We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Join me as I begin the week here at the NLSC with my opinions and commentary on basketball gaming topics, as well as tales of the fun I’ve been having on the virtual hardwood. This week, I’m tipping things off with my thoughts on how retro basketball gaming is filling a gap in the market.
Unfortunately, we are not in a golden age for basketball gaming. Sure, NBA 2K is more successful than ever as it sells millions of copies, makes bank with recurrent revenue, and enjoys mainstream popularity. However, when you glance at Steam reviews and user scores on Metacritic, it’s obvious that gamers are far less satisfied than they used to be. With NBA Live faltering, collapsing, and failing to rebuild properly, 2K has no competition. No other publishers are jumping into the space, and the one major release we did have – NBA Playgrounds – was swallowed up by 2K.
If you want a new basketball video game every year, there’s only one choice. It’s not the worst choice we could possibly have – better to have NBA 2K in its current state than NBA Live in its most recent form – but even if this is the best monopoly possible, it’s still a monopoly. For younger basketball gamers, NBA 2K being the only viable choice – or indeed, the only choice, period – may be all they know. Those of us who remember a time when several developers were producing basketball titles are much more likely to feel wistful at the lack of choice. On the plus side, retro basketball gaming is now more frequently filling that gap, and giving us something else to play.
It’s not a completely new phenomenon, of course. Retro basketball gaming, and retro sports gaming in general, has always been a niche interest. Classics like the original NBA Jam and Tecmo Super Bowl have dedicated followings, and hold up extremely well despite their age. Within the basketball gaming community, there have always been people who stick with a particular NBA Live or NBA 2K release, or dust off an old favourite from time to time. However, by and large, people buy newer games, and eventually move on. The increased focus on the online scene and live service content has also encouraged, or flat out necessitated, migrating to the newest game every year.
Even before the prominence of online team play and connected experiences, we had incentive to buy the latest game in the series of our choice. Annual sports titles are infamously derided as being mere roster updates, but at their respective peaks, both the NBA Live and NBA 2K series demonstrated pleasing improvement with each new game. On top of that, let’s not downplay the importance of updated rosters! Having a fresh game to play with all the incoming rookies, and offseason transactions officially included, has always been an appealing part of annual releases. Add in bug fixes, new features, and more content, and it’s no mystery as to why basketball gamers move on.
Again, it made retro basketball gaming more of a niche interest, especially with the annual sim titles. Like other series of sports games, their trade-in value was always much lower, as they didn’t move as easily on the second-hand market. Within the wider basketball gaming community, there was also a stigma against retro titles. In certain places, asking about an old game would draw snarky advice to just play the newest release. Never mind if someone was interested in getting an old favourite to run on newer hardware, perhaps to revisit some fond memories. Any kind of interest in retro basketball gaming was seen as a sign you were stubborn, and out of touch.
I believe we’re seeing attitudes change in that regard. Sure, there are still some people who will unhelpfully suggest someone play the latest game instead of seeking ways to revisit older titles, but it’s not shutting down questions about old games. We’re seeing more gamers realise that not every game is an improvement – indeed, that’s never been universally true – and that widespread trends are affecting every genre. Suggestions that “everyone hates the latest game and praises it later” are being recognised as the apologist rhetoric that they are. People are realising that we’ve had some true classics in years gone by, and that those games are worth revisiting for a change of pace.
The revival of the NLSC Top 10 Plays of the Week by Dee4Three is a great example of this increased interest in retro basketball gaming. The variety that we see every week demonstrates that despite the popularity of NBA 2K22, many older basketball games are being played on a regular basis. Not all of them are “ancient” of course, but there are plenty of submissions from games that are at least five to ten years old, not to mention the old school classics. It’s not just Dee and I that are contributing those highlights, either! Additionally, reactions to those submissions speak volumes about changing attitudes, and the way retro basketball gaming is providing an alternative.
No one has questioned why retro titles are featured in our Top 10, or mocked the countdown because of their presence. Conversely, regular viewers of the Top 10 seem to be enjoying the inclusion of a variety of games from the past decade, as well as the older classics. They appreciate that celebration of basketball gaming and its history, and the standout releases that are worth revisiting. There are comments reminiscing about specific games, and lamenting that we no longer have such variety in the space. Obviously, it’d be great if that changed. I’d love to see NBA Live come back strong, not to mention the revival of both the NBA Jam and NBA Street series by EA Sports.
