The Friday Five: 5 Biggest Improvements in Basketball Games

The Friday Five

Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown. This week’s Five is a list of what I feel have been the five biggest improvements in basketball games over the past two decades.

After I grumbled about the current state of the preview season at the beginning of the week, we ended up getting the first NBA 2K18 screenshots, and a ton of exciting information about MyLEAGUE and MyGM. Although I stand by my comparisons to the way previews were handled in years gone by, and my point about EA Sports’ missed opportunity to keep hyping NBA Live 18, it does seem as though this year’s preview season is finally getting into gear. As I said, the news we’ve just received regarding improvements to MyLEAGUE and MyGM is exciting, and hopefully the good news will keep rolling out for both basketball games in the coming weeks.

Needless to say, for all the promising tidbits we’ll hear, there’ll be a healthy amount of scepticism. It’s understandable, because both NBA Live and NBA 2K have their own frustrating legacy issues, some of which have been bothering basketball gamers for many years. Of course, with new releases coming out every year, it can be difficult to appreciate just how much basketball games have improved over time. Even though we still have valid complaints, basketball games have indeed come a long way since their early predecessors. Let’s take a look at the aspects of basketball gaming that have seen the most progress; the biggest improvements in basketball games, if you will.

1. Physics & Collisions

Physics and collisions have come a long way in basketball games.

Even though there are old basketball games that hold up reasonably well and are still fun to play – that’s another Friday Five list that I’ll get to at some point – this is an area where they do feel particularly outdated. Way back, gaming technology simply wasn’t advanced enough to give players a realistic physical presence, from their strength and bulk to the way their bodies and limbs interacted with one another. Take a look at collisions in early games, and you’ll see they look like two cylinders running into one another. Issues such as automatically losing the ball upon getting too close to a defender, or sticking to a player and forcing them out of bounds, were common.

Game engines and technology have unquestionably come a long way over the past couple of decades, and basketball games have definitely benefitted from those improvements. It was a gradual process that began with canned two-player animations – some of which were difficult to break out of – but as the tech improved, players came to have a definite physical presence. They also now have more life-like interactions with the environment, and each other. We’re yet to see true ragdoll physics and there are still moments that feel a bit canned, but we’ve come a long way from hit-boxes overlapping, and cylinders bumping into one another.

2. Defense

Defense is an area where basketball games have improved.

The improvements we’ve seen to defense in basketball games are largely due to the aforementioned enhancements to physics, collisions, and player movement in general. In early NBA Live games, it was very easy to pick up defensive fouls when using the turbo button, as it would often result in unwanted shoving and hard collisions when you were simply trying to stay in front of your man. Without a realistic representation of the physical play that takes place in the paint, it was far too easy to blow by defenders for dunks and layups. At the same time, a lack of realistic momentum and foot planting allowed defenders to recover more quickly than they should have.

With significant improvements in those areas, good positioning and anticipating your opponent’s moves are now important factors in playing good defense, as they should be. Better differentiation between offensive abilities and skill levels has also allowed for more effective defensive strategies. There’s been more emphasis on representing the abilities of lockdown defenders, and expanding defensive controls in general. It’s possible to play tight defense, disrupting the offense and preventing a basket without necessarily having to tally a block or steal. Even though there are still issues with balance at times, defense in basketball games has improved, and is more fun to play.

3. Game Modes

MyLEAGUE Settings in NBA 2K17

It’s funny to think that a long time ago, the ability to simply play a full 82 game season followed by the Playoffs, making trades along the way if you wished, was an exciting prospect in basketball games. Of course, it’s another case of “one step at a time” and technology marching on, but the modes in early basketball games look very elementary and bare bones now. In fact, even if you only go back a decade or so, game modes have come a long way. Just take a look at the Dynasty and Association modes from around ten years ago, and compare them to what we have in NBA 2K17, or indeed, what’s in store for us in NBA 2K18. The improvement has been incredible.

Of course, even the earliest incarnations of franchise and career modes deserve credit for their innovation, and the way they expanded the experience. Obviously, there’s also still room for improvement. There are quirks with player and coach movement logic, and other problems to address in NBA 2K’s modes. NBA Live’s modes definitely still need a little more meat on their bones. Legacy issues are still present, and there are other ideas that can still be explored. However, from franchise, career, and team building modes, to content like the Jordan Challenge and NBA’s Greatest, basketball games have become much deeper experiences, with more replay value.

4. Extra Content

Michael Jordan vs. Shawn Kemp in NBA 2K11's Jordan Challenge

There was a time when simply getting complete NBA rosters (give or take a missing player due to licensing issues) was all that you’d expect of basketball games. If you were lucky, you might get custom teams, and perhaps a couple of hidden players. It makes sense when you consider that early basketball games, such as EA’s NBA Playoffs series, didn’t always include the entire league. Beginning with NBA Live 2000, however, our expectations started to change. That’s when we got Legends, and Decade All-Stars. In the years that followed, we saw FIBA teams, historical teams, Euroleague teams, and other extra content added to NBA Live and NBA 2K.

In some cases, such as the FIBA tournament, Jordan Challenge, and NBA’s Greatest, basketball games have included special modes that make use of that extra content. If nothing else, roster editing allowed us to use that content in other modes, and of course, create some fantastic mods. We’ve actually come to expect content like this to be in basketball games, to the point where a lot of gamers probably wouldn’t even refer to it as extra or bonus content anymore. Going above and beyond simply representing the current NBA rosters is considered standard practice now, especially given everything that NBA 2K has done with its historical content.

5. Post-Release Support

Tracy McGrady dunks the basketball in NBA Live 07

For all our gripes with patches that seem to break a game, or the concept of Day One patches in general, this truly is an area where basketball games have improved. Obviously, there was a time when official roster updates and patches weren’t feasible on all platforms, but even when they did become a possibility, post-release support was still generally quite limited. Roster updates were often irregular, and official fixes were both scarce and far less substantial than they are now. Now we receive regular roster updates, new art assets, and multiple patches with laundry lists of fixes. We also don’t have to create petitions and essentially beg for patches, as we once did.

Granted, this has become standard practice for video games in general. From a technical standpoint, it’s more feasible to update games than it used to be, and with the way gamers are more connected to developers through social media and forums, better post-release support is to be expected. We may not always like the changes, but in theory, basketball games can continue to be improved months into their life cycle. Tying into the previous point, in addition to rosters, we now also get new content such as challenges and special cards in the team building modes. We no longer have to wait until the next release to see big improvements, or new content.

The improvements that have been made to basketball games aren’t always apparent until you go back a few releases, but over the past two decades, the genre has indeed come a long way in many aspects. Hopefully, that trend will continue with this year’s releases, and beyond. What do you feel are the biggest improvements to basketball games over the years? Have your say in the comments section below, and feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next week for another Five.

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