Monday Tip-Off: Crafting NBA Live’s Comeback

Derrick Rose on the New York Knicks in NBA Live 16

We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Start your week here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games.

Last week, we received a very small snippet of news about NBA Live 17, courtesy of a brief interview with Senior Producer Mike Mahar. While we still don’t know a lot about what’s happening with NBA Live, we do know that the development team is still working on a console version of the game, and that a release is slated for the first quarter of 2017. We also know that there’s a different team working on NBA Live Mobile (thus its development does not affect the console version), and thanks to Mike’s interview, we’ve discovered that gameplay, animations, and new ways to play certain game modes have been a focus.

Of course, when it comes to future NBA Live releases, the proof will be in the pudding. After all, we’ve heard those promises before, and while the series has made progress since its rocky return with NBA Live 14, there’s still plenty of untapped potential and room for improvement. I would really like to see NBA Live get back to where it once was, and I hope that whatever EA Sports is working on right now will be a big step in the right direction. What do I consider the “right direction”? Well, here’s how I would craft NBA Live’s comeback.

Let’s start with the gameplay. When it comes to creating a realistic representation of NBA basketball, NBA Live actually does have some good tech in place as far as its AI is concerned. In NBA Live 16, the off-ball movement and playcalling is probably the best it’s ever been, shot distribution is quite accurate, and there aren’t any glaring anomalies in stats that can’t be addressed by slider tweaks, or further game balancing. Things can certainly get better, of course, but it’s a solid foundation to build on. There’s definitely a lot of stuff that’s working as it should, simply needing fine tuning and more depth rather than a complete overhaul.

Current Washington Wizards jerseys, as seen on John Wall in NBA Live 16

One of the main problems, however, is how the game looks and feels. There have been steps forward from NBA Live 14 through NBA Live 15 and NBA Live 16, but the player animations are still too robotic and not lifelike enough. The controls have also become progressively smoother, but they too remain a bit stiff. It’s a difficult task to balance realistic animations that smoothly transition into one another with responsive controls, not to mention realistic player weight and momentum. I think Visual Concepts has achieved great results in that regard with NBA 2K17 though, so I’d suggest that it’s definitely possible to make NBA Live look and feel better.

Speaking of weight and momentum, improvements to the post game and play in the paint are definitely overdue. NBA Live 16 is still a bit of a dunk fest, as there isn’t a lot of physicality in the lane. Dunks and layups are high percentage shots, but not to the extent that they are in NBA Live 16, which adds an arcade feel to a game that does have a lot of very good sim elements in its foundation. More moves in the post, more contact in the paint, and the ability to play strong interior defense that isn’t reliant on a block or steal should be key points of emphasis in future NBA Live games.

Although the perimeter and midrange game is in much better shape, it’s not just the post game that needs work. The simple and intuitive nature of NBA Live’s controls is one of the series’ strengths, but the approach also has its drawbacks. Future games need to offer manual control over certain shot and pass types: floaters, bank shots, elusive layups, bounce passes, and so on. Contextual animations are all well and good, but they can’t always be trusted, or accurately predict user intent. The aim here would be to deepen the controls with more functionality, without compromising the simplicity and intuitiveness that has worked so well for the series.

Trade Offer in NBA Live 16 Dynasty Mode

Venturing beyond gameplay and into the realm of game modes and options, there are several features and functions that are overdue to be added, especially the ones that were in previous games. One of the first to come to mind is roster editing. Official updates are nice – and vital – but it’s important that we can make changes ourselves while we wait for them, as well as create completely custom rosters if desired. It’s a staple of sports games that’s been missing and subsequently promised “next year” for a couple of games now. It’s essential that roster editing and sharing functionality return in NBA Live 17.

It’s a similar situation with game modes. The first step is adding some of the features that were in previous games, and have fallen by the wayside. The ability to edit jersey numbers in Dynasty, several stats and records screens, and rumour mills are just some of the examples that spring immediately to mind. We also need to see some long-desired features added, such as the ability to hire and fire head coaches, control over multiple teams, commissioner/league management functions, and some of the sandbox elements that NBA 2K has implemented with MyLEAGUE.

