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 few thoughts on how a focus on online modes and content is killing – or at the very least, putting a serious damper on – retro gaming on the virtual hardwood.
Unless you’re talking about beloved classics, sports games – and in particular, the ones that see a new release every year – tend not to be very popular in retro gaming circles. Because they’re attempting to capture reality in both their gameplay and aesthetics, they tend to age worse than other genres. Sports gamers want the latest release, set in the most recent season. As a result, sports games don’t make second-hand retailers a lot of money, resulting in their trade-in value being very low. If you’ve ever tried to trade in your old basketball titles, you’ll know that all too well.
This phenomenon predates the more recent approach to designing basketball games, though it used to be easier to stick with an older title, or go back to one. One could have a lot of fun dusting off an old favourite, and indeed, that’s a major factor for my Wayback Wednesday features. However, the games of the current generation don’t have the same retro gaming appeal. The heavy focus on online modes and content mean that titles are far more limited than they used to be once the servers have been shut down and support has ceased. It’s not just online multiplayer that’s been cut off, but access to major parts of the single player retro gaming experience, too.
Simply put, online components permeate almost every part of modern basketball gaming. Exhibition and traditional franchise play are about the only experiences that are fully functional without being online. MyCAREER and The One have connected modes and new content coming through in the form of clothing items, along with currencies and experience points that are synced with data on the server. MyTEAM and Ultimate Team are completely dependent on online content, as is NBA Live’s Court Battles. The latter doesn’t even involve any online play, but collecting new players and playing against lineups other gamers build make it a connected mode.
As a result, those modes become severely limited or are completely unavailable upon the game’s servers being shut down. You can play an offline MyCAREER, but Skill Points accrue even slower than Virtual Currency, and you can’t outfit your player with anything except the default outfit. MyTEAM is no longer accessible, and we’ll see the same thing happen with Ultimate Team for the first time when the servers for NBA Live 14 are switched off later this year. I assume that the same thing will eventually happen with Court Battles, as well as connected modes such as The Streets World Tour. Online components now result in a shelf life for single player as well.
Needless to say, this isn’t conducive to retro gaming. You can’t go back and play with all the players you collected in an old team building mode. You can’t complete any unfinished business you might have, such as collecting Trophies and Achievements. If you’re lucky, you might be able to convert your MyCAREER save to an offline file. I wasn’t able to do this with my NBA 2K17 MyCAREER as I didn’t have NBA 2K17 installed when the servers were shut down, so I couldn’t retrieve the necessary data to continue it offline. I’d already messed up when I accidentally copied an old backup from the cloud during a previous reinstallation, but it stings nevertheless.
And of course, this is all by design. EA Sports and Visual Concepts have to sell their latest NBA title, and they can’t provide online support indefinitely. Furthermore, if you’re satisfied playing a fully functional older release, that cuts into their recurrent revenue streams. As JackedBill has revealed, a lot of effort has gone into making the recurrent revenue mechanics profitable, so they’re going to remain a priority. In all fairness, a majority of gamers do move on to the latest title, and as I said, we did so long before server shutdowns provided us with an added incentive. We could always go back though, and now our window for retro gaming is much smaller.
Say you never finished The Jordan Challenge when NBA 2K11 was new, as I didn’t. You can still pull out the game and play through the mode. The same goes for NBA’s Greatest in NBA 2K12, Association mode, old Dynasty and Franchise games in NBA Live, and so on. There are some exceptions, of course. Modes like Dynamic Season are no longer up and running and you obviously can’t play online matchups, but for the most part, a bulk of the single player experience is intact. For the purposes of retro gaming, basketball titles from the seventh generation and earlier are close to fully functional. You can still enjoy them as originally intended, for the most part.
Compare that to games from recent years. Say you never played through the stories in MyCAREER in NBA 2K14 through NBA 2K17. You can go back and play them, but as I mentioned, it’ll be a stripped down version of the mode with Skill Points in place of VC, and all your cutscenes are going to feature your player wearing that brown shirt and grey sweatpants. Trophy and Achievement hunting opportunities will be limited, as many are tied to online modes. You can’t play a few more games with that super squad you put together in MyTEAM. NBA 2K14 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One feels very bare bones now; not quite NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360 level, but close.
Moving forward, I believe this will also be a major issue for content creators as well as retro gaming enthusiasts. As modes and content become inaccessible, you’ll need to make sure that you get as much footage and as many screenshots as possible before the servers are shut down, because you’re not going to be able to go back and get any. It may not sound like a big deal now, especially if you don’t really produce a great amount of retrospective content, but there may be a time where you want to make a comparison or need to jog your memory when you’re bringing up an old game. When that time comes, you better hope that you’ve been stockpiling the media that you need.
Another downside of the heavy focus on online modes and connected experiences is that the single player gameplay has become a lower priority. One of the main reasons basketball gamers indulged in retro gaming is that the new release didn’t always feel like a step in the right direction, or line up with their personal preferences. There’s a reason that people in our community are still making updates for PC versions of NBA 2K from the previous generation: they’re not feeling the newer releases. Even on the current generation, there are gamers who feel the gameplay peaked with NBA 2K15 or NBA 2K16. It’s difficult to go back, especially when they’re no longer on Steam.
Unfortunately, in the grand scheme of things, retro gaming isn’t going to be of great concern to EA and 2K. For all the complaints, for all the Tweets demanding that the NBA 2K15 or NBA 2K16 servers be reactivated, they know that a majority of the userbase isn’t retro gaming. They’re playing the latest titles, because they’re online gamers and that’s where you’re going to find the most competition. There’s far more interest in new content and Locker Codes dropping for NBA 2K19’s MyTEAM than there is outrage over MyTEAM no longer being accessible in NBA 2K17. Pretty soon, the hype trains for NBA 2K20 and NBA Live 20 will be leaving the station.
I’ve often described basketball gaming as a niche within the niche interest of sports gaming. Retro gaming on the virtual hardwood, at least when it comes to the sim titles, is a niche within a niche within a niche. If you’re talking about the PC, add another layer of niche to that. That’s not to dismiss the hobby as it’s something that I’ve had a lot of fun indulging over the years, but we do have to realise that it’s the way of things these days. It is unfortunate though, from both a gaming and a content creation standpoint. If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s to make the most of basketball games while we can. Gone are the days when their experiences are ours to dust off.