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Wayback Wednesday: CustomArt in NBA Live

Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1996 Mod (NBA Live 2004)

This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at CustomArt in the PC versions of NBA Live.

As I mentioned in my retrospective of NBA Live on PC, modding was a big part of what made those releases the definitive versions of the game through to around the mid 2000s. The modding scene was able to become as large and successful as it did due to EA Sports’ willingness to make the game files easier to modify. While we were never provided any official tools, changes such as the adoption of DBF files, as well as the organisation and relative consistency of the art file formats, kept the modding community productive and our Downloads database filled with great updates.

One of the most significant developments in modding was CustomArt, introduced in NBA Live 2003 PC. The feature simplified the process of installing mods, while also providing in-depth customisation options. Should NBA Live return to the PC at some point, it’s definitely a feature that it needs to have, and it would also be great to have it natively supported in NBA 2K PC as well. Let’s take a look back…way back…

Although the tools to modify art files were around at the turn of the millennium and helped spark a modding boom during the era of NBA Live 99-NBA Live 2001, the process of installing mods could be quite fiddly. Although there was a precursor to CustomArt in NBA Live 2000 and NBA Live 2001, it wasn’t well known or widely used. Installing mods tended to involve importing new textures directly to the VIV archives, where they would overwrite the original files. While this process could be automated with batch files, the main problem was that uninstalling a mod required the restoration of the original files; a hassle if you had several mods applied.

CustomArt Made the 1996 Season Mod for NBA Live 2004 Complete

Following NBA Live’s return to the PC platform with NBA Live 2003, a new solution came in the form of CustomArt. While it was still possible to import new art files and overwrite the originals, it was no longer advised. CustomArt involved creating folders in the render (game art) folder and placing custom files inside, where they would be loaded instead of their equivalents in the VIV archives. It was necessary to name the files and folders correctly, matching the names of the VIV archives and the respective files within them, but it wasn’t a complicated process. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, EA even provided us with a guide to the filenames and folder formats.

In other words, CustomArt provided the same functionality that the various modded folder plugins do for recent versions of NBA 2K on PC, the main difference being that it was much more detailed, and of course, available out of the box. Well, sort of. CustomArt was actually disabled by default in NBA Live 2003 and NBA Live 2004, with users being required to edit a configuration file to enable it. It was a quick and easy process however, only requiring Notepad and the ability to locate the file. It’s a file that could be safely distributed as well, which meant that the more tech savvy users could share pre-edited config files to save their fellow gamers time and effort.

The depth and organisation of the CustomArt functionality allowed for very specific customisation. For example, a CustomArt folder for a player not only allowed new faces to be added, but also player-specific shoes, gear, and even uniforms. This was often used to create complete player updates that included custom practice gear, but it could also be used to assign players their own unique jerseys that would be worn in NBA games as well. The NBA Live Street 2003 mod stands as a great example of the technique being put to use, though it was handy for any concept that required players to wear their own individual jerseys.

NBA Live Street 2003

It was also much easier to uninstall, swap, and mix and match mods. The process was as simple as deleting files and folders, or just overwriting previously installed mods as necessary. There were a few drawbacks, of course. If the names of the new folders, subfolders, or files were inaccurate, the game would not recognise that they were present and therefore not load them. If you were new to modding, the process of creating and properly naming the folders could be confusing; especially if you didn’t read the instructions (or no instructions were present). Additionally, it was common for novices to miss the crucial first step of enabling CustomArt in the config file.

EA ended up simplifying the process further in NBA Live 2005 through NBA Live 08. Although the basic concept of CustomArt remained, users no longer had to create appropriately named subfolders. All custom art files could be placed in the main art folder, now called sgsm. CustomArt was also enabled by default, so there was no need to edit any config files. This simplicity came at a price, however. Since the game no longer supported individual player art folders, it wasn’t possible to assign players assets such as unique jerseys, at least without more complex workarounds. While this was a drawback, it didn’t hurt modding too much, and it was worth the ease of use.

I can’t overstate the importance of CustomArt, and I stand by the assertion that it’s one of the biggest developments in the history of our modding community. It not only facilitated the creation of some fantastic mods, but made them less of a hassle to both create and use. The ability to easily swap files in and out not only made installing mods quicker and easier, but it saved time when testing them during their creation. There was less fiddly stuff to learn and teach for modders, as well as less complicated instructions for users. Crashes were less likely, and we generally didn’t need to restore from backups due to the ability to overwrite or simply delete custom files.

Kawhi Leonard in the 2012/2013 Roster for NBA Live 08

CustomArt also represents a willingness to work with the community in order to make modding an easier and more accessible task. A lot of games are far more difficult to mod than NBA Live was, and the official patches for certain titles often cause issues with older mods and tools. Even without official tools to work with, we were able to do a lot with NBA Live on PC, thanks to DBF files and features like CustomArt. Sure, there were still limitations, but NBA Live’s roster files were very modder-friendly. Once CustomArt came along, we had similar flexibility with the art files, with a much lower risk of messing things up, and a few nifty customisation hacks.

Sadly, with NBA Live currently being a console-exclusive release, there’s no modding capability in the latest games. Old favourites are still being updated though, putting the old techniques and CustomArt functionality to good use. As for NBA 2K, while our community has done its best with the previous and current generation games, the fiddly nature of replacing art files reminds me of the issues we once had with NBA Live. Although the community-made plugins are effective, it’s not the same as having native support. CustomArt is a feature that would be great to have in future releases, but as it stands, it was one of the best things that happened in PC basketball gaming.

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