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 14.
At long last, the NBA Live series returned in 2013 with NBA Live 14. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 had been left behind, with the game being a launch title for the new Xbox One and PlayStation 4. There were a lot of expectations heading into NBA Live 14, and there’s no point burying the lead here: it didn’t quite live up to them. There were bright spots and interesting ideas in the game though, so it wasn’t for a lack of effort. For better or worse, it’s still part of the series’ lineage, so it’s important that we reflect upon it; especially as we look to the future and hope that NBA Live can one day make a strong comeback. We’re on the home stretch now, so let’s get into it.
Even though NBA Live 14 had a lot of problems and few would call it a good game regardless, the weighty expectations didn’t help matters. The NBA Live series had been dormant for going on four years, during which two games had been cancelled. NBA 2K was reaching new heights, but not everyone liked its controls or approach to certain features, and there was still a lot of nostalgia and affection for the NBA Live brand. Gamers wanted an alternative for the same reason we do these days: it gets boring only having one game on the market, and it allows a company to get away with blatantly anti-consumer practices. Many of us really wanted NBA Live 14 to succeed.
Unfortunately, the expectations surrounding NBA Live 14 were built upon the same misconceptions that plagued its failed predecessor. Just as NBA Live 13 wasn’t the result of a multi-year rebuilding effort in the wake of NBA Elite 11’s cancellation, NBA Live 14 didn’t actually have the benefit of a lengthy development cycle. It was another frantic effort that finally resulted in a game that passed internal review; or perhaps, EA Sports simply didn’t want yet another cancelled game on their record. Whatever the case, NBA Live 14 launched with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and the response from both gamers and critics was generally quite unfavourable.
Like the rest of EA Sports’ launch lineup for the PS4 and X1, NBA Live 14 runs on the IGNITE engine, which was developed in-house. There was seemingly a lot of potential with IGNITE, with tech demos showing off impressive animations, and new possibilities with smarter artificial intelligence. Subtle details such as skin stretching and moving over the skeleton, and realistic collisions and physics, appeared to be in the future for all EA Sports titles. Best of all, if one team made new advances with the tech, they could be adapted for use in other games. It was a good idea in theory, but in practice, IGNITE didn’t always pan out. NBA Live 14 is an example of that.
Diving into the gameplay, the first thing you’ll notice about NBA Live 14 is just how stiff it feels on the sticks. The fluidity of NBA Live 10 is nowhere to be found, and even NBA Elite 11 didn’t feel anywhere near as stiff. It was very difficult to make a move offensively or keep pace with an opponent on defense, as everyone felt like they had the turning circle of a Mack truck, and could only run along certain lines like a train on a track. I know I’m mixing metaphors here, but the bottom line is that player movement was extremely cumbersome and clunky. It didn’t look much better, but the much bigger problem was getting players to go where you wanted them to.
In fact, whenever I go back to NBA Live 14, the player movement is somehow even worse than I remember it. The foot-planting was actually quite good and it means that there was less sliding than what we currently see in NBA 2K21 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S. At the same time, it also made the players feel very heavy, and the pace of the game rather sluggish. Some of the mechanics were also contrived. For example, it was impossible to move a defender while holding the right stick up to keep a hand in their face. This opened up a lot of easy driving opportunities, since there was no way to move laterally with a raised hand, anticipating the shot or drive.
The dribbling moves tended to be the best animations in the game, and some of the 1-on-1 scenarios didn’t play out too badly. It was also where you’d find most of the signature animations, as holding L1 and moving the right stick up, down, left, or right would trigger signature dribbling moves; essentially, an expansion on the size-ups from NBA Live 10. There were now also specific buttons for lob and bounce passes, a gather button for hop steps, and a modifier to perform floaters and bank shots. It’s actually a good expansion of player control, and reasonably intuitive. Unfortunately, it’s the underlying mechanics and motion system that lets the gameplay down.
As it was still in the pre-shot meter era, jumpshots didn’t feel quite as precise as they should have. Of course, NBA 2K14 had a similar problem on all platforms. Generally speaking though, NBA Live 14 had some awkward and stiff animations across the board. There were some dunks and layups that looked alright, but they were few and far between. Even when a move looked good in real time, issues with clipping, rim interactions, and unusual poses, were all too apparent in the replay. Shot trajectories and the way the ball bounced off the rim didn’t seem realistic. In short, for the most part, the action simply didn’t look or feel good, or as true to life as in NBA 2K14.
AI was also a problem. There wasn’t a lot of strategic play from the CPU, and it wasn’t necessary to play a realistic style to win, either. In fact, it was ridiculously easy to win in clutch situations against the CPU, as long as you had a three point lead. All you needed to do was let it dribble out the clock, which it would often do without even attempting a shot. Either that or it took a midrange shot when it was down three with only seconds remaining. These AI lapses also resulted in frequent shot clock and five seconds back to the basket violations. The CPU was good at interceptions though, and the slow passes made it difficult to move the ball around quickly in the halfcourt.