Until then however, we have retro basketball gaming. Note that when I say retro, it’s a relative term. Some will argue that “retro” needs a cut-off point, likely around the 16-bit era, or early 3D era at the latest. I prefer a more flexible use of the word, especially in regards to basketball games with clear ties to specific years. I’d classify my multi-season playthrough of MyCAREER in the PlayStation 4 version of NBA 2K14, or playing NBA 2K13/2K14 PC with current rosters, as retro basketball gaming. NBA Live 19 walks the line, but it’s certainly not a current game (or the current generation, for that matter). In broad strokes, anything at least four to five years old could count.
Quibbles over the definition of “retro” aside, the point is that gamers are looking to play older hoops titles more often, either instead of or in addition to the latest release. The stigma against playing them is fading, albeit slowly. You’ll still see the occasional derisive comment if you talk about or produce a video on an old game, though that’s sometimes due to the title in question rather than it simply being retro. As long as NBA 2K is the only new game on the market every year, and as long as it maintains its current direction, I believe we’ll see more gamers giving older titles a second or maybe even a third look. Old favourites will make their way back into our rotations.
Modders have kept NBA 2K13 and NBA 2K14 alive for going on a decade now, and there’s still interest in those updates. NBA 2K11 has also drawn interest from retro basketball gamers and modders alike. There are current roster updates being made for NBA 2K17 PC, among other major projects. NBA 2K20 is a bit too new to be called retro, but it’s retained interest beyond its server shutdown. Every so often, suggestions are made to revive the modding scene for the last few NBA Live releases on PC. It’s still a niche scene compared to the size of NBA 2K22’s userbase, but the interest is there. From quality and approach to simplicity and nostalgia, retro has great appeal.
On top of that, until such time as another developer enters the market again, it’s our only option as far as alternatives. We can either play an old title as-is, or update one so that we can combine current rosters with a release we prefer to the latest game. To that end though, there are gamers who are having more fun doing just that. I know that I’m getting far more enjoyment out of playing NBA 2K14 PS4 – spending more time with it than I did when it was new – than I would with either version of NBA 2K22. Going on a retro kick with NBA Live 10 last year was more fun than NBA 2K21. I’d rather get back into updating NBA Live 06 PC than mod this year’s game.
Ironically, it’s the aspects that encourage us to move on that have driven me back to modern and early classics alike. The live service content and online scene in modes such as MyTEAM and MyCAREER demand that you play the latest game, and if you enjoy what they’re offering, both can be a blast. I can certainly attest to that. However, the annual grind of those modes, and starting from scratch every year, has worn thin for me. Forget any gameplay gripes for a moment; I want a game that I can play and revisit for years if I wish, with progress and accomplishments that won’t disappear when online support ends. I get the impression that I’m not alone in that regard.
Retro basketball gaming has always been an alternative, something that a smaller number of gamers will partake in at least occasionally; as I said, a niche interest within the genre. With NBA 2K’s virtual monopoly of the virtual hardwood, it’s now the primary alternative. It’s been almost four years since we’ve had the option of alternating between a current NBA Live and NBA 2K title. If you don’t find the latest NBA 2K to be satisfactory, the alternatives are an old game or no game at all. At the same time, that’s selling retro basketball gaming short. Irrespective of NBA 2K’s current level of quality, there are many older titles that retain their original appeal.
As such, I’d expect retro basketball gaming to continue to fill the gap left by EA’s indefinite withdrawal from the space, along with every other developer not named Visual Concepts. Given the interest, it’d be great if EA and 2K could cater to that audience with re-releases of classics (licensing issues permitting), or at least reactivate the servers for a few noteworthy favourites. If nothing else, a once-a-year reactivation so that gamers can re-download long-lost updates and rosters would be a nice gesture. I’m not holding my breath on that one, but fortunately it isn’t a requirement for retro basketball gaming to be a blast, and a viable alternative in the current market.