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Monday Tip-Off: The Harsh Reality of PC Basketball Gaming

Monday Tip-Off: The Harsh Reality of PC Basketball Gaming

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 a frank discussion of the harsh reality of PC basketball gaming.

I won’t say that I’ve never been one to engage in tribalism with my various fandoms. Back in the 90s, I was a Nintendo kid. That meant in my mind, Nintendo ruled, Sega sucked, and all of the blast processing in the world couldn’t convince me otherwise. In the Monday Night Wars, I was Team WWF, and outside of local indie promotions here in Australia, WWE is still my wrestling company of choice. When it comes to basketball, my allegiance is to the Chicago Bulls. While that doesn’t mean I hate every other team, there are absolutely a few that I’ve actively cheered against!

In short, while I believe tribalism makes fandoms incredibly toxic, I can’t claim that I’ve always been above it. However, one war that I’ve never taken a side in is the whole Console vs. PC debate among gamers. That’s because I’ve always played games on both, going right back to my introduction to console and PC gaming, the Mattel Intellivision and TI Basic respectively. Some of my favourite games only came out on consoles, some only came out on PC, and some – including basketball games – came out on both. PC basketball gaming is what our community was built upon, and I’m obviously a big fan of it, but there’s a harsh reality with the platform we must face.

Before I dive into that, I want to stress how important PC basketball gaming has been to me. While many gamers around my age discovered NBA Jam in the arcades or on console, my first experience with the series was with the PC version of NBA Jam Tournament Edition. In fact, along with NBA Live 96 PC, it was one of the very first basketball video games that I owned, and didn’t just rent from the video store. For what it’s worth, my introduction to Mortal Kombat was also the PC port of the first game. From shareware and demo discs to Commander Keen to Doom II to adventure games from LucasArts and Sierra, I have a long history of enjoying PC gaming.

NBA Live 96 PC Main Menu

Sure, I grew up playing the legendary Nintendo classics as well – Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong Country, and so on – but I never considered consoles the only way to play video games, with computers only being for work. Likewise, I never looked down on consoles as inferior or “kiddie”, nor did I buy into the whole “PC Master Race” rhetoric. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience many fantastic releases across generations of consoles, and a number of PCs of increasing power, so I’m a fan of both. That naturally includes PC basketball gaming, since once again the platform hosted some of my earliest forays onto the virtual hardwood.

Indeed, that’s how I came to discover the NLSC, become a part of the community, create my own site, and eventually take over this one. When my household finally got online in 1997, I went searching for NBA Live 96 content. That’s how I came to find the NLSC with all of its mods (then known as patches), and the rest is history. The PC versions of NBA Live continued to be the ones that I generally played the most. Even though I’ve spent hours with the console versions as well, I’ve always advocated for the PC release, from giving feedback to developers to starting petitions when the series went console-only. Similarly, these days I want the best for NBA 2K on PC.

The reason I say this is because when you dare to mention enjoying video games on console, or point out some of the challenges and issues with PC gaming – basketball or otherwise – it can draw aggressive responses from gamers who are all about PC. This is the tribalism that I referred to. Just as when I was a Nintendo kid who didn’t want to hear that Sega or Sony had anything of value to offer, PC-only gamers don’t want to consider that consoles have their benefits – or that some people simply prefer them – and that PCs have their drawbacks. It isn’t being disloyal or anti-PC gaming to acknowledge harsh realities concerning the platform, especially with basketball titles.

Kevin Garnett in NBA 2K15

So, what are the harsh realities of PC basketball gaming? Let’s begin with the size of the demographic. When you’re involved with a passionate community, it’s all too easy to overestimate the popularity of the group’s views, and thus what percentage of the overall fanbase you represent. Take the Internet Wrestling Community, for example. As the more hardcore and hypercritical portion of professional wrestling fans, they don’t necessarily speak for everyone who enjoys sports entertainment. That’s not to say that they’re wrong or that their criticism holds no value, but vocal minorities in fandoms tend to assume they speak for everyone, when oftentimes they actually don’t.

