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. This week, I’m tipping things off by pondering the question: can NBA Live be relevant again?
As a long-time basketball gamer that grew up with NBA Live, it gives me no joy to dump on the franchise. I believe that there are content creators out there who delight at the series’ struggles and subsequently ripping into it, but I’m certainly not one of them. For all the great things that NBA 2K has done, the slips in quality here and there, and of course the increased focus on microtransactions, demonstrate why it’s important to have choice and competition in the basketball gaming space. Some say NBA Live should just pack it in, but frankly, we need it, and we need it to succeed.
Unfortunately, that’s much easier said than done. NBA Live has struggled to get to where it needs to be over the past decade. Again, it brings me no joy to say that, nor do I relish pointing out that not only has its quality suffered, but so has its relevance. Indeed, a friend of mine who isn’t really into basketball, but picked up NBA 2K20 on special after watching The Last Dance, mentioned he was surprised that EA Sports doesn’t have a new basketball game out. It’s not surprising that someone who isn’t into the scene doesn’t know the full story behind the fall of NBA Live, but nevertheless, it speaks volumes about its relevance today. The question is: can EA change that?
It is, to say the very least, an uphill battle. NBA Live had already fallen behind NBA 2K in sales and critical reception before NBA Elite 11 torpedoed the series and set it back for a decade and counting. NBA 2K is now firmly entrenched in the minds of basketball gamers, as well as pop culture for that matter. There are no doubt plenty of people these days who have no memory of NBA Live being a Big Deal; a game that NBA players both played and lined up to endorse. They don’t remember a time when NBA Live was the best, most all-around basketball sim on the market, or that it still held its own even after NBA 2K burst onto the scene and started turning heads.
Even among gamers who remember the golden age of NBA Live, fewer and fewer are holding out serious hope that it can be competitive with NBA 2K again, and therefore relevant in the genre. It’s a bleak outlook as not everyone likes the way NBA 2K does things, or they’ve become disenfranchised with NBA 2K’s quality and practices in recent years. For that matter, it seems that even people who grew up with NBA 2K are growing weary of its problems, and at least have some interest in seeing a viable alternative present itself. It’s for those reasons that NBA Live – even at what has to be its lowest point in terms of relevance – still has a chance of being relevant once more.
In other words, the door is still open, but there’s still the question of whether NBA Live can seize that opportunity. Again, it’s been over a decade since the last title in the series that was generally really well-received. Going back to its struggles upon the launch of the Xbox 360, EA Sports has had fifteen years and two generations to get back on track, and the game keeps getting derailed. The focus and direction of the series is a big factor here, and it’s the key to NBA Live being relevant again. As I’ve discussed, choosing the right direction for NBA Live – and staying the course – is paramount here. Sorting that out is the first major step in a successful rebuild.
I’ve gone into detail about what I believe the right direction is for NBA Live, but in a nutshell, it’s to focus on the NBA side of things – both modes and gameplay – and expand out from a solid core of sim basketball. By all means have The Streets, Court Battles, LIVE Events, and so on, but don’t make them the main focus. The quality of the gameplay will come from properly representing basketball in strategy, feel, and appearance, and tweaking it for those alternative experiences. Deep modes will give gamers plenty to sink their teeth into, and keep us hooked until the next game comes out. NBA Live needs to have staple features, and be an overall well-rounded game.
This is vital in making the game relevant again as it appeals to the core demographic. Enjoyable and desirable gameplay, along with modes that cater to the varied tastes of basketball gamers, will make it a viable alternative to NBA 2K. Whatever faults NBA 2K may have had in recent years, the games still do a more than satisfactory job of appealing to the breadth of the userbase. We have our criticisms and complaints, but whether you like franchise play, card collecting and fantasy team building, or the single player career and connected online experience, NBA 2K has you covered. If you’re not into what NBA Live is doing with The One, the game has limited appeal.
Essentially, it all comes down to releasing a good game. It’s stating the obvious, but the bottom line is that for NBA Live to be relevant, it has to be a title that gamers enjoy and want to buy. Of course, EA will also have to generate hype and excitement for the game, especially with so many basketball gamers associating the name NBA Live with a subpar product, or indeed, not giving it much thought at all. We discussed this back in Episode #312 of the NLSC Podcast, noting that when it comes to NBA Live, EA’s interaction with the fanbase leaves something to be desired. While they’re respectful when they do interact with gamers, the amount of engagement is the issue.
