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 basketball video games, the real NBA or another area of interest to our community, either as a list of five items or in the form of a Top 5 countdown.
When it comes to basketball video games, we scrutinise them as only a dedicated gaming community can. With so much to prove and several missteps over the years, the NBA Live series has certainly attracted its fair share of criticism. Most of the time, I would suggest that the criticism has been fair-handed, constructive and warranted. However, I do feel that some of the criticisms that have been directed at NBA Live and some of EA’s other NBA offerings over the years have been wide of the mark.
It’s admittedly difficult to tackle this subject without sounding like an NBA Live or EA apologist, but it’s not my intention to make excuses or dismiss all criticism. I’m also not trying to downplay the success and brilliance of the NBA 2K series, which is the yardstick for NBA sims and has produced some of my all-time favourite basketball games. With that said, here are five criticisms of EA’s NBA games that I disagree with.
1. “NBA Live isn’t a sim game.”
Before you rush to tell me all of the things that NBA Live has done wrong in terms of representing realistic NBA basketball, let me explain. To me, this is a declaration that confuses style, genre and intent with results. While a couple of titles in the NBA Live series have introduced concepts that were not great ideas for a sim-oriented basketball game, or just didn’t work out as well as intended, by and large the game has always aimed to be an NBA simulation.
NBA Live features five-on-five basketball with real NBA teams and players, detailed plays/strategic options and a multi-season mode that attempts to replicate the ins and outs of the league, to name but a few aspects that strive for realism. At the same time, it avoids elements of gameplay that are wildly unrealistic, such as dunks where players jump twenty feet in the air or the net catching fire. By definition and genre, NBA Live is – and always has been – a simulation-style basketball game. That said, when it comes to the game’s results in the areas that define simulation basketball and just how well it meets our expectations of a sim title…well, that’s a different story.
To be fair, I’m guessing that when a lot of people say “NBA Live isn’t sim”, it’s shorthand for “NBA Live isn’t living up to our expectations for a sim game”. That is of course a completely fair and accurate assessment of the series to date, one with which I’m inclined to agree. However, I have seen NBA Live classified as an arcade game, which I do disagree with. Even at its worst, NBA Live has been far more realistic across the board than games like NBA Jam and NBA Street, which are true arcade basketball games and great ones at that. It may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but I think we should call it how it is: NBA Live is a sim game, but it’s not lived up to our expectations or the standards for basketball sims that have been set by NBA 2K.
2. “NBA Live should go in a different, arcade-like direction.”
Because NBA Live has come up short in various areas that are crucial to a simulation-style basketball game, I’ve seen suggestions that EA should take the series in a different, arcade-oriented direction. I disagree with the idea, as I believe there is room and a need for an alternative when it comes to NBA sims. I’ll be coming back to that a little later on.
Furthermore, five-on-five basketball doesn’t lend itself very well to arcade gameplay. The pace of arcade gameplay and the tendency to mostly utilise a couple of players makes a regulation lineup unnecessary; those extra players ultimately just get in the way of the action. I also think arcade games need to use an art style like that of NBA Jam or NBA Street, a style that, as much as I dislike the term, I would actually be inclined to describe as “cartoonish” (though in this case, that would be a good thing). If EA were to move away from creating a sim basketball game, I believe that Jam and Street are more appropriate brands and styles to utilise, as opposed to NBA Live.
I also feel that while NBA Live has come up short as a sim game, it has too much untapped potential and has shown too much promise in some key areas of simulation basketball for it to go full-blown arcade. Pre-patch, there was some good playcalling and strategy in NBA Live 10. The partnership with Synergy Sports provides a lot of potential for creating advanced player AI. Stuff like that goes to waste if the series changes direction and embraces an ill-fitting arcade style, so I absolutely disagree that that’s the way to go. NBA Live is better off continuing to improve on the things it does well, while fixing the things it does not.
Speaking of which…
3. “NBA Live has never been any good (or done anything well).”
Now, if you want to say that the best we’ve seen from NBA Live can’t match the best we’ve seen from NBA 2K, that would be a fair comment. If you want to note that NBA 2K is the superior game and NBA Live has a lot of catching up to do, then you’re pretty much stating the obvious. But to say that the NBA Live series has never had a good concept, a well-implemented feature or a release that was fun and played a good game of sim-oriented basketball, for the time it came out? I would say that’s an exaggeration, as NBA Live has managed to get a thing or two right over the years.
