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 with a proper comparison of NBA Live’s graphics over the past few generations.
This topic has been on my list of Monday Tip-Off ideas for a while now, so it’s about time that I finally cover it. Since the reboot of the NBA Live series in 2013 with NBA Live 14, the game has been under heavy scrutiny from gamers and professional critics alike. It stands to reason, as our expectations of basketball video games have only grown over the years, especially with NBA 2K raising the bar with several fantastic releases. There has been a lot of very fair and accurate criticism of EA Sports’ hoops series, in this community and elsewhere, resulting in quality constructive feedback.
However, there have also been plenty of comments that are purely intended to bash the games, or present a hyperbolic critique. NBA Live’s graphics are usually the most frequent target in this regard, since they’re among the first impressions we have of any video game. Buzzwords like “cartoonish” are thrown around a lot, as are comparisons to PlayStation 2-era graphics. I’ve already explained the many problems with the word “cartoonish” in a previous article, so this time I’d like to focus on the accusations of “PS2 graphics”. Unlike “cartoonish”, there’s no ambiguity here, as we can make direct comparisons between games. When we do, it’s clearly an inaccurate assessment.
For this exercise, I’m going to use screenshots of four players: LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Tony Parker. For each player, you’ll find screenshots from NBA Live 08, chosen because it’s one of the last PS2-era releases, and represents the pinnacle of the graphics in NBA Live during that generation. These will be contrasted with screenshots of the same players in NBA Live 18, the most recent game in the series. I’ve also included screenshots of those four players in either NBA Live 09 or NBA Live 10, to draw comparisons with the generation in between. Looking at the screenshots, I believe the improvements in NBA Live’s graphics are quite apparent.
Again, the improvement in graphics is quite clear. The faces in NBA Live 18 are far more detailed and realistic, owing to the fact that many players have sat for 3D scans. The PS2 graphics are more than respectable for their era, but the head models aren’t as precise, the textures not as detailed. Details such as tattoos are present, but the skin textures aren’t as lifelike. The technology of the time didn’t allow for the same detail when it came to muscle flexing or skin moving over bone, nor a wide range of facial animations. Players are certainly recognisable, but the graphics aren’t anywhere near as good as they are in NBA Live 18.
It’s not just the faces, either. Jerseys, and in particular player accessories, used to have a more “painted-on” look. These days, they’ll wrinkle, stretch, and billow according to a player’s movement. There was some movement back in the PS2 era, mostly with the shorts, but uniforms and accessories were generally static, and looked more like they were part of a player’s skin texture than clothing over the model. While those screens are mostly focusing on the players, we can also compare the environments in the background, as well as elements such as the basketball and shoes. Again, there has clearly been a noticeable improvement from the graphics of the PlayStation 2 era.
Of course, you may notice several things in those NBA Live 18 screenshots that you can criticise. Indeed, there are many fair and accurate criticisms that we can and should make of NBA Live, from the gameplay to the game modes to the graphics. There’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to animations – describing them as outdated is definitely somewhat fairer – but none of that is conveyed by the use of snarky stock descriptions such as “PS2 graphics” or “cartoonish”. We can see that the graphics have improved since the PS2 era, and the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 titles, for that matter. Looking like a PS2 game is not the issue here.
Much like my previous article denouncing the usage of the word “cartoonish”, my point is not that NBA Live’s graphics are above criticism, but that we should be offering actual critique that covers the problems and preferable solutions, not just throwing around generic snarky insults. Even if the comparisons to PS2 graphics were at all accurate, it would still be a broad criticism that leaves too much to interpretation and guesswork. It would not be a respectable tone for critique, or an effective means of providing constructive feedback. Favouring an insulting jab over nuanced criticism rarely results in an accurate appraisal, nor feedback that developers would find useful.
Instead of resorting to trite mockery based on exaggeration, we must demonstrate that we know our stuff by describing the actual problems. The lighting may be too dark, too bright, or have an unnatural hue. Faces may lack detail, or have an ill-fitting head model. Body models may be out of proportion, or some other detail may be missing from the environment. When it comes to animations, they may be too stiff, transition awkwardly into each other, or play out at inconsistent speeds. Some of these issues may be similar to ones encountered back in the PS2 era, but the specific complaints aren’t immediately apparent when all you have is a buzzword or hyperbolic statement.
Now, a lot of gamers who break out the “PS2 graphics” declaration are not actually interested in discussing the matter in good faith. They don’t care about constructive feedback, and are just looking to bash the game. That’s unfortunate, but you could always direct them to a comparison such as this one if you wanted to counter their exaggerated assertions. Should they still honestly feel that way after seeing the games side-by-side, you might suggest that they get their eyes checked, or perhaps invest in a stronger prescription if they already wear glasses. On the plus side, with such myopic vision, they have promising careers ahead of them as NBA referees.