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 2003.
It’s interesting how attitudes towards NBA Live 2003 have changed as the years go by. I’ve seen a lot of people mention that it was their first game in the series, which no doubt leads to the same kind of nostalgia people like me have for NBA Live 95. Even for those of us who were more critical, or at least had mixed feelings about NBA Live 2003 when it was new, it’s a release that has since inspired more fondness. It makes sense, though. While certain design choices were controversial and didn’t pan out, it’s a very important release, in large part thanks to the way that it innovated with its dribbling controls. Let’s take a look back at a milestone game in the NBA Live series.
There’s no better place to start than the feature that made NBA Live 2003 a milestone release: Freestyle Control. Billed as a revolutionary feature on the back of the box, Freestyle Control lived up the hype by changing the way basketball video games were played. Indeed, the concepts it introduced have become standard for both NBA Live and NBA 2K to this day. Whereas previous games relied on a single face button to perform dribbling moves, Freestyle provided us with direct control over the moves we wanted to perform. Whether it was a crossover, behind-the-back, between-the-legs, hesitation, or a spin move, moves could be performed on cue each and every time.
This was achieved by making use of the second analog stick that was becoming a standard feature of gamepad controllers for consoles and PC alike. The left stick was still used for player movement while the right stick now performed dribbling moves, in the same way the sticks are utilised in modern games. Dribbling controls in NBA Live 2003 were absolute, meaning that they corresponded to the player’s hands and body no matter where they were on the floor and which camera angle was being used. Movements to the left and right represented making moves to or with the left and right hand respectively, up was always forwards, and down was always backwards.
It was a simple approach that still allowed for more complex moves to be performed. Basic left and right movements performed crossovers, moving up performed a spin while in motion or a fake while stationary, and moving down performed a stepback. Half-rotations performed behind-the-back dribbles. While in the triple threat position, moving the stick up switched between face-up and back-to-the-basket stances, with left, right, and down performing fakes and holding the ball out from the player’s body. On defense, down on the stick put the player in a defensive stance, up raised their arms to challenge shots, and left and right attempted a steal with the respective hand.
In short, the blurb about Total Player Control on the back of the box was more than just marketing hype. Obviously, NBA Live 2003’s controls weren’t as advanced as modern games or even some of its immediate successors, but it was a revolutionary enhancement to player control. Of course, PC gamers needed to pick up a dual analog gamepad if they wanted to use Freestyle Control to its full capabilities. Keyboards were still supported, but they were very limited in mimicking the controls mapped to the right analog stick. Not everyone was happy about the change, but most of us did understand that technology was marching on, and that Freestyle was the future.
As has often been the case with new features however, Freestyle Control did have a few problems in its first iteration. While the controls had been expanded on both sides of the ball, they had a much bigger impact at the offensive end, and thus were quite overpowered. It was very easy to get to the basket by spamming spin moves, and the stepback move provided a cheesy boost to three-point shooting that allowed players like Shaquille O’Neal and Dikembe Mutombo to knock down treys. The concept was great and changed the genre permanently, but the execution wasn’t quite right for a sim game. Indeed, that’s a common complaint when it comes to NBA Live 2003.
Although the core elements of a sim experience are there – 5-on-5 with NBA rules, playcalling, no exaggerated dunks, detailed player ratings and so on – NBA Live 2003 does unquestionably lean in an arcade direction. The gameplay is unrealistically fast, leading to inflated scores and rapid player movement similar to NBA Jam. Shooting percentages are extremely high, in no small part because it’s way too easy to get to the hoop for a dunk. In these retrospectives, I’ve mentioned that many games don’t look as realistic now that we’ve experienced their more advanced successors, but even at the time, it was obvious that something was off with NBA Live 2003’s gameplay.
Because raising a player’s arms to challenge a shot wasn’t as effective as it should’ve been, it was a much wiser strategy to attempt a block. Here too the game fell short in terms of realism, as every block was an enormous swat that sent the ball flying out of bounds or to the opposite baseline, accompanied by a booming sound effect. The CPU is also very adept at playing the passing lines, to the point of being unfair in the way it can anticipate and pick off passes on the harder difficulty levels. Games are basically a wild shootout with blocks often being the only reliable defensive play. Collisions still result in cheap turnovers and fouls, with players colliding like two tin cans.
At the same time, there were some clear improvements in the tech and animations. The difficulty in chaining together animations was gone, so transitioning from a dribbling move into a shot now felt smooth and responsive. There were fewer frustrating moments of turning the ball over thanks to getting stuck in an animation that sent your player out of bounds. Rebounding was fixed, with a majority of the rebounds coming at the defensive end, and jumping for boards being a more effective strategy than scooping them up off the floor. A “Take Charge” button was also added, and it helped out on defense. A variety of new animations also freshened up the game.
