Monday Tip-Off: NBA Live’s Identity & Longevity

Cherashore Tournament in The Streets World Tour (NBA Live 19)

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 my thoughts on how NBA Live needs to establish its identity, and deliver an experience with greater longevity.

There seems to be somewhat of a divide and a notable amount of unrest among NBA Live gamers at the moment. At a time when we should be consolidating out feedback – obligatory cheap plug for our NBA Live 20 Wishlist – there’s a lot of argument about the future of the series. Many gamers are expressing concerns and frustration, while others are arguing that we must all be supportive and, to borrow a slogan, trust the process. Both sides have a point and are coming from a good place, though I do find myself agreeing more with the former group.

That’s probably because the group that’s most frustrated tend to be gamers my age. We remember a time when NBA Live was the dominant brand in 5v5 sim-oriented NBA games, and all the things that made it successful. Needless to say, that’s led to a bit of sneering at us allegedly out of touch “old heads”; a term that’s quickly come to highlight the toxicity in today’s basketball gaming community. At the same time, it is certainly easy to get caught up in the past, and we do need to have some patience, but it’s getting tougher for a lot of NBA Live loyalists to remain patient. Ultimately, NBA Live needs to forge an appealing identity that results in longevity and a deeper game.

When I discussed the five ideas I believe NBA Live should borrow from NBA 2K, the depth of the modes was naturally a running theme. As I noted, the term “bare bones” is used a lot when talking about NBA Live on this generation, and I believe that it’s apt. While gameplay has steadily improved since the shaky relaunch in 2013, modes remain very shallow across the board. This makes it tougher to get hooked on the game until the next one comes out, because deep, engaging modes are what give basketball titles their longevity. NBA Live 19 took some pleasing steps forward, but focused almost entirely on The One. If that doesn’t hook you, the appeal is limited.

Court Battles Menu in NBA Live 19

This is where the matter of identity comes in. Right now, NBA Live is trying to build an identity as a new experience and an alternative to what NBA 2K is doing. That’s a fine idea on paper, but in practice, it’s alienating to the core audience. The common refrain I’m seeing on social media is that there isn’t enough focus on the “NBA” part of NBA Live, and that echoes sentiments that we’ve expressed multiple times on the NLSC Podcast. The Streets World Tour and Court Battles are great concepts and hooks for the series, but they’re not enough; especially for gamers who are far more interested in experiences like Franchise, The League, and Ultimate Team.

In some respects, it feels like NBA Live 19 has tried to be more of a new NBA Street game, only with more realistic gameplay. Unfortunately, it’s not what a lot of people want, nor has it really succeeded in moving the needle. Now, this is where you might call me an “old head” and say that I’m stuck in the past, wanting the game to be the same old thing. “Go and play NBA 2K if that’s what you want”, you may be inclined to sneer. The issue here is that not everyone is happy with what NBA 2K is doing, and since both games have a common goal and a common audience, there needs to be some common ground so that they can be viable alternatives to one another.

I’ll try to approach this as diplomatically as I can given the jeering that younger fans are prone to lobbing these days, in the interest of reaching an understanding as well as presenting my concerns about NBA Live in a constructive manner. As I said, those of us who have been around the block a few times in the basketball gaming community do remember an era where NBA Live was very successful, and the features that made it so appealing. As for the game’s identity, that was always clear. It was grounded in realism, a simulation of the NBA. The level of realism wasn’t always to our liking (at least before slider tweaks), but it was never an arcade game in the vein of NBA Jam.

Golden State Warriors Franchise Game in NBA Live 19

To that point, I’ve always been puzzled when NBA Live is referred to as an arcade game, or someone suggests that it’s never been sim. Apart from notable deviations such as NBA Live 2003, the game has, as I said, always been grounded in realism. It’s 5v5 with NBA rules and strategy, full rosters, and modes that have aimed to replicate the real league with an increasing level of detail over the years. The series pioneered the franchise mode concept, and partnered with Synergy Sports in order to develop more realistic player traits and performances. Again, we haven’t always liked the results and sometimes the approach has been more casual, but it’s been sim-oriented.

Moving forward, it still needs to be sim. Unless a game is prepared to go full-blown arcade in the style of NBA Jam, NBA Street, or NBA Playgrounds, it’s not going to work. If a basketball game is stuck in the middle of being sim and arcade, it’ll fail to please both the casual gamers who like a pick-up-and-play approach, and the hardcore crowd that desires a realistic simulation. A sim-oriented title should definitely include options and even modes that cater to a looser, more casual hoops experience, but at its core, it must realistically depict the NBA in both its modes and gameplay. If a game has NBA in the title, then it must focus on the National Basketball Association.

