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 16.
I have mixed feelings when I look back at NBA Live 16. On one hand, it’s a very solid game that was an improvement on NBA Live 15. I also had the opportunity to play it early, and to date, that was the last community event that I attended. On the other hand, the game also introduced concepts that while fun, have since taken the series in the wrong direction upon becoming the main focus. That makes it a pivotal title in the series, and in hindsight, there were some red flags about what was to come. At the same time, the good things that it did were cause for optimism, and deserve credit. With that in mind, NBA Live 16 is a rather interesting release to reflect upon.
Just as NBA Live 15 had reduced the stiffness felt in NBA Live 14, NBA Live 16 made further progress towards fluid and responsive gameplay. For the most part, you could make moves on offense and stay with your man on defense without the players feeling too heavy. Catching animations did account for some out of control moments though, and contributed to exaggerated momentum. The more awkward animations were being slowly replaced, but there were definitely ones that looked unnatural. Nevertheless, NBA Live 16 is one of the best-feeling games in the series from the past generation. It wasn’t on par with NBA 2K16, but it does still hold up quite well.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it had the best shooting mechanics of any NBA Live game released during the past decade. For the first time, a shot meter was added, and it was handled quite differently to NBA 2K. There was still an optimal release point – in NBA Live’s case, at the top of the meter – but rather than being a guaranteed make, it simply represented the highest possible chance of making the shot, according to a player’s ratings and how tightly they were guarded. The displayed percentage was a bit confusing for some gamers, but the basic concept of hitting the ideal release point was simple enough to grasp, making jumpshots more reliable than they’d ever been.
Furthermore, the length and speed of the meter were just right. Savvy defense could take away open looks, but the shooter wasn’t disadvantaged by a meter that took too long to reach the optimal release point. As such, it was possible to beat the defense with quick reactions and rapid fire jumpers when you were open. The same mechanic was used for free throws, with ratings determining the percentage players would shoot with the best possible release. Separating the shooting animations from the timing made them feel very smooth. There are times when you miss the concept of a Green Release when playing NBA Live 16, but I’d say that shooting was very well-handled.
There were also a couple of welcome improvements to playcalling. When bringing the ball up the floor, tapping L1 triggered a Quick Play, with the CPU selecting an appropriate play to run. Holding L1 brought up the Play Wheel, featuring a play for everyone in the current lineup as well as the full playbook, all of which could be selected using the right stick. This gave us the choice between full playcalling with an intuitive interface, or a streamlined option for running the offense. The on-court play diagrams were also more detailed. No matter how familiar you were with Xs and Os, the diagrams were very effective at directing you where to go, and what to do.
That wasn’t the only improvement to onboarding. A line connecting player indicators helped you to find your man on defense and stick with them. Pop-up boxes provided reminders of rules such as five second inbounding and eight seconds in the half, with a timer that counted down. This obviously wasn’t necessary for the experienced hoops fan and gamer, but they were good ideas, and could be switched off if you didn’t need them. New controls included a defensive slide and dig steal with the right stick, new coaching strategies on the D-Pad (replacing the old Quick Plays), a handoff pass if you held the alley-oop button, and elusive off-ball moves such as spins and pushes.
Signature dribbles/size-ups were removed though, in the name of providing us with the opportunity to chain together our own combinations rather than triggering a canned animation. There are pros and cons to both approaches, but if you prefer the animation-heavy approach, then NBA Live 16 likely disappointed you with its choice. Dribbling moves are effective, and it’s possible to engage in post battles, though the controls weren’t as deep as Own the Paint from several years earlier. The gather button allowed for Euro steps, pro hops, step backs, and spin gathers. By clicking the left stick after calling for a pick, we could instruct our teammate to either roll or pop.
Apart from the signature dribbling packages, the only missing functionality was manual control over bounce passes, bank shots, floaters, and the like. NBA Live 16 still played a good game of basketball without them, but we did emphasise the need for added depth at the community event. The gameplay wasn’t perfect, and certainly not better than NBA 2K16, but it held its own. There are a couple of things that ended up being better in NBA Live 18 and NBA Live 19, but as a complete package – and taking everything into consideration – NBA Live 16’s gameplay is arguably the best since NBA Live 10. It has some quirks, but it still holds up respectably well.
Unfortunately, NBA Live 16 disappointed us once again when it came to the staples we expect to see in a sim game. Roster editing: not available. Dynasty: no better than it had been the past couple of years. Standalone Playoffs mode: still absent. Ultimate Team: well, the content was generally good, but there were no new sub modes, or major changes and improvements. Long-time NBA Live gamers were therefore quite frustrated, feeling that the traditional experiences that always brought welcome depth in previous generations were being neglected. It didn’t help that it looked like the game might be heading in a new direction, aimed at attracting a different audience.
