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 my thoughts on the right direction for NBA Live.
Needless to say, the past decade has been tough for NBA Live. Through cancelled titles and skipped years, the series has seen only five releases during that span. There have been promising aspects and good ideas present in those five games, and it could be argued that at least a couple of titles have been solid, but EA Sports has failed to move the needle. NBA Live is still languishing far behind where it needs to be as a viable alternative to NBA 2K and the enormous gulf in sales speaks volumes. NBA 2K has its issues, but NBA Live hasn’t been able to capitalise on gamer frustration.
The good news is that the door hasn’t been slammed shut on NBA Live. Thanks to a combination of readily apparent potential and 2K squandering goodwill, there is still interest in seeing NBA Live return to its former glory. Unfortunately, the series’ steps towards reaching that goal haven’t been as large as many of us would’ve liked, and one of the main reasons for that is the direction of the series. More specifically, this includes both the particular choices that have been made, and the tendency to change direction too often. NBA Live needs to have the right focus moving forward, but that raises the question: what is the right direction for NBA Live to take?
We should probably begin by identifying the wrong direction to take. In a nutshell, I believe that direction is the one we saw in NBA Live 19. For years, gamers have been begging for the NBA to put back into NBA Live, yet the most recent release failed to do so. Focus was placed on The One – and not the NBA side of it – to the detriment of basically every other mode and the core gameplay. Franchise remains shallower than it was over a decade ago. Ultimate Team regressed and was generally ignored. There’s a distinct lack of realistic strategy and authenticity to the NBA gameplay, especially when the streetball animations aren’t confined to The Streets and Court Battles.
Speaking of which, those aspects of The One are good hooks for NBA Live to have, but they shouldn’t be the focus. With the authentic locations and player collecting, it felt like NBA Live 19 was trying to ape NBA Street Homecourt. That’s not a bad idea in theory, but the gameplay is a poor fit. While NBA Live 19 had drawbacks as a sim title, its gameplay definitely wasn’t arcade, either. More to the point though, focusing on The One and LIVE Events in which a majority of the rewards were clothes didn’t do the on-court product any favours, nor did it allow for the depth a basketball game released in 2018 needed to have in order to keep everyone interested and engaged.
Now, you might say that I’m out of touch here, an “old head” for whom these modes aren’t aimed at. There’s probably some truth to that, but the bottom line is that the heavy focus on The Streets, LIVE Events, and Court Battles didn’t move the needle. Gamers still prefer NBA 2K, and even those with positive impressions of NBA Live 19’s gameplay tended to be critical of its NBA-oriented modes. That’s not to say that the modes receiving focus weren’t well-received or that they don’t have an audience, but as far as making the game more successful than its predecessors, they didn’t achieve that goal. The lack of depth only alienated gamers, young and old.
So, is the right direction for NBA Live to be more like NBA 2K? Well, as I said in a previous article, yes and no. The goal shouldn’t be to copy NBA 2K in every way down to the last detail, but it needs to cover the same ground and appeal to the entire demographic. In 2020, you need to have a solid, relatively deep Franchise mode. Your team building/card collecting mode needs to have interesting content and a variety of submodes. The 5v5 gameplay in NBA-oriented modes should be realistic, from styles of play and strategy to player performance. EA should bring its own ideas to the table and put its own spin on certain features, but some things should be standard.
When it comes to the depth of modes or the quality of animations and gameplay, it’s unreasonable to expect NBA Live to catch up to NBA 2K within a single production cycle. We could argue that more progress should’ve been made by this point, but as I noted, constant changes in direction impair steady progress. The goal here is not to try to catch 2K within the space of a year, but simply start adding overdue features so that the game is at least deeper than it was a generation ago. I’m talking features that have become staples, like hiring and firing head coaches, a larger variety of challenges in LUT, and animation package editing, to name but a few from a very long wishlist.
These long-standing concerns need to be addressed before the addition of any new gimmicky hooks and features. There should also be a separation of streetball and NBA gameplay. Just as NBA 2K has animations that can only be equipped in The Playground, there should be moves that are unique to The Streets and Court Battles. Gameplay mechanics also need to be tightened up, such as shortening the shot meter so that we can get good shots off quicker, and replacing the Defensive Assist with a proper Defensive Stance control so that we’re not automatically pulled in the wrong direction. Our Wishlist covers a lot of these ideas for both modes and gameplay.
As far as the right direction for NBA Live is concerned, those ideas amount to a deep game that is an NBA sim at its core, but also provides a fun alternative in the form of its streetball modes. It means hitting on all the staples of the genre, and taking a few of NBA 2K’s better ideas. It means a focus on NBA content and building the rest of the game’s experiences around that, thus ensuring it has something for everyone. It doesn’t mean placing an emphasis on clothing brands and cosmetic items, or being different just for the sake of it. It means going back to its roots, catching up by adding missing features and content, and establishing itself as a viable alternate to NBA 2K.
Of course, there is value in being different. As such, the right direction would also include avoiding the missteps that NBA 2K has made in recent years. Avoiding pay-to-win mechanics and using the same currency for cosmetic items, as they’ve done by having Skill Points and Reward Points in The One, is a great idea that places them ahead of NBA 2K in an area where it’s been heavily criticised. Implementing proper matchmaking and not bothering with a gimmicky hub world as MyCAREER has done with The Neighborhood is another example. NBA Live needs to stand apart in ways that enhance the experience rather than simply being different out of principle.
Most of all, NBA Live shouldn’t be chasing a “younger, new demographic“; at least, not in the way they attempted to with NBA Live 19. That approach was a flop in terms of increasing sales and drawing in both lapsed NBA Live fans and NBA 2K diehards alike. The demographic that NBA Live needs to appeal to are the people playing NBA 2K, because it is – for its own faults and missteps – still the best NBA game on the market. To do that, they need familiar staples and satisfactory quality, as well as their own hooks and strong selling points such as the absence of predatory recurrent revenue mechanics. They need to listen to gamer feedback.
In particular, they need to listen to feedback from people who played NBA Live when it was the leading brand, or even when it was still competitive with NBA 2K. It feels like a lot of us have been shut out in favour of YouTubers and influencers who prefer NBA 2K anyway, and have no affection for, nor interest in, NBA Live and its ability to succeed and thrive. I believe that’s played a big part in the game taking a direction that has alienated or at least disappointed gamers who want something more from it. These changes in direction have affected NBA Live’s depth and quality, and given it something of an identity crisis. With its mix of concepts, it’s not quite sim or arcade.
NBA Live should not try to be NBA Street. It also shouldn’t be NBA 2K down to the last detail, though it should do some of the same things and do them well. The game can set itself apart with its own concepts – new and old – and an approach that builds goodwill with gamers who have been burned by 2K’s greed. Above all, NBA Live should be a great sim-oriented NBA title that strives for authenticity, but also offers some different and creative side modes as an alternative to the traditional experience. That is the right direction for this once-proud franchise; one that it should adopt, patiently stick with, and not deviate from, if it’s to ever get to where it needs to be.