To mark the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live, we’re taking a look back at every game in the series with retrospectives and other fun content! This also includes re-running some features from our 20th Anniversary celebrations, with a few revisions. Whether you’re a long-time basketball gamer who grew up with NBA Live and are keen on taking a trip down memory lane, or you’re new to the series and want to learn about its history, we hope that you enjoy celebrating the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live here at the NLSC! Next up is a retrospective of NBA Live 09.
NBA Live 09 is remembered for several things. It was the first game in the series since NBA Live 2002 to be console-exclusive, which wasn’t a popular decision in our community. It’s also the final NBA Live game to be released on PlayStation 2, with a game that’s undoubtedly clunky, but also interesting. Conversely, it’s also a game that turned out quite well on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and one that many long-time basketball gamers hold in high regard. Despite that, it’s the first NBA Live game to be outsold by its NBA 2K counterpart, which isn’t necessarily indicative of its quality. Finally, it had an unexpected cover player. There’s a lot to look at, so let’s dive in.
Expectations were high after NBA Live 08 proved to be a step up from the infamous NBA Live 07. The series seemed to be getting back on track, and while it still had its issues, the new tech and features introduced in NBA Live 08 were promising. EA did indeed have a few tricks up its sleeve, and one of the concepts they promoted during the preview season for NBA Live 09 was “made fresh daily”. To drive home the idea, the official website even featured an interactive section in the form of a supermarket refrigerator. Throughout the preview season, new promotional materials were added to the fridge, such as a screensaver that downloaded new NBA Live 09 screenshots.
It was different, but it was a fun way to promote the new Dynamic DNA feature. At first, more than a couple of gamers wrote it off as a gimmick, but it turned out to be the kind of depth to player AI and attributes that we’d been asking for. Powered by data from Synergy Sports, Dynamic DNA gave players tendencies, such as how often they drove left or right, utilised pick and roll situations, posted up, and so forth, as well as how effective they were in those situations. This was before the big analytics craze really took off, but we understood that real data was going to be driving these new tendencies. On top of that, lineup updates would be coming through daily.
Of course, one controversial aspect of Dynamic DNA was that it was a subscription service. Every brand new copy of the game came with a code, so it wasn’t something everyone had to purchase separately. If you bought the game second-hand and the code had already been redeemed though, you needed to buy a subscription to get the updates. It was something that developers were trying out at the time, and while it didn’t catch on in sports games as microtransactions have done, it’s quite reminiscent of “battle passes” and other such service-based business models that other genres of video games have adopted more successfully (and enthusiastically) in recent years.
Controversy aside, once gamers understood what Dynamic DNA was all about, the idea was quite popular. The results were pleasing too, as players really started to play and perform more like their real life counterparts. Long-time NBA 2K developer Mike Wang (aka Beluba) joined the team, and his dedication to gameplay and the sim style undoubtedly had a positive impact on NBA Live 09. Poorly released jumpshots could now result in air balls, which was a nice touch. The new Pick & Roll Control was also added, giving us full control over pick & roll and pick & pop situations, as well as slip screens; all performed by holding the trigger for the appropriate duration.
I attended a community event for NBA Live 09, and one of the first things that Mike asked Pastapadre and I after introducing himself was what we didn’t like about the game. It’s an interaction I’ve recounted on multiple occasions, because it made such a great first impression on me. Beluba was more interested in hearing about the bad things that jumped out at us, rather than the things that blew us away. It’s always struck me as a great approach to soliciting feedback, and I’d suggest it’s why Beluba is highly regarded for his brief tenure at EA Sports, on top of his success at Visual Concepts. With 2K catching up in sales, EA was clearly all in on Live’s gameplay.
Interestingly, although Go-To Moves and Own the Paint were still in NBA Live 09, they seemed to fall out of focus; especially considering they were such big selling points for NBA Live 08. Neither of those mechanics received much attention, but Signature animations remained in the game. Conversely, Quick Strike Ballhandling evolved into Quick Strike Ankle Breakers. This included the addition of stationary dribbling moves, similar to the size-ups that would in turn replace them in NBA Live 10, and have since become a recurring feature in dribbling mechanics. The idea was to add explosiveness, and give dribbling moves actual purpose in beating defenders.
As was the case with Quick Strike Ballhandling the year before, it was more than a mere gimmick or rebranding. To that end, NBA Live 09 feels very good on the sticks, and the focus on a simulation style is quite apparent. There were legacy issues with the animations of course, but at the same time, I’d suggest that there was improvement on what we’d seen in NBA Live 08. Indeed, from NBA Live 08 through to NBA Live 10, you’ll notice a mix of noteworthy and incremental improvements that’s similar to the early days of NBA Live, as well as the series’ second Golden Age from 2004-06. It didn’t yield the same success, but it was a sign that the game was on the right track.