It wasn’t all bad news, though. Gameplay sliders were back, appearing for the first time since NBA Live 10. There wasn’t as many to tweak, and they obviously didn’t apply to Ultimate Team or online play, but nevertheless we were once again able to tune gameplay to our liking. BIG Moments and NBA Rewind (the newly renamed LIVE Season mode) also returned, still powered by data from Synergy. There was also an Accelerated Clock option, which made playing on 12 minute quarters far more feasible. The 24-second shot clock always ran at normal time, and the game clock also slowed down to real time for the final minute, so as not to interfere with clutch plays.
Rising Star didn’t get any deeper, but it did expand the face customisation tools. Not only that, but it took a page out of NBA 2K’s book, providing us with face scanning functionality. In fact, NBA Live 16’s companion app was superior to the method used in NBA 2K16, and the results were generally much better. I was never able to get face scanning to work in NBA 2K16, and I’ve only been successful in a couple of NBA 2K games since then. I’d go so far as to say that user face scanning is one of the things that NBA Live absolutely does do better than NBA 2K, and it’s been that way from the start. The scans themselves look better, and the process has been much easier.
Of course, Rising Star wasn’t the only reason that NBA Live 16 introduced user face scans for our avatars. The game saw the introduction of LIVE Pro-Am, consisting of the Summer Circuit and LIVE Run. Like its adidas-themed counterpart in NBA Live 10, LIVE Run consisted of online pickup games to 21, only now instead of controlling NBA players, we used our created player from Rising Star. Also, while LIVE Run supported up to ten players on ten different consoles – just like the old Online Team Play modes – it was possible to play with a minimum of four users. Whenever there were less than ten users, NBA players controlled by the CPU filled the empty spots.
Games took place at authentic pro-am arenas from around North America: the Hoop Dome in Toronto, Seattle Pacific University, Brooklyn Park, the Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco, Venice Beach, Terminal 23 in New York, and Rucker Park. Margaret Hie Ding Lin in Chicago was also later added in a patch. These same venues were also utilised in the Summer Circuit. Summer Circuit was both a single player and multiplayer mode for up to five users. Each venue hosted a series of challenges, in which Rising Star players took on a group of NBA opponents with a connection to the venue. Winning games and completing objectives unlocked gear for your player.
I played a lot of LIVE Pro-Am at the community event, as the developers were keen for us to road test the new mode. Unfortunately for EA Sports, while I was at the event, 2K officially announced 2K Pro-Am; their own online team play mode that obviously used a very similar name. I can guarantee you that EA had the name ready to go, but as a result of 2K beating them to the punch, they ended up being accused of stealing the name for their mode. Apart from that unfortunate turn of events, LIVE Pro-Am was a good idea, especially with how it combined single and multiplayer gameplay. Since it used NBA players, the Pro-Am name was also more appropriate.
LIVE Pro-Am was a lot of fun to play at the community event, and it struck many of us as a great hook, just as Park had become for NBA 2K. On the downside, it was clear that a large focus had been placed on LIVE Pro-Am, most likely at the expense of established modes such as Dynasty, or even the solely single player experience of Rising Star. A few of us did make the point that this wouldn’t sit well with gamers who were more interested in traditional modes, or wanted depth across the board. Obviously, attention had been paid to the NBA gameplay, but I think a few of us sensed that the focus was about to shift towards this new, street-oriented mode.
At the same time, connected experiences in career modes were obviously the way of the future, and the developers had landed on a particularly good idea in Skill Points and Rewards Points. Skill Points were used to upgrade attributes, while Reward Points were used to purchase cosmetic items that could be worn in LIVE Pro-Am. Neither could be purchased with real money, so it was all about playing the game to earn them. This was a stark contrast to NBA 2K’s approach of utilising its Virtual Currency for upgrades and cosmetic items, forcing gamers to budget or buy VC. Ironically, it was an EA product that was adopting the consumer-friendly approach!
Ratings upgrades were also cheaper for “Key Skills”, which were determined by the type of player you chose to be. Also, contrary to the build and Archetype systems that NBA 2K has experimented with over the past few years, your Rising Star player was able to change their style; say, if their dunking or three-point shooting rating crossed a certain threshold. Unfortunately we could only create one player at a time, so we had to choose carefully. As I said though, it was a good hook on top of the NBA content. The authentic venues were a different approach to what NBA 2K was doing with Park, and as in NBA Street Homecourt, they were re-created in impressive detail.
