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! Today, it’s a retrospective of NBA Live 2001.
After firmly holding the title of the best NBA sim game on the market through the 90s and consistently improving from year to year, NBA Live 2001 was one of the first missteps for the NBA Live series. To be clear, I definitely don’t see it as an all-around terrible game, and there are games in the series that are a lot rougher around the edges, but NBA Live 2001 did have some significant problems. Looking back at the game and remembering the time I spent with it, I’d describe it as fun, but flawed. Its predecessors hadn’t been perfect of course, so was it just a case of impossibly high expectations after NBA Live 2000? Let’s revisit NBA Live 2001 and see.
Although NBA Live 2000 had been extremely successful, its tech was getting old, which led to a rebuild with NBA Live 2001. It resulted in noticeable improvements, but also some teething problems. That applies to the game in general, but it’s perfectly exemplified by the graphics. Certain court and arena details are definitely improved – particularly the rim and backboard – and player faces are still detailed and impressive for the era. Player models are too thin and angular however, and there are kerning issues with the jerseys. You can see that the new tech has allowed for some visual improvements, but it wasn’t quite right yet. It was a similar story with gameplay.
Before I go into detail there, I’ll touch on the presentation, which was also a mixed bag. The menus and overlays are generally appealing, but while the presentation imitated an NBA broadcast in general, there’s no branding or direct influence from a specific television network. The referee no longer appears during gameplay, which does speed things up, but also detracts from the atmosphere. Commentary is much better though, as Bob Elliott – who would also portray Joe “The Show” Jackson in NBA Street – replaces Reggie Theus. Elliott’s delivery was far more enthusiastic, and he has far more lines that actually sound like he’s commenting on the action.
With that being said, let’s look at the gameplay. Not unlike some recent titles, many of the biggest problems came down to balance and tuning. On All-Star difficulty, it was often far too easy to blow out the CPU by twenty or more, unless you had the “Keep Scores Close” option enabled. Unfortunately, when you bumped the difficulty up to Superstar, the game was ridiculously cheap and generally too frustrating to play. The CPU struggled to shoot above 40% on all difficulty levels, though the higher the difficulty, the more things evened out with the user’s shooting percentages. That era in the NBA is remembered for stagnant offense, but it was nowhere near that stagnant.
If you played NBA Live 2001 back in the day, the one issue you probably remember most vividly is the problematic rebounding. There were simply far too many offensive boards, and I’ve often seen the CPU snag a ridiculous amount of them minutes into a game. It was possible to have stretches where the offensive to defensive rebounding ratio was fairly realistic, but by the end of the game, the totals would be too even, or erroneously favour offensive rebounds. Along with the shooting percentages, this led to the creation of tweaked rosters: updates with major ratings edits to attempt to fix gameplay. They had limited success however, and caused issues in Franchise mode.
Legacy issues included a few too many steals, though you were at least able to keep pace with the CPU in that regard. As with its predecessor, NBA Live 2001 featured some nice blocking animations that weren’t all just huge swats, but there were still too many blocks. Layups and dunks were still very inconsistently triggered, though at least this time pressing the shoot button when too far out performed a one-handed runner. Sadly, it was less effective than it should’ve been, as were most inside shots. Between the fatigue rate and a lack of fouls resulting in fewer stoppages, the CPU would play its starters most of the game instead of making regular substitutions.
While the controls were fine for the most part, in some areas they were stiffer and less responsive than in NBA Live 2000. It was difficult to chain together or break out of animations, leading to a couple of recurring annoyances on offense. Because dribbling moves couldn’t be interrupted, it was too easy to go out of bounds on spin moves and crossovers that went awry. Even if you did pull off a move successfully and found yourself in position to take a good shot, a lack of responsiveness and an unforgiving input window made it difficult to transition into an attempt, allowing the defense to recover. Animations were quite good on their own, but they didn’t go together well.
Alright, so those are a lot of glaring flaws, and I’m sure that I haven’t painted a very flattering picture of NBA Live 2001’s gameplay. Does that mean that there aren’t any redeeming qualities, and that my aforementioned “fun, but flawed” assessment is purely the result of the proverbial nostalgia filter? No, not exactly. Superstar difficulty was too cheap to play on, but All-Star difficulty could be a lot of fun. As I said, the “Keep Scores Close” option did ramp up the challenge, making All-Star difficulty tougher without the cheapness of Superstar. If the statistical anomalies didn’t bother you too much, you could get used to the quirky mechanics and enjoy the experience.
NBA Live 2001 also has some of my favourite dunk animations of the early games, with several of them still looking quite decent today. Some of the more awkward dunks from NBA Live 2000 were replaced, and there was an assortment of basic jams. Despite the inconsistency in triggering them, NBA Live 2001 did have some of the best looking dunk and layup animations we’d seen at that time. Rim interactions were surprisingly good and the board shakes, though the breakaway rim doesn’t bend down. I think it’s the less emphatic slams that impress me the most, as to this day, a lack of basic dunk animations remains a weakness in NBA Live’s paint game.