Although NBA Live 09 retained the approach of having separate dunk/layup and jumpshot buttons, it was more forgiving than its predecessors if you pressed the wrong one. In NBA Live 07 and NBA Live 08, hitting the dunk/layup button too far from the basket resulted in awkward, contextually inappropriate shots. In NBA Live 09, the dunk/layup button triggers a normal jumpshot from behind the three-point arc, and a contextually appropriate shot or driving move in the midrange. Not only was it a kinder approach, but looking back, I have to believe that it was preparing us for a return to a single shoot button, a welcome change that would come in NBA Live 10.
The cumbersome right analog stick method for free throws was also ditched in favour of a meter on the backboard. Free throws were attempted by holding the shoot button and waiting for the meter to hit the “make” window, and then releasing it. As with the T-Meter on the backboard in NBA Live 2004-06 in PC and prior gen, the size of the window changed according to the difficulty setting and the player’s free throw ability. Although this dropped the ability to aim free throws, and gamers who preferred the right stick method may have felt that it was too easy, I personally think it’s one of the better approaches to free throw shooting outside of the old school T-Meter.
Another sign that the game was headed in the right direction was the addition of the NBA Live Academy. The Academy replaced NBA Live 08’s empty arena with a proper NBA practice facility. Once again, we could choose the team’s branding to set as the default, but this time, it meant the whole team was shooting around with us on two practice courts. We were able to select which player we controlled, but only from the active team. An indicator, not unlike the shot meters in recent games, helped us to learn the ideal release points for jumpshots. We could also walk around the two courts, shoot at all baskets, and take part in various drills by going up to the coaches.
Outside of Dynasty mode, these drills were just practice scenarios. Within Dynasty, however, they were a means of improving player ratings. Once a month, we were able to hold a training session and run through up to ten drills. These drills included both offensive and defensive scenarios, such as fast breaks, pick and roll situations, low post and dribbling practice, and rebounding challenges. We could also run 5v5 full court and halfcourt scrimmages, or a 5v0 halfcourt scrimmage to practice plays. This was a first for the NBA Live series, and underscored the game’s efforts to both be more realistic, and place a greater emphasis on playcalling and basketball strategy.
NBA 2K had boasted similar depth for years at that point, so it was an important part of catching up to a game that was now more critically acclaimed, and closing the gap in sales. To that end, NBA Live 09 also retained, and in some cases improved upon, its complement of game modes. In addition to expanding Dynasty with the NBA Live Academy, the speeds of animations in the dunk contest were tweaked for a better feel. More FIBA teams were added, which expanded the tournament to include group play. Online Leagues returned, as did Online Team Play. The latter was now available out of the box, and featured a competitive scene through the addition of Clubs.
Speaking of Online Team Play, the concept of controlling a single player led to the addition of Be a Pro. In some ways, Be a Pro resembled a modern career mode, with the distinction of only consisting of a single game. In Be a Pro, we assumed control of a single (real) player on our chosen team, and were graded on our performance. It was marketed as a practice tool for Online Team Play, but as I noted, it was (seemingly) paving the way for an early single player career mode, or perhaps even the connected experiences that we’re familiar with today. It’s an often-overlooked feature, and so it’s generally forgotten that EA made the first steps towards having an NBA career mode.
The ability to edit and save instant replays was also added. It featured a variety of tools that allowed us to cut to different camera angles, vary the speed throughout a clip, and focus on different targets. Saved replays could be uploaded to EA Sports World, either from our media library, or even while a game was in progress. Saving replays wasn’t new – in NBA Live or basketball games in general – but it had been some time since that functionality had been available. Again, it stands as an example of how the developers were going all out across the board for NBA Live 09, in an effort to improve everything from the gameplay to modes and creation tools.
All of these additions and enhancements made NBA Live 09 a fine game for its era, but it still had some problems. The issue that I always remember is that all too often when you try to rebound, your player will give a little hop and not make an effort to grab the board. It’s a very canned moment that admittedly hasn’t entirely disappeared from the virtual hardwood. Playcalling is good, but players don’t really know what to do when the play breaks down. As I said, there are still some wonky animations here and there. It does play a pretty good game of realistic basketball for its time though, and it’s rightfully remembered as one of the best post-classic era NBA Live games.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the PlayStation 2 version. The last NBA Live title to be released on PS2 – the PC and Xbox versions were no more – it ended the generation with a thud. It’s very similar to the PC and PS2 version of NBA Live 08 in terms of its gameplay, with few noteworthy improvements. Once again, the new rookies are missing portraits, and for some reason, are in the Free Agent Pool by default. There were two players called Marcus Williams in the league that year, and they share a portrait. Left to its own devices, the CPU will score 100 points with random players on twelve minute quarters. Dynasty mode’s sim engine is still broken.