Whether it’s posting clips from older games that were well-received and celebrating the history of NBA Live – especially with the series’ 25th Anniversary – or keeping fans up to date with developments during another extended hiatus, the official social media channels could be doing a lot more to keep the game on people’s minds (and to that end, relevant). Obviously NBA Live’s struggles invite cynicism, and that means some snarky responses will be inevitable, but it’s still worth trying to engage. Imagine if we were getting some work-in-progress previews, going hand-in-hand with the team asking for feedback and suggestions. It’d draw interest and get people talking.
Naturally, whatever EA shows us in terms of early looks at a work-in-progress NBA Live would have to be suitably impressive, and in that respect, I can understand them wanting to be careful. However, showing that something is being worked on and that progress is being made, would inspire more confidence and generate buzz. Giving us something to look forward to and be optimistic about would certainly help in making NBA Live relevant again. And look, I’ll admit that there’s some self-interest here, but reaching out to and working with people beyond NBA 2K YouTubers would restore some goodwill, not to mention lead to some genuine support and quality feedback.
Of course, once EA reaches the point where they have a forthcoming release to tout, they need to go all out with it. There needs to be constant previews, from screenshots to raw gameplay footage and impressive cinematic trailers alike. As far as trailers are concerned, collaborating with members of the community strikes me as a great idea; ThaLiveKing is someone I’d wholeheartedly recommend here. There also needs to be in-depth developer blogs describing improvements, additions, and design choices in great detail. It can’t just be blurbs about the real locations included in The Streets. We need to hear about what went into a (hopefully) well-rounded, polished NBA sim.
Once again, the game itself has to deliver in order for the series to be relevant again, but in the meantime, that effort starts with keeping the name on our minds, getting us to feel good about it by showing high points from the series’ past, engaging with all of us to solicit feedback, and demonstrating that they’ve chosen the right direction. From there, it’s about keeping everyone informed and showing off promising developments, then being as detailed as possible when it’s time to start previewing and promoting the next release. There are content creators who are interested in NBA Live and want it to succeed, so a grassroots approach could be very effective…if the game is up to par.
There will understandably be cynicism, and that’s going to be a tough hurdle for NBA Live to overcome in a bid to be relevant again. Although there are people who have an interest in NBA Live becoming a viable alternative to NBA 2K once more, it’d be naive to suggest that many gamers won’t be difficult – or impossible – to win over. It’s very tough to break through a “who cares” attitude, especially with gamers who have been disappointed and burned in the past, and seen the series lose its relevance. It’ll take positive word of mouth from people who have seen a game that’s worth getting excited about, before former NBA Live fans and NBA 2K diehards warm up to it.
It won’t be easy, and there’s no guarantee of success. It’s been a long time since NBA Live was relevant and seen as a trustworthy brand. Change is not going to happen overnight, but bigger strides need to be taken when the next game comes out. Small improvements here and there won’t cut it. A lack of engagement on social media and in-depth previews won’t cut it. NBA Live Mobile won’t cut it. And, as I’ve said on a few occasions now, chasing a mythical “younger, new demographic” definitely won’t cut it. The door is still open for NBA Live to be relevant and successful again, but it could quite easily be slammed shut. The series is still in a very precarious position.
I’m hoping for the best, because we really do need at least two viable sim games on the market. A lack of competition has allowed NBA 2K to get away with some bad practices and a dip in quality, and for all its strong points, it’s not for everyone. The gamers that scoff at NBA Live and delight in its shortcomings, the ones that want to see it just go away, are just not looking at the big picture or beyond their own selfish interests. There are no drawbacks to the NBA Live series returning to relevance with a great release, and remaining on steady footing moving forward. NBA 2K will still be there, and may well also improve with a viable alternative to compete with.
Can NBA Live be relevant again? It can, through the methods and conditions that I’ve outlined here. Will NBA Live be relevant again? That’s admittedly the more pertinent question, one that’s difficult to answer with confidence. There are some big “ifs” here, and high standards to be met. After the past decade, I wouldn’t fault anyone for being extremely cynical and sceptical to say the least. I’ll admit that I’m unsure myself, as much as I want good things for NBA Live. For now, all we can do is send along our feedback, and hope for the best. It’s a long road back to greatness and relevance for NBA Live, but for the sake of our hobby, I hope it can arrive at that destination.