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 2002.
NBA Live 2002 is always an interesting game for me to revisit. I played the game a lot when it was new and did get genuine enjoyment out of it, but I also recall many frustrating moments as well. As such, whenever I fire it up, the good and the bad memories come rushing back the moment the intro starts playing. It’s a game that I’ve described myself as being oddly nostalgic for given my mixed feelings towards it, and indeed the time in my life when it came out. Within our community, it proved to be a very controversial release, and altered our perception of and attitude towards the NBA Live series as much as any other title. Let’s take a look back at this infamous game!
Why was it so infamous and controversial within our community? Simply put, NBA Live 2002 was a console-only release, in a community that was mostly dedicated to the PC version and modding. Basketball gamers who preferred PC gaming and held a disdain for consoles weren’t able to play it or any other new sim-oriented NBA title that year. The missteps with NBA Live 2001 and the cancellation of the official patch had already shaken trust in EA Sports, and leaving the PC platform out in the cold did little to change those feelings. The decision didn’t inspire goodwill, but it did motivate the community to continue updating NBA Live 2001 for another full season.
Those of us who did have a PlayStation or Xbox did feel compelled to check out NBA Live 2002. What we found was a game that had a few updates on its predecessor, but many of the same issues with gameplay. There were still problems chaining together animations, especially transitioning from a dribbling animation into a shot. The ratio of offensive to defensive rebounds was still skewed in favour of offensive boards, and there were too many blocks on the perimeter. Steals and turnovers were also still too numerous, thanks to a collision system that desperately needed some semblance of realistic physicality. In short, not a lot had changed from NBA Live 2001.
On top of that, there were some new issues that bugged us. Although the graphics were slightly better, aspects of the presentation felt ill-fitting for a sim game. A loud whooshing sound effect accompanied dunks and three-pointers, which wasn’t a huge problem, but was still somewhat distracting. On big dunks, the backboard bounced as though the stanchion were made of rubber. Whereas it had been too difficult to score inside in NBA Live 2001, in NBA Live 2002 it was arguably too easy to get to the rim for a dunk or a layup; even on the harder difficulty levels. For that reason, I’ve often remembered it as a game that took a more casual approach to the sim style.
However, having revisited the game in recent years, I’ve been surprised to realise that it’s more realistic than I remembered. It’s another old game that responds decently to being played with more realistic strategies, albeit with the usual drawbacks of the AI being a bit cheap and jumpshots not being as reliable as they should be. It’s possible to slow the game down and run some plays, which do get your players into better position to score. It’s also possible to call for a screen independently of running a play, and it can be effective in getting players open for shots. A dedicated alley-oop button also provided more control over passing, and made for memorable highlight plays.
A wider variety of animations also helps highlight plays to look good, as well as feel exciting when you pull them off. Some of the basic dunks from NBA Live 2001 are gone which is unfortunate, but there are some spectacular slams in their place. The between-the-legs dunk is in the game for the first time, though only a few players can pull it off and thankfully it doesn’t happen in traffic that often. The aforementioned issue with the bouncy backboard can be distracting, but dunking is generally quite satisfying. There’s also a good array of layups including one preceded by a hop step, though it’s a canned animation and we don’t have any control over when it triggers.
Speaking of triggering animations, the old issue of dunks and layups not happening on cue is still present, but the one-handed runner that was introduced in NBA Live 2001 is back, and it’s now more effective. There’s also a teardrop shot to accompany the hook shot when backing down in the post, making the paint game more enjoyable with contextually appropriate animations that do look good. For the era, the offensive game is fine, if unsophisticated by modern standards. It’s still advisable to pound the ball inside when you need a basket, but at least great inside scorers can go to work in NBA Live 2002 and finish far more easily than they could in NBA Live 2001.
Unfortunately, the game isn’t as solid at the other end. Without proper physics, it’s still virtually impossible to impede dunks and layups unless you block the shot or commit a hard foul. When dunks and layups do trigger, many of them are very fast animations – the proverbial “rocket dunks” that are still a problem today – which doesn’t give the defense a realistic or reasonable time to react and challenge the attempt, as much as it can. The blocks on the perimeter are obviously a way of trying to balance the defense, but it’s not ideal. Blocks are also accompanied by a loud crashing sound effect, and like the effects on dunks and three-pointers, it does detract from the sim atmosphere.
Shot distribution is decent however, especially considering NBA Live’s history of favouring one position or another, regardless of who should actually be the go-to guy on any given team. Some stars are extremely difficult to stop, with Shaquille O’Neal in particular being a terrifying beast. That isn’t unrealistic of course, but in twelve minute quarters he’s always a threat to go off for 40 or more. Outside of some inflated numbers, and the rebounding ratio, NBA Live 2002’s stats aren’t too bad. It’s another area where I’ve often recalled the game being more unrealistic than it is, probably because the anomalies stand out more than the statistics that aren’t problematic.