With the passion our community has displayed for the PC versions of NBA Live and NBA 2K over the years – that is to say, decades – it’s easy to forget that a majority of basketball gamers are playing on console. It’s been this way for years, even going back to a time when the PC release of NBA Live tended to be the definitive version, if only for the modding capabilities. Basketball gaming is a niche interest within sports gaming, and PC basketball gaming is a niche within a niche. That doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of attention, but it’s not the genre’s most popular platform. It just happens to have an extremely passionate fanbase, but as I said, it’s one I’ll always advocate for.

However, even in advocacy, we still need to acknowledge harsh realities and uphill battles, and PC basketball gamers being a niche demographic within the userbase is one of them. It’s why I frankly don’t put any stock in theories that Sony and Microsoft have struck deals to block the PlayStation 5/Xbox Series X version of NBA 2K being ported to PC. Not only does PC fall under Microsoft’s umbrella, but given that most basketball gamers are on console to begin with, it’d be unnecessary. It also doesn’t make sense that they’d block a port of NBA 2K but not other third party games that sell even more copies. Sports games have just rarely made the PC version a priority.

PC Basketball Gaming Has A Passionate Fanbase (NBA Live 2004)

I do get why PC gamers feel cynical, though. We’ve been burned by series leaving the platform, bad ports, and inferior versions. Of course, we don’t always think about the added challenge in developing games for PC. Unlike consoles, gaming PCs don’t have standard hardware. For that matter, not every PC – be it a desktop or laptop – is built for gaming, with sufficient specs to run the latest releases. PC versions therefore have to support a variety of processors and video cards, and be able to scale down to lower settings to accommodate systems that only meet the absolute minimum requirements. You can’t guarantee compatibility or consistent performance as you can on consoles.

Now, you might say “well, that’s not my problem, that’s on them to work out”. And sure, that’s true in a way, but it’s a childish viewpoint. Feasibility is something that anyone producing a product must take into account, and the harsh reality here is that the challenges of developing for PC, and the smaller userbase for basketball games on the platform, makes it easier for those titles to be lower priorities or nixed altogether. We certainly don’t have to like this harsh reality, but we need to keep it in mind. It’s not a matter of developers rubbing their hands together evilly, plotting how to screw over PC gamers. It’s just a business decision, though it’s obviously still disappointing.

One of the reasons I mention the technological challenges of developing PC games is because I’ve seen too many people overlook that harsh reality. Back when we were hoping for the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 version of NBA Live to come to PC, there were quite a few people whose rigs barely met the recommended specs for the prior gen port we were getting. Then there were the people that had problems with video card-related errors in NBA Live 2004, who refused to share their specs with an EA rep to help troubleshoot the problem. Those same people then squawked in frustration when the patch didn’t fix their issues. That was a low moment for our community.

Mike Conley in NBA Live 08

And look, as much as PC gamers don’t want to hear it, piracy is obviously a concern for all video game developers and publishers. There wouldn’t be a fascinating history of anti-piracy measures across numerous platforms if they didn’t care about it. And yes, I get “sticking it to the man” and not paying for an inferior product, but at the same time, I also understand companies not wanting to lose money on a version that is more easily pirated. The point is that between the challenges in making a game for non-standard hardware, the smaller userbase on PC that plays basketball games, and the risk of piracy, I get why we miss out on Next Gen ports or a PC release entirely.

There are also some harsh realities when it comes to modding. I think we’ve come to take modding for granted, because we ended up having it really good with the PC versions of NBA Live for many years. We had DBF files that facilitated easier roster modding, but that wasn’t the intention; it was just a fortuitous by-product of a solution for efficiency during development. We had tools that worked with multiple games, and modding communities for other EA Sports titles that shared resources with us. The relationship between the developers and the community was different, and the games weren’t filled with online modes, live service content, and microtransactions.

