards PEGI to classify loot boxes as gambling. Personally, I would simply like things to go further, with governments actually creating their own bodies, independent of the industries, to regulate the industry.