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 the traditional Playoffs mode is one of the most underrated experiences in all of basketball gaming.
Underrated and overrated are relative terms. In online discourse, their usage often boils down to not liking something that’s popular, or wanting the things you like to be more popular than they are, with little regard for consensus or objectivity. Since I’m talking about a mode that I believe is underrated, perhaps it would help to mention a few synonyms, such as undervalued, underappreciated, and overlooked. With that in mind, when we’re talking about underrated modes in basketball gaming, what are some of the examples that you immediately think of?
You could argue that the rise in online gaming has made franchise modes underrated, but they’re still fairly widely enjoyed by basketball gamers of all ages. The W and The W Online are underappreciated examples of how a career mode without recurrent revenue mechanics is still viable, but the WNBA’s popularity relative to the NBA is a factor. Staunch MyCAREER and MyTEAM gamers tend to underrate the opposing mode despite both ranking among the most popular experiences in NBA 2K, and boasting impressive depth. When it comes down to it though, the most underrated mode is one that we’ve had for decades now: the humble standalone Playoffs mode.
It’s understandable, of course. Playoffs can’t match the depth and longevity of other modes. Even in the early days of NBA Live, Season mode offered a much deeper experience: a full season of play with the ability to make trades, followed by a postseason determined through a combination of user intervention and the simulation engine. Franchise modes only widened the gap, as did the addition of single player career modes, card collecting modes, and online multiplayer. A standalone Playoffs mode is simply a small part of other NBA-oriented experiences. Ironically, the most important part of the NBA season is the least impressive mode in video games.
However, we shouldn’t mistake its lack of depth for lack of usefulness. While I do believe that shorter attention spans have resulted in a lack of appreciation for the regular season these days, there’s no denying the excitement of the Playoffs. Every game has ramifications for each team’s final result on the year, and the eventual NBA Champion. It admittedly lacks the thrill of the NCAA’s bracket-busting single game elimination format, but it’s exhilarating in its own way, with (potentially) epic seven game clashes. While we can experience that excitement on the virtual hardwood through franchise and career play, we can do so at any time using Playoffs mode.
Want to play the current NBA Playoffs after the match-ups are set? You can easily do that with some quick customisation. How about replaying the 1997 Playoffs using an appropriate retro roster mod? You can do that, too. Perhaps you’d like to stage an historical challenge tournament, seeding the classic teams in NBA 2K (or a custom roster) and finding out which squad would become the champion of champions. That’s certainly possible in Playoffs mode. And since I brought up the NCAA tournament, a college roster mod can make use of the mode to emulate the brackets from the Sweet Sixteen onwards. Despite its outward lack of depth, Playoffs mode is quite versatile.
I realise that most gamers are already aware of these possibilities, so I don’t expect to blow any minds here. My point isn’t that we don’t know what Playoffs mode is or can be, but that we don’t appreciate it enough; it’s underrated. Obviously, it’s appealing to play through an entire season and let the chips fall where they may with the standings, before proceeding to the postseason. In multiple games, I’ve played every minute of at least one 82-game season on 12 minute quarters, so I’m aware of how fun that can be. I’m also aware of how long that takes. To that point, I’ll raise my hand here and admit that I haven’t made use of the standalone Playoffs mode as much as I could have.
When I look back at some of the seasons I’ve played in older games, I realise that I could’ve – and probably should’ve – elected to play them out in Playoffs mode instead. Take the Houston Rockets season that my cousin and I played in NBA Live 95 PC over the course of several school holidays (years after the real 1995 season ended), but never actually finished. I don’t regret it as those were fun times, but in hindsight, we probably should’ve just set up the 1995 brackets in Playoffs mode and replayed the postseason, instead of the entire year. If winning a championship counts as finishing a basketball video game, then Playoffs mode is essentially a method of speedrunning.
That isn’t the only time I could’ve enjoyed a more satisfying conclusion on the virtual hardwood using Playoffs mode. After renting Celtic Pride one weekend after years of seeing it on the shelf at my local video store, I was inspired to play a Season with the Celtics in NBA Live 99 PC. Why NBA Live 99 PC? Well, it was something different, and they were an underdog team featuring a young Antoine Walker and rookie Paul Pierce. I had newer games to play though, and so I only made it a few games into the season before abandoning the save. What I really should’ve done was set up a custom Playoffs, perhaps with the Celtics as the eighth seed, and played it out that way.
Of course, there’s a reason that I eschewed that idea, underrating Playoffs mode in the process. Simply put, I wanted it all. I wanted the satisfaction of playing through a season and earning a seed, with all the ups and downs along the way. It never felt right simulating, because the results weren’t my own. Again, I don’t regret it too much, because I’ve had a lot of fun playing basketball games solo and with my cousin over the years. However, I definitely could’ve played more saves all the way through to their conclusion if I’d opted for Playoffs mode, or at least simulated games. In some cases, it would’ve held my attention for far longer, and better facilitated fun ideas.
With that being said, while Playoffs mode can be underrated and underutilised, we do notice its absence. It was a big deal when it finally returned in NBA Live 10, and EA Sports saw fit to promote its inclusion. Its absence was also briefly felt in NBA 2K14 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and after disappearing from NBA Live again, EA still hasn’t brought it back as of NBA Live 19. It’s a staple feature that we want to see in games and have on hand just in case we need it. Like roster editing, it’s just one of those features that are expected of a sim title. Even if we rarely utilise it, it doesn’t feel right when a title is missing a key feature that we’ve had in games since the 90s.
It’s also a throwback to the early days of 5-on-5 NBA games, notably the forerunner to NBA Live, the NBA Playoffs series. Games like Lakers vs Celtics didn’t feature a Season mode, or every team in the league for that matter. The only mode of play apart from exhibition games was Playoffs, and the participants in the previous postseason determined the teams and players that were included. It’s funny to think that a mode that now tends to be underrated and overlooked was once the mode to play in a highly regarded sim-oriented title. Obviously times change, and we expect to be able to play more than three rounds of the NBA Playoffs, but it paved the way for an entire genre.
On that note, maybe we gamers who like those traditional/old school modes should put Playoffs mode to use more often. As I noted, I can think of a handful of ideas I had for older games that would’ve been far more appropriate for Playoffs mode, rather than franchise or single season play. Playoffs mode can’t compete with the depth of other modes – particularly when they demand so much of our time – and it can’t provide fresh content throughout a game’s life cycle. If you’ve grown weary of the grinding and commitment that those other modes demand, however, maybe it’s time to give Playoffs mode another look; especially once the real postseason begins.