Another harsh reality is that developers such as Visual Concepts, and EA Sports back in the day, have no obligation to allow their games to be modded, or to make modding easier for us. Indeed, given that they’re developing a licensed product on behalf of the NBA and can only include what the league approves and can license them to, they have to be careful about any customisation, in-game or external. It’s not like Bethesda and the Fallout series, where they own the IP and thus can furnish us with official modding tools. Even then, some mods have been hit with a DMCA because they’ve recycled dialogue that actors were paid to record, or for other unauthorised material.

Altered Sign in The Neighborhood (NBA 2K21 PC)

I remember when I was first getting involved with the community and emailing back and forth with Tim, Lutz, and Brien. I asked them if patches were legal; partly out of interest, and partly because I didn’t want to get into trouble if I was to get involved with the scene! As they explained to me, it’s a grey area at best, and more a case of companies looking the other way as long as we’re not charging money for them. It’s something we don’t think about, because we’ve been able to do it for so long without running into any sticky legal issues. It’s become so normalised for us that it’s easy to forget that it’s not an activity EA and 2K can readily (and indeed, openly) support.

Furthermore, alleged attempts to shut down modding aren’t sinister, but rather a side effect of addressing other issues. It’s annoying that anti-cheat measures ping tools meant for modding, but they’re vital for the online scene to not be a complete mess; well, any worse than it is, anyway! Official patches also interfere with modding, but those updates are needed for the live service content and other fixes that inevitably change the code and size of the executable. Updating modding tools to work with the latest patch is something that many other gaming communities have simply had to deal with. We’ve just been fortunate enough to have avoided it for so many years.

These are harsh realities, because despite being understandably disappointing, they’re ultimately reasonable explanations. While that’s preferable to “no good reason”, the problem with reasonable explanations is that they don’t gel with fuming indignation. If tech giants are conspiring to keep games off certain platforms in order to sell their own hardware, we can be righteously outraged about that. If it’s an understandable decision due to technological challenges and financial projections however, we don’t have the moral high ground. We can be disappointed, sure, and make it clear that we want a PC port of the flagship version, but we’re not victims of a shady agenda.

Victor Wembanyama in NBA 2K24 PC

The harsh reality of PC basketball gaming is that while it’s important to us, there are valid reasons why it hasn’t been the top priority for developers and publishers. It’s a platform with some obvious benefits, but also key drawbacks. We can say that that isn’t our problem, but ultimately it is, because it’s a platform that has a more tenuous position in the space, making it a risk to prefer it. As for modding, while it’s awesome, the harsh reality is that it’s always walked a fine line legally speaking when it comes to licensed NBA games. Companies like EA and 2K don’t have as much freedom to support it, especially now that the suits are so focused on all that recurrent revenue.

With all that being said, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support PC basketball gaming. On the contrary, we need to keep advocating for it! We need to show that there’s not only keen interest in a PS5/XSX port, but that we have the rigs to run it. We should suggest ways that modding could be quietly made easier. As it stands, NBA 2K24 did introduce native custom art support, and there’s consistent organisation of textures and models within the game’s big archive files. Knowing that there are roadblocks, we can suggest creative solutions that viably avoid them, while providing the customisation functionality that we need. And yes, we must keep all of the harsh realities in mind.

If we don’t, we’re setting ourselves up for more disappointment, not to mention getting angry about things that have a reasonable explanation, unfortunate as it may be. By keeping those harsh realities in mind though, we can devise feasible suggestions to overcome certain barriers, find alternative solutions that are agreeable, and properly advocate for what we want. The harsh reality, of course, is that we probably won’t get everything that we desire. The good news is that we can advocate for ourselves, and as long as we continue to get a Triple-A basketball sim on PC – ideally on par with the latest consoles – and the files are modder-friendly, that’s something we can work with.

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