NBA Live 14 is therefore one of those games that is very difficult to revisit for any length of time. Old games always show their age, but many can be enjoyed after you’ve grown accustomed to their quirks once again. NBA Live 14 wasn’t a lot of fun in 2013, and it’s even less fun in 2020. You can kind of get used to it for a little while – which is how I tried to make the most of it when it was new – but you’ll find that it won’t be long before your tolerance hits its limit. It’s simply too frustrating with passes moving players out of position, not being able to get to where you want to go, and feeling like pulling off a basic play is a major achievement. It’s really rough.
Visually, the game wasn’t as impressive of a jump as the one made by NBA 2K14 on PS4/X1, but I will defend it here. NBA Live 14’s graphics have been described as “PS2-like”, and I must disagree. Its graphics are at least as good as its predecessors on 360/PS3, and in all fairness, a little bit better. It paled in comparison to NBA 2K14’s leap though, so it’s reasonable to say that it fell short of expectations. It should be noted that the initial response to early previews of NBA Live 14 was positive, but that soon changed when they were outshone by our first glimpses of NBA 2K14, to say nothing of the famous OMG Trailer. “PlayStation 2 graphics” is hyperbole, though.
Another issue with NBA Live 14’s aesthetics is that they don’t look as good during gameplay. Zoom in on the players in instant replay, and you’ll see that there are some pretty good faces for a game released in 2013. You’ll also notice details such as skin and muscles stretching and flexing; again, stuff that is far beyond “PS2-like”. The problem is that none of that stuff is apparent from gameplay angles. If the game is being played by someone who isn’t used to the mechanics, then the stiff animations look even more awkward. As a result, NBA Live 14 left a bad impression on most gamers before they even got their hands on it, and it’s tough to come back from that.
I also have to give credit to the presentation in NBA Live 14. It was the first game since the beginning of EA Sports’ partnership with ESPN that an NBA Live title made full use of the license. Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy were on the call, while Jalen Rose was the studio host. The overlays, pre-game intro, halftime show, and post-game wrap-up, all resembled an ESPN broadcast. The commentary was quite sparse and unenthusiastic at times though, with awkward silences. I know I’m using the word awkward a lot, but it’s a running theme with NBA Live 14. Whether it’s dead air on commentary, ball physics, animations, or movement, several aspects are just “off”.
It doesn’t help that beyond the gameplay, NBA Live 14 was a barebones product. Dynasty mode wasn’t any better; if anything, you could say that it lacked the depth we’d seen in older titles. There was no roster editing, or Create-a-Player. The only player we could create was for the new career mode – Rising Star – and there weren’t a lot of options as far as face customisation. Rising Star was very shallow compared to NBA 2K’s MyCAREER, and under player locked gameplay, the AI’s flaws were even more apparent. You can’t even play co-op in Tip-Off games, as there’s a maximum of one user per team. In 2013, that was a completely absurd restriction to have.
There were a couple of bright spots, however. Although it wasn’t particularly deep, Ultimate Team finally debuted in NBA Live. LIVE Season was similar to Dynamic Season in NBA Live 10, and made use of Synergy data to provide challenges based on real results from the 2014 campaign. On that note, perhaps the best addition in NBA Live 14 was BIG Moments. That mode presented us with scenarios based on real moments from the 2014 season, such as fourth quarter comebacks, gamewinning shots, statistical feats, and so on. These scenarios ranged from just a few seconds in length – as was the case with gamewinning shots – right up to a couple of full games.
Most of my time with NBA Live 14 was spent playing BIG Moments. To be honest, that’s in large part because they were shorter snippets of gameplay, and were easier to stomach than a full game. It was a creative idea though, being a change of pace with interesting challenges, and a tie-in with what was going on in the real NBA. The theory was that something cool would happen in real life, and then we’d get to play out the scenario in NBA Live 14. It’d be a more exciting prospect if NBA Live 14 had been better, but it was still fun to see gamewinning shots and big performances added to the game shortly after they happened, and then getting to play them ourselves.
Of course, sometimes BIG Moments were challenging for the wrong reasons. The long catching animations on passes made some gamewinning shot scenarios tougher, because they required a quicker catch-and-shoot than we could feasibly pull off. Some of the statistical milestones were likewise difficult due to the tech; we knew what to do, but the stiff movement made it much harder to get into position for rebounds, rack up assists, or score quickly. I for one liked that there was a mix of BIG Moments where we were either locked to a player or controlling the entire team, but similar to Rising Star, the player-locked BIG Moments highlighted the bad teammate AI.
