Monday Tip-Off: Are Two Sim NBA Video Games Enough?

Damian Lillard in NBA Live 16, a game in one of the oldest NBA video games

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 the number of NBA video games that are available to us.

Something that’s come up on a few times on the NLSC Podcast when we’ve been reminiscing about the old days of basketball gaming is the dwindling number of NBA video games. Although no other series has enjoyed the same longevity as NBA Live or NBA 2K, several other developers have released NBA licensed sim games over the years. Some series ran for two or three years, some skipped a year, and others didn’t get off the ground after the first game. In any case, while EA Sports and Visual Concepts remained the biggest names in the genre, some years have seen the release of several sim-oriented titles, along with the occasional arcade title here and there.

These days, NBA Live and NBA 2K stand as the only two five-on-five, sim-oriented NBA video games that are still being developed, and only 2K has an unbroken streak of annual releases over the past decade. With 2K’s dominance of the marketplace, Live’s struggles, and the lack of any other developers throwing their hat into the ring, basketball gamers are left with little choice. Saber Interactive are joining the picture with the promising NBA Playgrounds, but that’s an arcade-oriented game. As far as the sim experience is concerned, it’s fair to wonder, are two sim NBA video games enough?

Although a variety of circumstances have limited our choices in recent years, basketball gamers are lucky in so much as the NBA is unwilling to enter into any exclusive partnerships, as the NFL did with EA Sports. That means the opportunity is there for competition and a choice of brands. Of course, at this time NBA Live isn’t at the level that gamers (or indeed EA themselves) want it to be, so we don’t have a situation where we have two strong products that most of the demographic see as equally viable and satisfactory alternatives. Competition and choice benefit us as consumers, so I certainly want to see Live succeed, and make that scenario a reality.

Kevin Durant in NBA 2K17, the current leader in NBA video games

But what about the possibility of other studios getting involved in the genre, securing the license, and getting another NBA game out on the market? As I said, that certainly wasn’t unheard of in the early days of basketball gaming, or even as recently as 2008. Series such as Inside Drive, ShootOut, Courtside, In the Zone, and the Sony exclusive NBA: Featuring the Life have come and gone after a handful of releases. Live was the original dominant brand that was released annually, later joined by 2K which has since become the critical and commercial leader in the genre, but there were always other sim-oriented NBA video games being released.

When you look back at those other NBA video games that challenged the perennial supremacy of major players Live and 2K, you’ll notice that most of them had some merit. I think that by and large, Live and 2K have always had the best gameplay and overall products, but the other titles held their own, and in some cases, boasted features that the two leading games did not. Inside Drive 2000 had a shot meter, not unlike the ones found in recent Live and 2K games, and later games in that series introduced All-Star voting in the franchise mode. Full Court Press had commentary before Live did. The Life experimented with a story-driven career mode before 2K.

The reasons that all those other NBA video game series and once-off releases stopped being developed are varied. Studios shut down or downsized, focusing on titles that were less niche. Going up against the established brands and gaining a big enough share of the market was easier said than done; with basketball games being a niche demographic, those other titles likely weren’t as commercially viable as a result. Even though some of them were quite good, or at least solid, they simply didn’t have the same popularity (or quality) as the market leaders. And so, putting aside Live’s sabbaticals, we’re now down to just two sim-oriented NBA video games.

Another possible factor, and certainly a roadblock to any developer wanting to develop NBA video games today, is the high expectations gamers now have for sim games. With advances in gaming technology, gamers are demanding players that look and play like their real life counterparts, realistic strategy, and engaging experiences from deep game modes. While the goal of most sim NBA video games has always been to present a realistic representation of the sport, the bar wasn’t always as high as it is now, whether you’re talking graphics, gameplay, or game modes. Even with their long history and all their resources, EA has had difficulty getting Live up to speed.

Aaron Gordon dunks the basketball in NBA Live 16

With that in mind, it may be very difficult for other studios to get back into developing sim-oriented NBA video games. On top of the cost of the NBA license, there’s a question of whether they can put together the engine and the assets, and compete with Live and 2K in terms of depth and detail. EA Sports and Visual Concepts obviously have a lot of connections and a long working relationship with the league, as well as plenty of experience developing NBA video games. No doubt it would be tough for another developer (or developers) to make a game that will sell well and have an impact. Does that mean they shouldn’t try, though?

Not necessarily. While I think it’s more important, likely, and feasible that we see Live make big strides and become a viable, competitive alternative to 2K once again, I’m definitely not against the possibility of another developer offering sim basketball gamers a third choice. The NBA license is not some sacred privilege, bestowed only upon the most worthy developer. At the end of the day, it’s a business agreement. A couple of brands may dominate the market, and one might stand apart as the game of choice, but that doesn’t mean other developers shouldn’t try. Who knows, they may develop a great game, or at least bring some good ideas and concepts to the table.

In that respect, not only could additional sim NBA video games benefit basketball gamers by providing them with other alternatives, they could also potentially have a positive impact on Live and 2K. Apart from a sense of competition pushing everyone to keep improving their product, if a new game was to fill a niche or need that Live and 2K currently don’t cater to, it might encourage EA Sports and Visual Concepts to consider adopting some of its ideas. The only downside might be finding a way to spend adequate time with each game, should you buy multiple titles. As it stands, it can be difficult to do that with only two games coming out most years.

So, as unlikely as it may seem and even though I’m more interested in seeing Live finally make a successful comeback, the prospect of more NBA video games is still interesting and appealing. Do we need another sim-oriented NBA game? Probably not as much as we need the two we already have to keep improving, but having a third game on the market could definitely have its benefits. Two sim-oriented NBA video games may be enough, but that doesn’t mean that another one would make too many. If there’s a developer with the willingness and the resources to make it happen, I say by all means stop warming the bench, and step out onto the virtual hardwood.

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