Looking back, NBA Live 16’s NBA and street content were reasonably balanced, even if the development of the Summer Circuit and LIVE Run took focus away from the established NBA modes. However, upon reflection, I can also see that it was a turning point for the series. LIVE Pro-Am was a hook, but its concepts have become a much bigger part of the game in NBA Live 18 and NBA Live 19, to the point where the NBA side of things has unquestionably been neglected. That change in direction can be attributed to LIVE Pro-Am, and its favourable reception. The waters were being tested, and NBA Live would soon try to morph into an NBA Street hybrid.
Instead of a deep Dynasty or Ultimate Team experience, we’re now playing in the streets and trying to unlock clothes. I’ll go into more detail in the forthcoming articles, but we’re seeing street moves in NBA gameplay, and post-release tuning is generally focused on the online multiplayer experience. Again, those of us who were at the NBA Live 16 community event did warn that neglecting the traditional NBA aspects wouldn’t be a wise direction, but since then, NBA Live has been chasing a supposed new audience. We’ve seen how well that’s worked out, but as I said, I’ll cover that in more detail in the upcoming retrospectives for NBA Live 18 and NBA Live 19.
To that end though, NBA Live 16 is kind of a bittersweet game for me. It’s the last game that placed appropriate emphasis on NBA content and gameplay, as well as the last title where I was invited to be involved in playtesting and feedback groups; the new community manager that took over a couple of years later decided that the old guard should be ousted in favour of new voices. In hindsight, it’s also the game that ushered in the new direction with the addition of LIVE Pro-Am and a focus on pickup games. It’s not the last release I enjoyed, and I did have my complaints, but it is the last time I felt good about both the quality of, and approach to, an NBA Live game.
However, it isn’t fair to judge NBA Live 16 harshly because its successors have gone in a questionable direction. Even if we can identify it as a turning point and the game in which the series began heading down that road, it deserves to be judged by its own merits. With that in mind, I do think that NBA Live 16 is a contender for the series’ best release of the PlayStation 4/Xbox One generation; the “reboot era”, if you will. It got a lot of things right, including LIVE Pro-Am. The fact that it’s become too much of a focus doesn’t take away from the fact that it was a great idea that was executed well. As I said, the NBA and online team play content was well-balanced that year.
NBA Live 16 also continued to improve on its predecessors as far as mechanics, the controls, and overall feel of the game. It featured ideas that still have merit, and as such, could and should be repurposed in future releases. The shooting mechanics in particular remain a contender for the best we’ve ever seen in the series, proving to be extremely effective without providing gamers with the ability to guarantee a make. The playcalling system catered to hardcore sim heads and more casual hoops gamers alike. The upgrades and cosmetic items system in Rising Star, which carried over to NBA Live 18 and NBA Live 19, is extraordinarily generous for a modern game.
The only other major knock on NBA Live 16 – apart from ushering in a direction that we may disagree with – is that it wasn’t as good as NBA 2K16. Few people expected it to be of course, but it’s only fair to note that for all the good things that it did, NBA Live 16 didn’t move the needle. That may be why the series has adopted the approach that it has, though given NBA Live 16 saw the birth of LIVE Pro-Am, I’d suggest they jumped to the wrong conclusion as to what the game needed most. Revisiting the analogy in EGM’s review of NBA Live 15, NBA Live 16 improved its record, but it was still a lower seeded team taking on a heavily favoured defending champion.
Similar to NBA Live 14, NBA Live 16 received an offseason roster update, albeit right after the Draft rather than following free agency. This meant that the trade that sent Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks is reflected in the game, though his actual debut in the Big Apple wouldn’t come until the 2017 season. No rookies were added as they weren’t licensed, but it was still fresh content. It did lead to scepticism about the future of the series though, with some gamers predicting that it meant there’d be no NBA Live 17. As it turned out, those predictions were on the money. Also, as there was no facility for custom rosters, we were once again stuck with the update.
Sadly, there’s less to enjoy in NBA Live 16 if you return to it now. With the servers now offline, Ultimate Team is gone, as is LIVE Pro-Am; not even the offline portion can be played. This highlights another issue with modern basketball gaming, but at the same time, it’s important that NBA Live can also cater to gamers that prefer the connected experiences. As is the case in NBA 2K, the downside is that games these days are lighter in content that’s still available to retro gamers. Still, if you revisit NBA Live 16 to play Dynasty, Rising Star, or a Tip-Off game, you’ll rediscover gameplay that’s quite pleasing, and ideas the series should revisit moving forward.