To summarise, NBA Live 14 was rough and barebones; the result of having to cobble together a game in the usual development cycle, rather than being able to spend three years rebuilding after NBA Elite 11 was scrapped. There was a lack of authenticity in the gameplay, from a scarcity of signature animations and the stiff, unrealistic nature of the animations in general, to cumbersome mechanics and weak AI. Many of the staples of sim basketball games were absent, or far shallower than they had been in previous releases. It was difficult to enjoy the better aspects of the game, because the gameplay simply didn’t allow it. All things considered, NBA Live 14 was a bust.
So, is there anything positive that I can say about it? Well, a major patch did make slight improvements. As it stands, player movement is a little freer than it was at launch with some smoothed-out animations, the lighting effects are better, a new shootaround mode (actually based on the tech demo at E3 2013) was added, passes are slightly faster, and there are fewer camera hitches. It’s in a more playable state, and to that end, the patch was an admirable effort. There were obviously limits to what could be done via patching though, and again, NBA Live 14 isn’t a game that you can go back and spend hours with. Even back then, I was only playing it in spurts.
However, I also have to give credit to the way NBA Live 14 laid the foundation as far as getting Ultimate Team and Rising Star into the game. BIG Moments was a great concept that the series has sadly moved away from in recent years. The presentation makes excellent use of the ESPN license. Although the commentary can be dry, the production is great as far as the camera cuts, the use of actual ESPN music, and the graphics used in the pre-game, halftime, and post-game presentations. There are nifty little features, such as hitting R3 to trigger an instant replay (though that’s an old idea they brought back). There are good ideas, but the game as a whole was unpolished.
On the subject of updates, NBA Live 14 received a rare offseason roster that moved LeBron James back to the Cavaliers, among other transactions that occurred in 2014. It was unexpected, and those of us who had been trying to give the game a chance did appreciate the new content. Of course, as there’s no roster editing or custom roster saves, there’s no way to restore final 2014 season rosters, make corrections to jersey numbers (LeBron is still wearing #6), or update the lineups further. It’s a bit annoying to be stuck with that basic offseason roster update, but it was still a nice gesture, and gave us something to mess around with while we waited for NBA Live 15.
I know that there was so much more that the developers wanted to do with NBA Live 14, and while it came up short in many areas, it’s clear that they were at least trying to make a realistic sim game. That’s why it bugs me that a lot of people actually seemed to delight in its shortcomings. I’m not just talking about gamers, either. At the NBA Live 16 community event a couple of years later, I was told that a reviewer for a major publication was invited to play NBA Live 14 early. At the time, they were courteous and complimentary towards the developers. When it came time for them to review NBA Live 14, they ripped it apart with as much snark as they could muster.
It wasn’t the specific criticism that stung the developers, or that I find abhorrent. The developers acknowledged the problems, and I’ve obviously been talking about them at great length in this retrospective. However, it’s the two-facedness that’s wrong. With an opportunity to be honest and provide blunt but constructive feedback, that person opted to be all smiles at the studio, and then gleefully dump on the game after it came out. Of course, a lot of gamers, and even some NBA 2K developers, openly giggled at NBA Live 14’s misfortunes. Now that NBA 2K’s reputation has suffered and we’ve endured pushy recurrent revenue mechanics, NBA Live’s struggles aren’t so funny.
Former NBA Live Executive Producer Sean O’Brien has spoken candidly about NBA Live 14. When I interviewed him on the NLSC Podcast, I brought up the common misconceptions that the game had been in development for years, building up many people’s expectations and perhaps leading to harsher criticism than if we’d known that it wasn’t. Sean acknowledged that clarifying the timeline of the development cycle might have mitigated the backlash to a certain extent, and that it was certainly a factor in the game’s struggles, but pointed out that at the end of the day, NBA Live 14 didn’t live up to anyone’s expectations. There are reasons, but the results are what they are.
If he can be honest about NBA Live 14 in that manner, then so can we. I do believe in acknowledging good concepts in bad games, and NBA Live 14 did bring some ideas to the table that had a lot of merit. For a sim game released in 2013 however, it simply didn’t do a good enough job of representing the sport in a way that was both realistic and fun to play. It didn’t look the part, it didn’t feel right, and there wasn’t enough depth to the experience. The PS4/X1 version of NBA 2K14 had issues of its own with gameplay and depth, but top to bottom it was a far more well-made product than NBA Live 14. The NBA Live series hadn’t come back with a bang as we’d hoped it would.
And yet, I do think it was important for EA Sports to release NBA Live 14. Choosing to cancel NBA Elite 11 and NBA Live 13 rather than suffer poor sales and reviews was the right call, but at some point, a new game had to be released. By putting NBA Live 14 out there – rough as it was – it at least suggested that the plug hadn’t been pulled on the series, and EA were committed to rebuilding it. It was a rocky start to the generation, but it was a comeback nevertheless. The series was going to be in a tough spot either way, but it can be argued that by releasing a game, it was clear EA weren’t about to give up. Of course, it was also clear there was much work to be done.