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! At long last, it’s a retrospective of NBA Live 19.
And so, we’ve come to the final game in the NBA Live series to date, and thus the final retrospective in our 25th Anniversary of NBA Live content! I have to say that it’s been a wild ride to experience the ups and downs again, revisiting every title in the series one by one. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it too, even as we’ve revisited some of the weaker games. On that note, unfortunately the most recent NBA Live game isn’t one of the better releases, at least in my book. Those of us who would prefer that NBA Live focus on the NBA experience were hoping against hope that NBA Live 19 would be a return to form, but sadly, it picked up where NBA Live 18 left off.
Our first clue that NBA Live 19 wasn’t going to be the game we wanted it to be was its tagline: The One Edition. It was the first time that NBA Live had a tagline that wasn’t just a slogan on the back of the box, and the fact that it referred to the game’s career mode and connected experiences suggested that it was highly unlikely that other modes (or NBA gameplay) received ample attention. That was indeed the case, as most of the changes in NBA Live 19 can be found in The One. On top of that, the other experiences in the game were actually worse than they had been in NBA Live 18! Well, Franchise was basically the same, but that was disappointing enough.
Ultimate Team was clearly an afterthought. Throughout the year, plenty of challenges were added, but they were extremely repetitive, and I couldn’t bring myself to slog through many of them. The starting cards were all rated extremely low, and a lot of the players couldn’t dunk when they absolutely should’ve been able to. The dunking issue wasn’t unprecedented, but on the whole, the content was very uninspiring. The lone bright spot was that contracts had been removed, eliminating a very annoying mechanic from the mode. It didn’t really matter though, as I felt no incentive to spend time in Ultimate Team, despite really enjoying it in NBA Live 18 and NBA Live 15.
It was all about The One, and having already committed to MyCAREER in NBA 2K19 – a much deeper and enjoyable experience, in a game that corrected some of the most troubling issues of its predecessor – I didn’t feel like playing through another career mode. Once again, The One featured intuitive integration of The Streets and The League, allowing gamers to go back and forth between the two, or stick with the one they liked best. There were also a couple of new additions in the form of The Streets World Tour, and Court Battles. They were actually good ideas, but held little appeal to anyone who was craving an in-depth card collecting or franchise experience.
As the name might suggest, The Streets World Tour involved touring the world and playing in streetball tournaments. It was a replacement for the Pro-Am Tour, taking the mode global. Not only were there tournaments located at famous courts in the United States and Canada, but also France, Brazil, and the Philippines, to name but a few. As usual, the art team went to painstaking detail to recreate those locations. Similar to the Pro-Am Tour, The Streets World Tour tied in with a basic story called The Rise. Once again, the tale was mostly told through text messages with your agent, and concerns making a name for yourself in The Streets as you aim to reach the NBA.
It’s mercifully short and essentially flavour content, though it paled in comparison to the production values of NBA 2K19’s MyCAREER story. On the other hand, it didn’t take as long to get through. Progression for your One player was also quick, and there was a new approach with the Icon Paths. The basic idea was that you chose a Legend to model your game after, and then your upgrades mimicked their journey. Along the way, you were able to choose how to spend your Skill Points, with branching options on the Icon Paths depending on how you wanted to develop your player. The path that you took determined which special Icon Abilities you unlocked for added boosts.
This simplified the process of building a player. Compared to NBA 2K19, it was a lot easier to create multiple players and level them up, allowing you to experience more than one position and Icon Path if you so desired. The separate Reward Points and Skill Points continued to ensure you never had to choose between ratings upgrades and cosmetic items, though the loot box approach for the latter was still utilised. Other gear could be picked up from LIVE Events, which once again presented challenges hosted on the various street courts. There were some creative events though, including an NBA Street-inspired one with big heads and Stretch Monroe as an opponent.
Between The Streets World Tour and Court Battles, the idea was to build a squad of players that you could team up with in those modes. In that respect, it was similar to the campaign mode of NBA Street Homecourt. Court Battles were a creative idea, in which you played single player games to win and take control of other people’s One Court. The One Court was a customisable home court which you could decorate with items that you unlocked through playing The Streets. It was a fun idea, encouraging the community to get creative as the best designs were spotlighted weekly. The One Court was also used as the Practice arena, changing as you added new designs.
To that end, the court creation utilities were fairly deep. Some of the items were quite expensive to unlock, but fortunately there were no microtransactions involved. On one hand, it was a shame to lose the unique designs we’d seen over the years, such as The Hangar and The Temple. On the other hand, being able to personalise the practice court was a fresh idea. I decided to re-create The Hangar for my court, and I’ll admit that I felt quite proud when it was featured as one of the courts of the week, along with some very kind comments about the NLSC. Community-oriented initiatives are something that EA needs to keep in mind when NBA Live (hopefully) returns.
