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How NBA 2K18 got its insane next-gen graphics

The basketball game's art team rebuilt its players from scratch, delivering an astonishing level of visual polish. Here's how they did it.

Steph and KD
2K Sports

NBA 2K has been the gold standard for sports games for years -- and it just raised the bar... again.

Screenshots of NBA 2K18 players with their rankings have been coming out ahead of its September 19 release. The first thing I said was, "Dang! How the heck did they make it look this much better?"

Steve Noah of gaming site Operation Sports posted shots of player models from last year's game, comparing them to the handful of player models we've seen for 2K18 -- and it's night and day. This doesn't look just like an improvement, it looks like a next-gen console jump.

The Celtics' Gordon Hayward in NBA 2K17 (left) and NBA 2K18 (right).

Twitter: @Steve_OS

Player likenesses are captured by a self-powered mobile scanning RV from Pixelgun Studio. It's made up of 146 Canon cameras, updated as new cameras are manufactured, and it captures ultra high detail facial scans and player tattoos with up to 16,000 textures.

The 2K team captures different facial expressions. They wouldn't give me what they call their "recipe" of expressions, but they did reveal a few of them -- like one they call a "scrunch face," where they maximize the compression to get every wrinkle on a player's face. The "dunk face" is also popular. Essentially, if a player has a signature expression, the team will get it. 


Pixelgun Studio's mobile scanner takes a 360-degree scan of Sacramento King rookie point guard De'Aaron Fox.

2K Sports

2K even virtually scanned Steph Curry with his mouth guard in so they could render the way his lips formed around it when he chewed on it, or when it was positioned up or down in his mouth. Every detail matters.

Every player can't get scanned each year because of their busy schedules, but 2K has a library of player scans it has collected over the years at very high resolutions.

"We went back to scan data and we basically 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 helps."

Dwight Howard in NBA 2K17 (left) and NBA 2K18 (right).

Twitter: @Steve_OS

The art team completely rebuilt player faces, with a higher resolution base mesh to handle more detail for rounded forms on the face 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 says. 

The 2K team wouldn't say which of the players revealed so far were brand new scans versus models improved from their library of scans, though many of the early comparisons look like the latter.

Portland's Damian Lillard in NBA 2K17 (left) and NBA 2K18 (right).

Twitter: @Steve_OS

NBA 2K18 didn't only rebuild the faces. It rebuilt the bodies, the uniforms and the accessories.

There were only six body types in last year's game that were assigned to players. Someone might be a "beefy" body type or a "skinny" body type, but when a player is matched with a body type that isn't just right, it changes how their face looks and it caused a disconnect.

The 2K team created a new body system that makes every player model unique. There is no fixed template anymore. "The number of body types really is infinite, because it's not binary," Dawson says. The team can individually control proportions, wingspan, thickness and specific anatomical details so every player model is unique.

2K Sports used laser scanners to get every single detail for the jerseys just right

2K Sports

Nike is the new global apparel partner with the NBA this year, and the 2K team used handheld laser scanners to capture a 10 million polygon mesh of the actual uniforms. It grabbed every detail, from perforations in the jersey, the size of the jersey font, the size of the number, the stitching, the thickness of the piping and how much border there is from the stripe to the edge of the jersey.

2K also did a separate scan to capture jerseys' true colors. "It was important for us to separate the color of a jersey into diffused color and reflected color," Dawson says. "We used a technique called cross-polarization to separate those two layers, and then we were able to sample the colors by breaking out diffused color and reflected color.

"The way it reads to your eye when it's all put back together, the color just looks exactly like the color. The team colors have been spot on. That's been something we've been just chasing for so long," Dawson says.

Demar Derozan rocks the new Toronto Raptors jersey for the 2017-18 season.

2K Sports

The 2K team made infinite body models, so of course they had to make infinite jersey shapes. The way that a jersey and shorts fit to 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 underneath it.

Just like the players and jerseys, over 200 shoes have been scanned. Signature accessories like arm sleeves were also rescanned for 2K18.

Steph Curry's Under Armour shoes and ankle braces in their digital form.

2K Sports

2K Sports confirmed the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X will run NBA 2K18 at 60 frames per second in 4K with full HDR. The regular PS4 and Xbox One will run at 60 fps.

What does the NBA 2K18 team think about the online buzz? Some outlets have said 2K18 makes 2K17 look like trash.

"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 PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC on September 19.

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