Enjoying NBA Live 2003 requires one to not take the sim style too seriously. That is possible, but it was disappointing for those of us who didn’t like the direction and wanted the game to be more realistic. This also applies to the game’s presentation and atmosphere. I mentioned the booming sound on blocked shots before, but there were also crashing and clanging effects on dunks that sounded more like someone bashing on metal garbage cans. The backboards didn’t bounce like their stanchions were made of rubber though, and the basic presentation mimicked an NBA broadcast. Both the players and the environments looked great for a game released back in 2002.
That of course brings us to one of the most infamous aspects of NBA Live 2003’s presentation: the “courtside comedy” cutscenes. These goofy moments include players messing around with the cameraman on the sidelines, pulling pranks on the coach by stealing his seat, tapping the referee on the shoulder and stealing the ball before tip-off, and a player stopping to sign an autograph at halftime (much to the annoyance of the head coach). Because they were programmed to use players at a certain position in the lineup or bench order, we’d get utterly ridiculous moments such as Kwame Brown chewing out Michael Jordan for not paying attention to the coach during a timeout.
Opinions of the comedic cutscenes have always been divided. Some gamers feel that they were amusing and added some welcome levity, while others feel that they were too silly and set an inappropriate tone for a sim game. Personally, I think they can be funny, but they were overdone. There is a certain corny charm to them, and they’re definitely memorable, for better or worse. I think they would’ve been better as Easter eggs that only popped up in rare or specific circumstances, or if there had been some kind of toggle for their frequency. It comes down to personal preference of course, but I do think they were a bit much on top of the other elements that were too “arcade”.
The cutscenes – both the comedic and more serious ones – did spotlight the coaches on the sidelines, which was a new feature in NBA Live 2003. The ability to select jerseys before a game, as well as the inclusion of a retro uniform for every team, was also a first for the series. Although the selection of jerseys pales in comparison to modern games – and even NBA Live 2004 had many more to choose from – the feature was a welcome addition, a further expansion of the game’s content and functionality. The Legends and Decade All-Stars are still included, and with the series returning to PC, we were able to add even more content to the game ourselves through modding.
Speaking of modding, the new CustomArt system in NBA Live 2003 made tinkering with the game a lot easier for the rest of the series’ run on PC. Although previous games could utilise special folders to load custom files, the new CustomArt system was deeper and much better organised. The developers even quietly provided us with a Customisation Guide, a document that outlined the file structure and included instructions on where to place custom files so that they’d be loaded properly. It was easier than ever before to create, distribute, and install mods, and this led to some very detailed projects including NBA Live Street 2003 and foreign league rosters.
NBA Live 2003 featured a familiar lineup of game modes, though Franchise was expanded back to 25 seasons on PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. 1-on-1 mode also now featured three different locations: the familiar urban setting, a beach court, and an indoor gym that was also used in Practice mode. There weren’t too many additions apart from the cosmetic changes however, and Franchise mode in particular was starting to feel shallow after a few years without receiving any new features. There was enough to keep us occupied, but other games like NBA 2K and NBA Inside Drive were starting to add details to their modes that NBA Live 2003 still lacked.
Even though many of us weren’t thrilled with the sillier or more arcade aspects of NBA Live 2003, we still put a lot of time into playing and modding it. As there still weren’t any gameplay sliders, we created “tweaked rosters” as we’d done for NBA Live 2001, in an effort to address issues with game speed and the like. Results were once again mixed, and caused problems in Franchise mode. It was difficult to go back to older releases after experiencing the benefits of Freestyle Control though, which meant that we tried to make the most of it. I ran with the Minnesota Timberwolves in Franchise mode, and though I ultimately lost interest in the game, it had its moments.
Looking back, NBA Live 2003 is a curious deviation from what previous NBA Live games had tried to be. It hadn’t completely abandoned its sim roots, but it was clearly trying for a more casual approach to gameplay, with a light-hearted tone. At the same time, it was being very innovative with the introduction of Freestyle Control, and the sim elements were still very much a part of the game. If nothing else, EA Sports were trying new things. Not all of them worked out for the best, but when it comes to right stick dribbling, they introduced a concept that was truly revolutionary, and ahead of its time. It speaks volumes that it’s still the basic premise for dribbling controls.
All in all, NBA Live 2003 is an interesting mix of good and bad ideas; a title that wasn’t quite what it should’ve been, yet one that still advanced the genre with a great innovation. It can be a frustrating game if you’re after a more realistic approach, but it can also be fun if you’re in the right frame of mind. I still have a lot of nostalgia for it; like NBA Live 2002, it came along at an important time in my life, and I spent hours playing and modding it. Beyond my personal memories, it’s undoubtedly a milestone release for the series. It didn’t do everything right, but it introduced ideas that had merit and would be done better, beginning the very next year with NBA Live 2004.