The same goes for Rising Star, Ultimate Team, and LIVE Pro-Am. The framework of some really solid and enjoyable modes is there, but there needs to be more to the experience, more to keep us hooked. While the gameplay must impress, it’s the depth of game modes, whether single player or online, that ultimately keeps us hooked on sports games. It’s what keeps us invested in a game, giving the gameplay meaning. I’ll be going into further specifics about what I want to see in NBA Live’s modes in future columns, but in short, I’d like to see them eventually achieve the same kind of depth as the modes in NBA 2K.

Karl-Anthony Towns dunks in NBA Live 16

Needless to say, that can’t happen immediately, but a few major additions and improvements would go a long way in getting game modes back on track in NBA Live. Also, while EA Sports should take some cues from Visual Concepts in this regard, they should look to do things their way, providing alternatives and being unique wherever possible. Both companies have borrowed ideas and concepts from each other over the years, and I have no problem with that. If it’s a good concept for a sim basketball game, then it’s a good idea to utilise it in some way. However, there’s also value in trying to be different, and giving gamers a distinct choice.

Beyond the quality of gameplay and game modes, beyond features and functionality, the next NBA Live’s design concepts also need to keep another attribute in mind: goodwill. Specific examples would include good pack odds in Ultimate Team, retaining the separate in-game currencies for ratings improvements and player gear, and minimising microtransactions and “pay to win” scenarios. Whether it’s rewarding the faith and trust of gamers who have supported NBA Live through the rough times, or welcoming new and returning former players alike, it’s important that everyone feels valued and respected for choosing the brand.

That brings me to one final point: why it’s important that NBA Live can make a successful comeback. I understand that a lot of gamers feel burned by the brand, either due the lack of a PC release since NBA Live 08, or simple disappointment with the product over the past couple of generations. It’s understandable that some people are done with the brand, but that doesn’t mean that other people shouldn’t have an alternative, and want to support it. However, even if you’re not personally interested in playing NBA Live ever again, its success and presence on the market is something that you can ultimately benefit from.

Kawhi Leonard in NBA Live 16

After all, not everyone is satisfied with the experience on offer in NBA 2K. Even for gamers who are happy with NBA 2K17 for the most part, an increase in content behind Virtual Currency paywalls, further encouragement of microtransactions, pack odds in MyTEAM, seemingly random banning sprees, and certain interactions with community reps have left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. Competition can keep both companies honest, bring out their best work, and cut down on gouging and other practices that don’t foster goodwill with the fanbase. If NBA Live is doing well, then NBA 2K can’t rest on its laurels or engage in shady practices, and vice versa.

Of course, there’s still a ways to go before NBA Live is significant competition and a viable alternative for most basketball gamers. NBA Live 17 can take some big steps forward however, and to do that, it needs to be an improvement across the board. It’s not just about gameplay polish, although that’s obviously extremely important. NBA Live needs to become a well-rounded product with great gameplay, enticing game modes, and a healthy amount of customisation options. A combination of well-polished basics, exciting new features, and long overdue additions should help the next NBA Live game make significant progress along the comeback trail.

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Timothy Daley
Timothy Daley
December 17, 2016 4:36 am

Great article but you really need to stop using 2k to explain what you want in NBA Live. You already have 2k so wanting Live to emulate 2k is ridiculous. Live is its own game with its own style and representation of gameplay. You are on point with just about every assessment of Live’s needs across the board but using 2k as an example of what to do is off base in my book. They don’t use the same game engine so 2k and Live will never be the same. Suffice it to say that Live needs more animations which is a given for every development cycle. It doesn’t need to be asked for b/c you get that every single year. The controls do need to expanded a little bit, but they were expanded in Live 14 and it was a developmental choice to strip some of controls out in favor of contextual outcomes. The real argument or debate if you will comes with the philosophy that Sean O’Brien implements with the extended use of contextual outcomes. For me personally, I like contextual outcomes. It makes the game look more realistic and negates awkward looking animations resulting from player errors. I am a firm believer in not having to fight the controls when playing a game, which is a HUGE reason why I have NEVER like NBA2k. NBA2k IMHO over complicates the controls and offers TOO MANY control options which I think bogs the game down. While I will agree that Live could use some well placed user controls, such as passing, Sean Obrien has explained why some things were taking out. For example user controlled shots off the glass. There is no defense for this shot so it is very much like a cheat. The same goes for the floater. Both of these were in Live 14 and were exploited heavily. EA’s philosophy is that there is a counter for everything. If you can do it on offense it can be countered on the defensive end. This philosophy has served them well and is why Live is the best defensive game of basketball where as 2k continues to be an AND 1 offensive showcase.