Monday Tip-Off: The Next Big Innovation in Basketball Games

Online modes have demonstrated significant innovation

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 what the next big innovation in basketball games might be.

June is upon us, which means we’re drawing closer and closer to the beginning of a new preview season for NBA Live and NBA 2K. A few rumours are already starting to swirl, and it hopefully won’t be too long before we get a few teasers and tidbits to sink our teeth into. In the meantime, we’re left to speculate, and talk about what we want to see in this year’s games. I’m hoping that NBA Live 20 will prove to be a big step forward for EA Sports’ series; conversely, I expect NBA 2K20 to be another fine release, though I am hoping it won’t mark a return to NBA 2K18’s greedy approach.

A new console generation also looms, so beyond this year’s releases, I’ve begun to wonder about what the future holds for basketball games. Apart from concerns about the direction (and whether I’ve started to slip out of the core audience), I’ve also been wondering about the next step in terms of innovation. After all, we’ve already seen the games become more and more realistic, incorporate a variety of deep modes, and provide new experiences through online play. New hardware will naturally facilitate a jump in graphics and animations, but as far as features are concerned, what else can be done to innovate on the virtual hardwood?

Let’s consider the potential of the current modes. Putting aside the need for NBA Live’s Franchise mode to catch up as soon as possible, with the depth and quality of NBA 2K’s MyLEAGUE and MyGM, it feels like the pinnacle of franchise modes has been reached; at least conceptually. Adjustments can be made, a feature or two could feasibly be added, but a lot of our franchise mode dreams have actually been realised in recent NBA 2K games. Apart from some deeper customisation options or licensing enough players to provide retro season play, it’s difficult to imagine how there could be much in the way of innovation. Improvement, sure, but further innovation is tough.

Career modes have further room for innovation

What about career modes? Again, we’ve already seen great ideas and lofty concepts come to fruition through MyCAREER, The One, and their connected experiences. I do think there is more room for innovation here though, with concepts that haven’t yet been explored. An obvious suggestion is a fully formed basketball RPG, with multiple branching storylines and different starting points that determine your career path. The Neighborhood could feasibly become a bigger open world environment, with more to do in between games. The WNBA license could be better utilised with a career mode for female MyPLAYERs. A WNBA franchise/season mode would be great, too.

While some of those ideas are innovative in their own right – and I believe, worthy additions to NBA Live and NBA 2K – they are variations and expansions on existing concepts. If we’re trying to picture something more groundbreaking, it needs to be bigger than that. The obvious place to start is with online play and connectivity. One idea that could revolutionise the career experience would be to provide cooperative and competitive play. Imagine being able to team up with a friend, or a few friends, to play MyCAREER. Building on the concept of 2K Pro-Am, you’d all be on the one NBA team taking on the CPU, or in competitive play, squaring off in season play.

Alternatively, or perhaps additionally, it could be possible to import your friends into your MyCAREER as NPCs. For example, rather than Corey Harris being my friend and former teammate in NBA 2K19’s The Prelude, it could be Arcane’s MyPLAYER (and vice versa). Your friends’ players, with their current ratings and tendencies, could show up as opponents on the teams that they play for. If you play for the same team, perhaps you could control both players through the Orange Juice mechanics that were used in NBA 2K17. Having a connected MyCAREER with a friend could be a way of earning more XP, or developing a chemistry rating that provides a skill boost online.

Playing 2K Pro-Am with NLSC GrindTime (NBA 2K18)

A wild idea I’ve mentioned in previous articles and podcasts is the ability to agree to swap players with a friend during online play. Not only would this allow you to see what it’s like to play a different position or role, but also challenge you to play as well or better than your friend does with their avatar! That might be a step too far, but I do think that there’s potential for innovation as far as having more flexibility in the career and connected online modes. Being able to re-spec or recycle your player rather than commit to a broken Archetype or undesirable Icon Path – or just give up – would be a tremendous innovation in the RPG mechanics of MyCAREER and The One.

Gameplay innovation is tricky, as it relies on significant improvements in technology. I feel like the ideas I’ve outlined above could feasibly be implemented, but gameplay innovations require an engine that’s capable of going above and beyond the current experience on the virtual hardwood. I’d suggest that the next big innovation will be real physics. It’s something that NBA Live and NBA 2K have experimented with on this generation but the tech isn’t quite there yet, which has forced them to back away and continue to rely on canned moments that aren’t always well-masked. Once the tech allows them to be properly implemented, real physics would be game-changing.

Speaking of canned moments, another gameplay innovation would be the movement away from being animation-heavy. Recent games have provided us with much deeper control over the action, but success often comes down to the specific animations that the game selects for us. This is a criticism that has been made of the NBA 2K League: whereas other eSports leagues have featured impressive moments due to skilful play, highlights in the NBA 2K League arise from the animations that have triggered. Eco-Motion made grand promises regarding animations, but they didn’t really happen, and now that engine is gone. IGNITE has similarly fallen short in many ways.

James Harden in NBA Live 19

So, let’s say that technology catches up. On the court, we have realistic physics, and gameplay that isn’t governed by canned moments and dice roll animation choices. The modes have been fleshed out with even deeper experiences, and creative elements such as branching narratives, co-op and competitive careers, and maybe even some MMO-style mechanics. They’d be improvements that could be considered innovative, but would they truly count as the next big innovation? At the end of the day, they’re all combinations and extensions of existing concepts to some degree. It’s difficult to envision something basketball games need, that they don’t already have in some form.

Perhaps, then, the next big innovation in basketball games won’t be a brand new original feature, but the sustained improvement of concepts we’ve already seen. It may be something relatively simple yet hugely impactful, such as the separation of online and offline mechanics to provide the best possible experience for both types of gamers. We could certainly argue that we don’t need grand ideas that reinvent the wheel, just renovated versions of what’s already been built on a solid foundation. I suppose it also depends on your definition of a big innovation; whether or not that includes a fresh take on existing ideas, or if it must be something completely new.

Whatever the case may be, I hope that basketball games can continue to cater to all types of hoops gamers, and not move in a direction that alienates dedicated fans. It’s important to try new things and change with the times, but change for change’s sake isn’t the best approach to innovation. One only needs to look at the controversy that surrounds Fallout 76 to see how questionable decisions can stain the reputation of a beloved franchise. For that matter, consider what happened when EA tried to reinvent NBA Live with NBA Elite 11. A bad idea isn’t the next big innovation, but rather a colossal blunder waiting to happen. Hopefully, no such ideas are in the pipeline.

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