PEGI rating board explains why it didn’t flag NBA 2K20 as gambling

It is no surprise that neither of the two big ratings agencies — North America’s ESRB and Europe’s PEGI — flagged NBA 2K20 for gambling, simulated or otherwise. PEGI nonetheless explained its reasoning to someone who complained.

The tl;dr is that PEGI says its gambling content descriptor doesn’t apply because the mini-games involved in NBA 2K’s MyTeam mode — whose promotional trailer on Monday was chock-a-block full of wheel spins and slot machines — don’t actually “encourage and/or teach the use of games of chance that are played/carried out as a traditional means of gambling.”

The reply from PEGI to the writer (Eurogamer confirmed with PEGI the reply is legitimate) goes into greater detail, and acknowledges that the agency had “seen the announcement trailer of NBA 2K20 and noticed the controversy it has caused.” However, the board’s representative noted that “the controversial imagery played a central role in the trailer, but it may not necessarily do so in the game, which has not yet been released.”

PEGI is correct that this isn’t gambling, per se, in that nothing is really wagered in the slot machine, wheel of fortune and pachinko mini-games, and whatever is won has value only as game content. These are basically drawn-out reveals of a dice-roll reward; the wheel/slot spins and ball drops are earned through gameplay and can’t be bought, so nothing is really “wagered.” PEGI’s only relevant content descriptor is “gambling,” and games with it are rated PEGI 12 or higher.

But for the ESRB, these mini-games aren’t even “simulated gambling.” In its rating summary for NBA 2K20, the game’s only content descriptor is “mild language,” as apparently the words “hell” and “damn” are in some dialogue (or the lyrics of a song). The ESRB could have, but didn’t, apply one of two descriptors for these minigames: Real Gambling and Simulated Gambling. Real means “Player can gamble, including betting or wagering real cash or currency.” Simulated is “Player can gamble without betting or wagering real cash or currency.”

While the ESRB is an independent unit, it’s also an industry creation (set up by the Entertainment Software Association 25 years ago next month, in fact). And the industry’s position, per the ESA, is that these kinds of card packs and mini-games in sports video games’ card collection modes, and loot boxes in other games, are not gambling because nothing of value is wagered and the rewards can’t (or aren’t supposed to) be exchanged for money. So when the industry here says these things are not gambling, the industry’s ratings board agrees that they’re not even simulated gambling.

It would be remarkable if the ESRB rated games more strictly against its parent organization’s position. But I’ve reached out anyway to see if someone has further explanation for how the board views NBA 2K20 whose video makes a rather blunt presentation of casino-style gaming. The other thing to consider is that NBA 2K is hardly the only sports series with randomized rewards tied to a specialized mode. So if the ESRB or anyone flagged NBA 2K20 for “simulated gambling,” Take-Two Interactive would not only fight it, it’d expect the same label to go on EA Sports’ games, and possibly MLB The Show and Pro Evolution Soccer for good measure. That’s four big publishers and a big can of worms to open over one trailer.

PEGI says as much: “We are very aware that it may get too close for comfort for some people, and that is part of an internal discussion that PEGI is having for the moment,” they wrote. “The games industry is evolving constantly (and rapidly in recent years). As a rating organization, we need to ensure that these developments are reflected in our classification criteria. We do not base our decisions on the content of a single trailer, but we will properly assess how the rating system (and the video games industry in general) should address these concerns.”

Interestingly enough, the trailer posted by 2K Games’ United Kingdom YouTube account has since been taken down. It’s still live on the main NBA 2K YouTube channel.

NBA 2K20 launches Friday, Sept. 6 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.

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