It’s even easier to make these criticisms in hindsight, so as always, it’s important to put NBA Live 2002 in historical context. We were aware of the issues at the time, and we wanted to see improvement, but it didn’t stand in the way of enjoying the game. NBA Live 2001 and NBA Live 2002 weren’t better than NBA Live 2000 in every way, but there were some noticeable improvements, and I wouldn’t say that they were inferior to any other NBA sim titles from 2000 and 2001. If you could get past the issues then NBA Live 2002 could indeed be fun. In that regard, we could probably say that not a lot has changed when it comes to our attitude and approach to basketball video games.
Franchise mode made its console debut in NBA Live 2002, though the number of seasons was cut from 25 to ten. Although this can be seen as a backwards step, it was still progress for the console versions, and in all fairness, not a lot of gamers made it through all 25 seasons anyway. Nothing new was added to the mode, and indeed the three-team trade interface was now gone. NBA Live 2002’s Franchise also has a rather annoying bug where players who play zero minutes in gameplay will still tally a game played if they’re on the active roster. Fortunately, we could still have less than 12 active players, which allowed us to shorten rotations without messing up any stats.
Practice mode returned, though as I’ve alluded to in previous retrospectives, it was no longer possible to shoot at both ends of the court. It’s a very minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, but it is something that we noticed upon firing it up for the first time. 1-on-1 mode is back, and the roster of Legends also returns, albeit with a couple of names missing. Because of the roster cut-off date, a handful of key rookies are also missing, namely Tony Parker, Tyson Chandler, and Eddy Curry. Because the latter two were the Bulls’ first round picks that year, their absence made using my favourite team in Franchise mode far less appealing than it otherwise may have been.
Around the time of NBA Live 2002, the series was changing its approach to music. After years of using original tracks composed in-house, NBA Live 2000 and NBA Live 2001 had both featured licensed tracks, with at least one original song. Starting with NBA Live 2002, the soundtrack consisted entirely of licensed music, though in the case of NBA Live 2002, they were all instrumental or heavily edited versions of the songs. When you look up the original versions of the songs to give them a listen, you can see why they chose the instrumental and radio-friendly edits, as they’re not appropriate for a family-rated game! It’s something else that still happens today.
It’s also worth mentioning that NBA Live 2002 is the first game in the NBA Live series to feature Michael Jordan (and not a Roster Player) while he was active in the league. His comeback with the Washington Wizards was a big story in the real NBA and on the virtual hardwood alike, so as you might expect, EA Sports promoted the game with some screenshots of MJ in his new uniform. Interestingly, MJ was also the cover player for the Japanese version of NBA Live 2002, rather than Steve Francis. It’s strange that EA didn’t feature him as the main cover player, but it does make the Japanese release quite a collector’s item. When I saw one on eBay, I had to pick it up!
In some respects, NBA Live 2002 represents an odd time and an era of change in both the real NBA and basketball video games. It’s set in a season that saw future Hall of Famers including Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Patrick Ewing playing in unfamiliar jerseys. Cover player Steve Francis was a rising star, making him a choice that’s looking to the future. It’s the last game in the series to feature the handcheck button, which is only appropriate given that handchecking was close to being phased out completely in the real NBA. I also believe that it was testing the waters as far as abandoning the PC platform, as the NBA Live series would indeed do come 2008.
On that note, from the moment NBA Live 2002 was announced as a console-only release, it began an annual worry that the series wouldn’t be returning to PC. Even when it returned the very next year with NBA Live 2003, there was always a panic until the PC version was officially confirmed. As I said, it shook a lot of basketball gamers’ trust in EA Sports, which was still there even after NBA Live 2001 received its share of criticism. Unfortunately the series has moved away from PC following NBA Live 08, with many gamers switching to NBA 2K. Although NBA Live 2002 didn’t mark the end of the series on PC, it arguably sowed the seeds for it to happen.
I mentioned that I’m oddly nostalgic for NBA Live 2002, and although I’ve covered a lot of the reasons why – a strange but memorable time in the NBA, the dawn of a new era, and gameplay that was flawed yet fun – my reasons are also personal. It was the first game that came out after I assumed the reins here at the NLSC, and thus the first release I had to cover for the site. I was also entering my final year of high school at the time, which was obviously a period of change with looming worries about the future. I can look back on that time with more fondness and appreciation now, and that also goes for the things that were calming influences, such as basketball games.
How to sum up one of the most controversial releases in the NBA Live series at the time? There are a lot of justified criticisms of NBA Live 2002, but in some ways, it’s slightly underrated. Once you get past some of the aesthetics and quirks with the mechanics, there’s more realism than first appears. By bringing Franchise mode to consoles, as well as adding the alley-oop and call for pick buttons, it featured some worthy improvements. For better or worse, it’s a milestone release with a handful of interesting trivia notes. I’ve come to look upon it more favourably as the years have gone by; it’s solid for its era despite its issues, and it paved the way for bigger things.