Getting back to Court Battles, there was an attack and a defend phase. The goal was to assemble a squad that would be able to defend your court against attacking gamers, which was achieved by unlocking players through The Streets and LIVE Events. To tip things in your favour, you can assign custom rules to games played on your court; dunks are worth 5 points, rebounds and assists are worth 1 point, and so on. When you’re “attacking” someone else’s court with a view to controlling it, you’ll need to deal with the same rules, as well as any handicaps regarding player requirements. It can be fun and doesn’t involve online play, but I did grow tired of it fairly quickly.
Of course, the reason that I grew weary of The One and Court Battles – and all of the other modes on offer in NBA Live 19 – is that the gameplay wasn’t very good. It was better at launch, but unfortunately, the very last patch for the game ruined shooting. A tuning update intended to limit Green releases made it far too difficult to get Greens against the CPU, because it was far more adept at sticking to its man and closing out on shooters. Hitting shots in NBA Live 19 really depended on being able to get a Green release, so in its final patched state, it’s almost impossible to shoot jumpshots at a decent clip against the CPU. In my experience, that made the game unplayable.
Apart from that, there was no improvement on NBA Live 18. If anything, gameplay had taken a few steps backwards. Players jumped for rebounds automatically, leading to an awkward feeling of being out of control. The only major addition to the controls was the ability to celebrate in different ways after baskets, which quite frankly was the least important aspect of the game they could’ve addressed. There’s still no real NBA strategy, or differentiation between teams. There were new animations, but the old ones were still there, there was still clunkiness to them, and player movement didn’t feel any better on the sticks. Again, focusing on The Streets ignored core issues.
Frustratingly, it also led to streetball moves in NBA gameplay. Unlike NBA 2K, which has separate Park and NBA animations, NBA Live 19 allowed moves intended for The Streets to be used in The League as well. It’s distracting to see a player pulling out The Professor’s fancy dribble moves in the middle of an NBA game. We can joke about referees swallowing the whistle and And1 moves influencing the modern NBA, but you don’t see that; not to that extent, anyway. NBA 2K does have issues with tuning intended for online play affecting the offline experience as well, but it does maintain a good separation of Park and other modes. NBA Live 19 failed to do that.
Speaking of failures, the commentary in NBA Live 19 was a huge misstep. Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy were replaced by Ed Cohen, play-by-play man of the New York Knicks, and ESPN analyst Jay Williams. There’s no way to be nice about this, so I’ll just be blunt: they’re terrible. It was done because NBA Live 19 introduced dynamic commentary, and it was obviously easier to get them back into the studio to record new lines compared to Breen and Van Gundy. They are a chore to listen to however, having absolutely no entertaining lines or charm in their delivery. It really wasn’t worth getting rid of ESPN’s A-team just to provide commentary updates.
With such unappealing gameplay, I quickly eschewed NBA Live 19 for NBA 2K19, and haven’t looked back. I’d almost rather play NBA Live 07; almost. It at least had a focus on the NBA! NBA Live 19 tried too hard to be a hybrid of NBA Live and NBA Street, without being particularly good at either. That’s the underlying problem with the direction the game took: it has no identity. It’s not wacky enough to be an NBA Street game, but it’s not deep enough to be the sim game we want out of NBA Live. Mechanically, it doesn’t stack up to the best releases of either series. It’s chasing a hypothetical “new, younger generation”, instead of trying to win back hoops gamers.
Roster editing was in the game by default in NBA Live 19, but oddly, we weren’t able to trade players outside of Franchise mode. The only way to move players around in a custom roster was to release them to the Free Agents and then sign them elsewhere, one by one. That a staple function of roster editing was missing, when it had been there in NBA Live 18, is baffling. There were also bugs, such as edited players getting younger, and entire custom rosters being corrupted. If it didn’t have anything to do with The Streets, then there just wasn’t enough care and attention. It highlights how it was absolutely the wrong direction to take, and NBA Live 19 suffered greatly for it.
WNBA teams also returned, but once again, there was no mode for them. NBA 2K has since also added WNBA teams, along with season, and now franchise and career play. It stands as another example of how it doesn’t matter who did it first, but rather who does it the best. I’m not suggesting the WNBA was the key to NBA Live having greater success, but it’s another feature they had first, only for NBA 2K to do it much better. There have been so many missed opportunities for NBA Live over the years. Come to think of it, that basically describes NBA Live 19. It could’ve corrected course after NBA Live 18 and been so much more than it was. It just wasn’t to be.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t shocking when NBA Live 20 was subsequently cancelled – sort of, as it was never officially announced or previewed – as I’m sure that NBA Live 19 didn’t fare well in sales. It has a dedicated userbase and I admire their passion, but it definitely wasn’t the game I wanted it to be, and I know that I’m not alone in that regard. Doubling down on The Streets and neglecting the NBA gameplay for the second straight year ignored what gamers wanted, and one of the keys to NBA 2K’s success. Even though NBA 2K has branched out into other experiences with Park and Pro-Am, it all starts with being an NBA sim, and building everything else upon that.