Right now, NBA Live doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, except an alternative to NBA 2K. That means doing a few things differently and providing unique hooks, but it also means offering similar experiences; the staples that we expect from games of their genre. There’s been talk about aiming for a new, younger audience, but that audience is hooked on NBA 2K, as are the older gamers. When it comes to gameplay, I’d suggest that both of this year’s titles offer an experience that we can enjoy, but only for so long if we’re not engaged with the modes. This is where NBA 2K shines, since there’s a lot for us to sink our teeth into. NBA Live is, as I said, bare bones.

Fantasy Challenges in Live Ultimate Team (NBA Live 19)

As such, NBA 2K has carved out an identity as the cool game to play, the game that delivers on the virtual hardwood (or blacktop, as the case may be). It’s the game that has something for everyone, whether they like online team play, traditional head-to-head competition, career modes, the franchise experience, or team building. Throw in all the extra historical content, and there’s plenty of appeal. Conversely, NBA Live’s identity is of a game that is constantly rebuilding, lacking in established staples, and just having the bare minimum of what’s expected of an NBA sim. Some might argue that it doesn’t even have that, given the lack of depth to its modes and content.

It’s vital that NBA Live 20 has a new, more positive identity. It can’t be the game that fails to deliver engaging modes across the board, when long-time fans have patiently listened to promises of “next year” for over half a decade. It can’t neglect the NBA in favour of being a mishmash of Street and Live. I know we must temper expectations given the smaller development team, but it can’t be another title that takes a few steps forward while still missing features that became standard in the genre over a decade ago. It must be a viable alternative to NBA 2K, not just by providing something that’s new and different, but its own appealing spin on familiar features as well.

I’m seeing a lot of frustration with LIVE Events spotlighting personalities that have little to do with the NBA or NBA Live. While I would agree that anything that raises the game’s profile is potentially positive, it’s not resonating with the demographic that Live needs to win over, and it doesn’t speak to our concerns about fleshing out the game. Once again, you can call us “old heads” preoccupied with the past, but we remember NBA Live 06 on the Xbox 360, and how a bare bones release with a lack of polish ended up setting the series back for two generations now. We’ve seen the rise and the fall. We truly do care about the game; that’s why we’re nostalgic, and loyal.

Richie Le Creator Challenge Event in NBA Live 19

It remains to be seen how long that lasts, however. Many of NBA Live’s most loyal, long-time supporters have had their patience tested, and judging by their comments on social media, it’s really beginning to wear thin. If NBA Live 20 can’t provide modes with a decent measure of longevity and appeal, if it can’t carve out an identity as a viable alternative to NBA 2K, then I can see a lot of people losing both their trust and their interest in the brand. That’s a shame, not only because of how long NBA Live has been around, but also because NBA 2K has its issues. It’s already doing things that would no doubt be even worse if it was well and truly the only game in town.

In adopting aspects such as LIVE Events, Court Battles, and The Streets World Tour, as well as WNBA content, NBA Live has fleshed out its identity in a way that stands out from, and provides an alternative to, NBA 2K. Those are good hooks that should remain, and are worth investing in. The traditional experience must be a bigger part of the game’s identity, though. We can talk about demographics and new directions all we want, but if NBA Live doesn’t appeal to the core audience, it won’t matter. The crowd’s loyalty will remain with the game whose identity they can most identify with, and right now, that’s NBA 2K. NBA Live must win them over (or indeed, back).

NBA Live 20 needs to be big year for EA Sports’ long-running basketball series. It must keep us hooked well into 2020, and a key part of that will be reaffirming the game’s identity as an NBA sim. Those core aspects that we’ve come to expect of a 5v5 NBA sim in 2019 are what will get gamers’ attention, and encourage them to give the NBA Live series a chance after years of rebuilding. If the game’s identity remains mired somewhere in the middle – not quite sim, not quite arcade, NBA licensed but focusing too much on streetball – then NBA Live’s longevity will suffer, both on the virtual hardwood and as a brand, alienating casual and hardcore hoops gamers alike.

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January 29, 2019 7:45 pm

Nice article Andrew, it worries me of how much EA gets its feedback and the people they listen too for example there was a thread on Reddit to what would happen if EA lost the nba licensing and it was scary how many people posted to say they don’t watch the nba anyway, they think Live should just focus on the street ball stuff etc and of course we had the poll which alot of us old heads fell under the “Other” game modes selection of the poll. I don’t want Live to disappear as after picking up 2k last week I still prefer the overall gameplay of Live but I fear we could loose the game we grew up with to a new age online basketball game that says this is what the people want.

It just feels like analytics coming in saying shooting 40 3’s a game is better basketball.

January 29, 2019 11:22 pm
Reply to  Andrew

I few days ago I made a bold prediction, I hope iam wrong but the way that EA has ducked out of many nba related questions of nba live made me wonder if they already know that they don’t intend to renew with the nba for Full licensing and just go for part that would allow them to use jerseys and other stuff they use for the online modes and even move away from “The One” mode when this license runs out.