Some good things have been done in Franchise and Dynasty Mode. The All-Star Weekend introduced in NBA Live 2005 was great. NBA Live 2000, 2004, 2005 and 06 on PC were good releases across the board, though they’re obviously not the current standard for basketball sims. If nothing else, NBA Live introduced right stick dribbling, something that NBA 2K has ultimately seen fit to adopt. The series has had its moments, with ideas that are worth salvaging.
Of course, that’s the frustrating thing with NBA Live. The series has had its good ideas, produced some games that were good for their time, made progress and taken steps in the right direction. However, it’s the steps backward and changes in direction that have hurt the series so much over the years, particularly this past generation. That’s the constructive criticism we should be making, rather than dismissive hyperbole.
When evaluating games in general, I believe that we lose some context as the years go by. Sometimes you’ll see the comment “I can’t believe I used to think that this was good”, particularly in regards to the graphics in older games. The thing is, at the time, it was probably a reasonable opinion. Some games don’t age well and it’s easy to forget what was once a huge step forward, particularly when more recent games in the genre have reached much greater heights. I’d throw out Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64 as a good example of that. Some of the older basketball titles – both NBA Live and NBA 2K – were definitely very good games for their day, making the most of the technology of the era. I think we lose sight of that sometimes, given what NBA 2K has been able to accomplish recently.
4. “EA Sports ruined NBA Jam.”
This is an interesting point of view that I’ve seen pop up a couple of times here and there. While there are certainly elements of the rebooted NBA Jam and NBA Jam: On Fire Edition that could have been better and everyone is entitled to their opinion…I’m sorry, but I find this one to be a baseless claim. It seems to me that those folks are judging a game by its cover, or more accurately, its developer and publisher. The assumption is being made that the EA Sports branding is a sign that the new NBA Jam games are terrible, a huge slap in the face to the classic arcade basketball games from the 90s.
I can understand why some gamers would adopt this stance. EA Sports and Electronic Arts in general have definitely done a few things over the years to earn the ire and scorn of the gaming public. In the case of the 2010 reboot, NBA Elite 11’s cancellation didn’t help matters as a lot of people seemed to get caught up in the idea that EA was trying to charge full price for something that they were originally giving away for free, even though NBA Elite 11 was in fact going to feature a very stripped down version of NBA Jam. Nevertheless, it made the game a tougher sell.
In truth, the team behind NBA Jam and NBA Jam: On Fire Edition deserve to be given their due: they made a couple of good games, indeed a great game as far as On Fire Edition is concerned. In fact, you could argue that OFE is the best NBA Jam game to date, thanks to its Real AI, online support and Road Trip mode. The 2010 reboot was a solid title but in addition to the NBA Elite 11 debacle, it suffered from drawbacks that were actually issues in the original games too. Nostalgia made us want a faithful reboot, but a faithful reboot reminded us of some of the things that we didn’t like so much. At the end of the day, EA Sports did not ruin NBA Jam; they made a couple of games that were at least as good as the originals (and in several ways, much better), making good use of a brand that hadn’t seen a great release since the mid 90s.
5. “EA Sports should just stop making NBA games.”
Once again, I can understand where gamers are coming from on this one. The quality, popularity and success of the NBA 2K series compared to the shortcomings of NBA Live and dissatisfaction with the EA brand mean that a lot of gamers feel their basketball gaming needs are being adequately met at the very least. Some gamers are simply not looking for an alternative to NBA 2K, at least not one that comes from EA Sports.
What do a lot of gamers do when a new NBA 2K game comes out, though? Call it terrible. Seethe at the bugs they find, new and old. Call the developers lazy and abuse them on social media. Completely trash the game that supposedly is so good, no one else need throw their hat into the ring. To me, it doesn’t make sense to be as unsatisfied with NBA 2K as some people appear to be, while at the same time wanting NBA Live to fail and disappear.
It’s a reflection of what I feel is an unfortunate aspect of Internet culture in general. We often revel in predicting failure, then celebrate it in mercilessly mocking fashion. We fall victim to the ugly habit of declaring that anything we don’t like or have any interest in doesn’t deserve to exist. We feel smarter and a sense of satisfaction when we say something sucks, more so than when we hold something in high esteem (better a hater than a fanboy, if you will). If nothing else, we defend and justify our choices and preferences by putting down the competition, the alternative, the opposing point of view.
When it comes to NBA video games, as long as there’s room for improvement, a different way of doing things and someone willing to invest time and money into creating a viable alternative for the consumer, I say let them try…and let us vote with our wallets.
That’s going to do it for this week. As always, I invite you to post your thoughts on this week’s topic in the comments below, as well as take the discussion to the NLSC Forum. Thanks for checking in, please join me again next Friday for another Five.