It’s disheartening that after so many setbacks, false starts, and then promising progress by the time NBA Live 16 came out, the NBA Live series is once again dormant. It’s not a happy ending to these retrospectives, and the story of the series to date. If there’s one thing I’d like everyone to take away from these retrospectives, it’s that there was a time when NBA Live was the sim basketball game. It was innovative, and a quality product from top to bottom. There’s never been a perfect NBA Live game, but there are a few that rank up there with some of the best sim titles, relative to their era. Many of us older hoops gamers have thousands of fond memories of playing them for hours.
Those days are sadly long gone. From the shaky launch on Xbox 360 to the risky and ill-advised experiment with NBA Elite 11, to a frantic rebuild on the eighth generation and a direction that has alienated even the most loyal of fans, NBA Live’s legacy isn’t what it should be, and its future is up in the air. My hope is that an announcement will be made in 2021, heralding a new NBA Live that’s poised to make a strong comeback. Amazingly, the door hasn’t been slammed shut on the NBA Live series. A mixture of nostalgia and frustration with NBA 2K has kept it open. If EA Sports can capitalise on that hope and deliver the game we’ve been dreaming of, it’ll be worth all the struggles.
As far as what the current development team can learn from NBA Live 19, I would once again spotlight the need to focus on the NBA experience first, and branch out from there. The core mechanics, from player movement and controls to replicating what we see on TV, must be paramount. At the same time, the modes must also offer a significant amount of depth. We simply cannot have another NBA Live game where we can look at it, and point out missing features that were available to us in the mid to late 90s. It cannot look, feel, or play like it’s a generation behind. EA has been quiet for a while now. It’s either a bad sign, or they’re cooking up something good.
Honestly, I hope it’s the latter. I want NBA Live to succeed, and I want there to be options in the basketball gaming space. I’d much rather have the problem of trying to ration my time between two great games, than be constantly let down by one, or have to settle for the other by default. There has been news that inspires some optimism, with former NBA 2K developers making the jump to EA Sports. I’m hoping for the best, but as they say, the proof will be in the pudding. Many gamers feel burned by the struggles of NBA Live, having put faith in it year after year for more than a decade now. I’d love to see NBA Live create a new legacy on a new generation.
What else is there to say about NBA Live 19? The fact that there are people still playing it does suggest that there’s something to the experience. I know firsthand that it’s possible to make allowances for a flawed product, and make the best of it to enjoy it for what it is. More power to you if you can do that. Personally, I just can’t do it with NBA Live 19. There’s not enough to keep me hooked as far as the modes, and with the changes made by the final patch, I don’t even find it fun to dust off for a quick game. I can do that for quite a few games in the series, stretching right back to NBA Live 95. I’m hoping that I can find that same enjoyment in a future release.
If you were to ask me what needs to happen for that to be a possibility, I would say that the developers need to listen to basketball gamers, young and old. They need to look at what has made NBA 2K so successful, and start ticking the same boxes. That doesn’t mean doing everything the same, but it means including all the staple features that gamers expect to see in a sim title. It means polished gameplay that realistically represents basketball, and feels good on the sticks. It means modes that we can sink hours into. It means avoiding gimmicks and quick fixes, and creating the best NBA game they can…and then taking it even further the year after, and the year after that.
It remains to be seen what will happen from here on out, but again, I’m hoping for the best. In the meantime, thank you for taking this journey with me through the history of NBA Live. It’s taken a little longer than I hoped, but I’m glad to be at the end of the road. If you’ve missed any of the retrospectives, I invite you to go back and check them out. Feel free to share your thoughts on my reflections, as well as some of your favourite memories. As I said, hopefully we’ll be able to create more fond memories with a new NBA Live game sometime in the future. Until then, there are some true classics in the series, as I hope I’ve demonstrated. It never hurts to revisit them.
That’s all for the game-by-game retrospectives, but stay tuned in 2021 for some additional 25th Anniversary of NBA Live content! There’ll also be further features exploring the history of NBA Live and interesting aspects of the games in Wayback Wednesday. For now, share your thoughts in the comments below, and join in the discussion here in the NLSC Forum!