In hindsight, it was no big loss that we didn’t get a PC port of the PS2 version after all. By the same token, of course, it’s a tremendous shame that we didn’t get a port of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 version. The fact that 2K came to the PC that year with NBA 2K9 – and was a 360/PS3 port – certainly stings, and is just another “What If” when it comes to the NBA Live series. However, there was one aspect of the PS2 version of NBA Live 09 that was superior to the 360/PS3 release. The aforementioned Be a Pro, rather than consisting of a single game, was a primitive career mode! You could play a full season as a real or created player, upgrading ratings along the way.
It’s honestly astonishing that they bothered to do that, presumably as compensation for all the features the PS2 version was going to miss out on. Oddly enough, it does have the Hot and Cold Streaks that were a part of Dynamic DNA and the NBA Live 365 updates, only there was no way for them to be updated through the season. Upon boot up, the game also allows you to choose Simulation, Arcade, or Casual Play settings, with Casual Play being a mixture of sim and arcade styles. There’s also a revamped Practice Mode with a team practice option in addition to individual practice and dunk contest tutorials. The expanded FIBA tournament and new teams were also added.
With that in mind, it isn’t entirely fair to say that no effort whatsoever was put into the PlayStation 2 version of NBA Live 09. The attempts at including versions of features that were being added on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, along with an exclusive single season career mode, are far from lazy. At the same time, it’s a pretty sloppy product on the whole. It’s clear that HB Studios were working with tech and code riddled by several problems that were beyond fixing; especially in a low priority release on a platform most developers were already leaving behind. It doesn’t excuse the broken elements, but anyone buying the game on PS2 shouldn’t have expected much more.
The cover player for NBA Live 09 was Tony Parker, and as I mentioned, he was an unexpected choice. Although he’d come into his own as a star for the San Antonio Spurs, Parker was a full year removed from his Finals MVP performance in 2007, and the Spurs had been defeated 4-1 by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2008 Western Conference Finals. It was less of a surprise when he had appeared on the cover of the French versions of NBA Live 2005-08, but given that neither he nor the Spurs ranked among the most popular players and teams in the league, the choice appeared to come out of left field. In polls, he’s often ranked among the least popular cover players.
This leads one to wonder if it played a role in NBA 2K9 besting NBA Live 09 in sales, making 2K the top-selling and top-rated sim basketball game. Obviously, it wasn’t just that. NBA Live’s reputation had suffered through a couple of troubled releases, NBA 2K had been getting better and better, and NBA Live had dropped the PC platform while NBA 2K picked it up. Still, marketing matters, and NBA 2K9’s choice of cover player was the more popular Kevin Garnett, who was fresh off winning a championship with the Boston Celtics. Parker’s cover isn’t the sole or even main reason 2K pulled ahead, but it probably didn’t help on top of everything else.
On another note, NBA Live 09 notably shipped without accurate branding for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team instead uses “Oklahoma City” for its location and nickname, as well as generic jerseys and the team’s placeholder logo. On Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, free DLC added their new logo and jerseys, though their nickname was never updated in the roster. Oddly, a pre-release screenshot showed the Thunder’s real jerseys in the game, and NBA 2K9 didn’t use placeholders. The PS2 version is stuck with the generic branding of course, as is anyone on 360/PS3 who didn’t grab the DLC before it was removed from the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live.
Finally, I’d like to touch on NBA Live 09’s soundtrack. I don’t always make a point of talking about soundtracks in these retrospectives, even though NBA Live has had some great music over the years, from original tracks to licensed songs. I wouldn’t call NBA Live 09’s soundtrack my favourite, nor would I say it’s the best or the worst. It’s generally pleasant to my taste, but it’s also a little strange. Songs like “Champion” by Flipsyde make sense for a basketball game, but a track like “Walls” by Beck? Not so much. There are some good songs on it and I do like it, but it’s a bit of an eclectic list. I have eclectic tastes though, so while it’s not my favourite, I am nostalgic for it.
In some ways, NBA Live 09 has a dubious legacy. The PlayStation 2 version, despite some surprising efforts to add new content, wasn’t a good game. The decision not to release a PC version alienated some diehard NBA Live fans, many of whom readily made the jump to 2K when it came to the platform. It featured one of the least popular cover players to date, and marked the first time that NBA 2K had outsold it, on top of garnering more positive reviews. There were things that NBA Live 09 did better than NBA 2K – dribbling controls and roster updates to name a couple – but it was still the game that saw the series objectively slip into second place by every measure.
And yet, the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 version is fun to revisit. Whenever I do, I’m reminded of what a good game it was overall. I wish I’d spent more time with my 360 copy when it was new, and probably would have if not for a dedication to modding and gaming on PC (and for that matter, being enamoured with Fallout 3). There’s always going to be debate about the best game in the NBA Live series, with common candidates including 2000, 2005, and 10. NBA Live 09 is often on a lot of gamers’ shortlists, however, and rightfully so. Is it my pick for the best? No, but it ranks up there, and may even be a little underappreciated; especially in our community.