I’d say that the lack of a consistent challenge bothers me more now than it did at the time. When I was younger, I enjoyed beating up on the CPU, and blowing it out. These days, I’d much prefer the AI to be sharper, and more challenging. Once again though, with “Keep Scores Close” enabled on All-Star difficulty, the game is more than playable, even today. You just need to accept that shooting percentages are too low, blocking and stealing numbers are a tad too high, and rebound totals won’t be properly balanced. NBA Live 2001 can still be enjoyable despite its flaws, though it admittedly doesn’t hold up as well as some other older games because of them.
Game modes and features in NBA Live 2001 were a mixture of pleasing additions, and frustrating subtractions. Franchise mode returned with a new three-team trade function, which was also available when editing the default rosters. It can be tough to use since you can’t propose trades that involve players moving between two CPU-controlled teams, but just as in real life, it was a viable way to get trades to work under the salary cap by making two deals at once. It was an underrated feature, and it’s a shame that it hasn’t been seen since NBA Live 2001. Other than the ability to swap teams between seasons, the core features of Franchise were mostly unchanged.
In addition to the three-team trade function, roster management also benefitted from two other useful additions: the option to disable automatic roster re-ordering, and the ability to have less than twelve players on the active roster. Both were particularly handy when it came to making roster updates, as well as managing your lineup in Franchise mode. Unfortunately, custom teams were removed, as was the ability to assign and remove player accessories. Face in the Game returned, though there were fewer head morphing options, and editing player weight and body type in-game was cumbersome as it involved manipulating three body shape sliders.
The ability to save games in progress was also lost, which annoyed more than a few gamers who wanted the convenience, as well as the ability to create scenarios. On the other hand, replays could now be exported as video files, rather than simply being saved to re-watch in-game. Meanwhile, Practice Mode and the Three-Point Shootout found themselves on the chopping block, though One-on-One mode did remain. It was no longer branded with Michael Jordan’s name, though MJ and most of the historical players did return via the Decade All-Stars and Legends Pool. Charles Barkley notably makes his final official appearance in the series in NBA Live 2001.
Thankfully, the PC version was still quite modder-friendly, and the modding scene for NBA Live 2001 remained active for a long time, especially with NBA Live 2002 being a console-only release. As I mentioned, the concept of tweaked rosters made its debut, though they were an imperfect solution to a game that needed several fixes. At one point, EA Sports did intend to release an official patch that addressed some of the most troubling issues. Weeks went by without any updates, however; without social media, communication was far more limited. Unfortunately, when the developers did finally get back to us, it was to inform us that plans for the patch had fallen through.
In the wake of this unfortunate news, much of the community’s anger was unfairly directed at Tim, one of the NLSC’s founders. Tim had joined the NBA Live team prior to the release of NBA Live 2001, and in addition to his role developing the game, he was also liaising with the community to gather our feedback and provide us with updates. Because Tim was the bearer of bad news, a lot of angry gamers ended up shooting the messenger, and placed all the blame on him. The frustration and anger over the lack of a patch was understandable, but attacking Tim was misdirected to say the least, considering everything that he’d done for the community over many years.
I’ve mostly discussed the PC version so far in this retrospective, as that’s what I used to play, but I would like to touch on the console versions as I’ve since picked them up. The PlayStation 2 version of NBA Live 2001 was essentially the same as the PC in terms of its gameplay, for better or worse. It lacked Franchise Mode – only Season Mode was available – and included a Play Now option in the main menu, which was basically just a shortcut to begin an exhibition game with random teams. It also lacked 3D portraits, and the graphics are inferior to the PC. It is very bare bones for a first release on a new platform, which has sadly become a recurring theme for NBA Live.
Interestingly, the PlayStation 1 version retained the Three-Point Contest and Practice Mode, as well as the Michael Jordan branding for One-on-One. It also included the NBA Live Challenge, in which gamers are presented with statistical marks they need to attempt to match. An NBA Draft option was also present, which was basically just a means of holding a fantasy draft before actually starting a Season game. Apart from benefitting from a few extra features, however, it’s more or less a slightly enhanced and updated version of NBA Live 2000 – right down to its graphics and animations – with some of the same gameplay issues as the PC and PlayStation 2 releases.
Whenever I revisit old games, be it NBA Live or another series, there are times when I’m surprised by how well a title holds up, or proves to be better than I remembered it. Other times, of course, games don’t age as well, or aren’t as good as I recalled them being. For the most part, NBA Live 2001 is more or less how I remembered it, both the good and the bad. Some of the flaws are admittedly more glaring now that far superior basketball games have come along, but I was definitely aware of them – and annoyed by them – all those years ago, too. As a follow up to one of the best and most popular games in the NBA Live series, it’s fair to say that it came up a little short.
At the same time, I wouldn’t call NBA Live 2001 the worst game in the series, nor would I say that it’s a basketball game without any kind of merit. It has more polish and a wider range of features than other disappointing releases, and although it came up short in some key areas, it could still be enjoyed for what it was. A patch may have resolved some of the most troubling issues by fine-tuning the gameplay, but sadly, we’ll never know. As it stands, I’ll stick with my original summation: NBA Live 2001 is fun, but flawed. Despite our complaints, mods allowed us to get a lot of mileage out of it over the span of a couple of years, as we waited for NBA Live to return to PC.