Welcome to another edition of The Friday Five! Every Friday I cover a topic related to basketball gaming, either as a list of five items, or a Top 5 countdown. The topics for these lists and countdowns include everything from fun facts and recollections to commentary and critique. This week’s Five is a list of five gimmicks in basketball gaming that didn’t last very long.
A common complaint about features, mechanics, or modes in basketball games is that they’re “gimmicky”. Of course, it’s possible to describe the more positive attributes of basketball games as “gimmicks”, in the sense that they’re selling points. However, we usually reserve the terms “gimmicks” and “gimmicky” for features and mechanics that we feel deserve the negative connotation. They’re the aspects of basketball games that add little value, and perhaps even detract from the overall experience. It’s why we say we want to see real improvements and great additions, and not just gimmicks.
Unfortunately, basketball games have experimented with ideas that turned out to be more gimmicky than beneficial. They’re not alone in that regard, though. Other genres of video games, television shows, films, social media platforms…not every idea will be a winner, particularly if the concept wasn’t necessarily intended to be beneficial to the audience. Some ideas are certainly creative and merited a try, but didn’t pan out as well as hoped. The good news is that although we’ve seen a number of questionable gimmicks in basketball games, many of them didn’t last too long. They either evolved into a better concept, or were dropped very soon afterwards, as in these five examples.
1. PlayStation Move Controls
When PlayStation Move and the Xbox’s Kinect were introduced, it seemed as though motion controls were destined to be The Next Big Thing. During Sony’s presentation at E3 2011, Erick Boenisch and Chris Snyder demonstrated the PlayStation Move functionality that was to debut in NBA 2K12. Called NBA on the Move, it promised precise controls that “couldn’t be any easier” to use. It certainly simplified shooting controls and removed the need for Icon Passing, though the developers’ promise that it would bring even greater authenticity invited scepticism. Still, they brought out the late, great Kobe Bryant to help them demonstrate the basics of NBA on the Move.
If you read the comments on the video I linked above, you’ll see a lot of scepticism! While armchair pundits can be quick to predict failure and revel in doing so, those remarks were on the money. The demonstration doesn’t exactly live up to the promise of simplicity and authenticity, instead looking clunky and gimmicky. Obviously, it wasn’t the only way we could play NBA 2K12 on PlayStation 3, but it was clear that a traditional gamepad would remain the superior method of control. Motion controls in general turned out to be more of a passing fad, or at the very least, a niche interest. As such, NBA on the Move joined the ranks of gimmicks that were quickly phased out.
2. 3D Support
Speaking of fads and The Next Big Thing, that label is unquestionably appropriate for 3D; not just in basketball games, but everything, really. 3D is one of those gimmicks that come back into vogue every so often, only to quickly go out of style again. The late 2000s and early 2010s saw a resurgence of interest in presenting entertainment in 3D, and NBA 2K11 jumped on the bandwagon. In November 2010, following the launch of the “regular” version of NBA 2K11, a special 3D version was released. It worked as normal on a regular display, but if you had a 3D-capable display with compatible glasses, you could experience the game IN THE THIRD DIMENSION!
Incidentally, NBA 2K11 also supported PlayStation Move, so you could combine both of those gimmicks for the ultimate immersive virtual basketball experience…or perhaps not. 3D films, television, and gaming did indeed turn out to be another fad. People experienced motion sickness, headaches, eyestrain, and even seizures; in other words, all the usual drawbacks of 3D. For what it’s worth, it’s also estimated that 12% of the population can’t see 3D images properly, in which case it goes to waste. One can’t blame NBA 2K for jumping on a trend, but once 3D (predictably) went out of fashion once more, the idea was promptly – and in my view, sensibly – abandoned.
3. Early Tip-Off Weekend
Some marketing gimmicks are just as memorable as gimmicky gameplay mechanics. Early Tip-Off Weekend, which debuted with NBA 2K16, is a great example. The premise was simple: pre-order and you’ll get your copy four days early. Instead of having to wait until it hit store shelves the following Tuesday, you’d have the game on Friday with a whole weekend to play it! For content creators and enthusiastic gamers – who were likely to pre-order anyway – it was an appealing offer that facilitated a head start with the new release. Needless to say, it helped Take-Two secure sales, but there was something in it for us too, even if we were already set on getting the game.
Sadly, it didn’t take too long for any semblance of goodwill to be squandered. At first, the Early Tip-Off Weekend was a pre-order bonus across all editions of NBA 2K. Come NBA 2K19 however, the ability to play the game four days early was exclusive to the more expensive 20th Anniversary Edition. Considering that NBA 2K18 had just tried to normalise charging VC for MyPLAYER haircuts, it felt like another slap in the face. 2K has since moved away from the concept. An increase in digital sales likely has a lot to do with that, but with the increased pushiness of recurrent revenue mechanics, it makes sense to allow everyone to get their hands on a new game ASAP.
4. ESPN Content & Mini-Podcasts
When EA Sports inked a deal with ESPN, it didn’t just mean authentic presentation and branding during gameplay across their range of titles. EA also had visions of their games becoming a platform to deliver ESPN content. I remember the presentation at the NBA Live 07 community event, explaining how we’d be able to get live scores and breaking news without ever leaving the game. In all fairness, that did sound like a cool idea in 2006! Of course, in the age of smartphones and social media, it sounds completely unnecessary. It’s also worth mentioning that the idea somewhat flopped in NBA Live 07 too, thanks to the game itself turning out to be such a disappointment.
Mind you, the idea did actually survive into the social media age. The first couple of NBA Live releases on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One featured ESPN updates in the menus. In between songs, there were pre-recorded segments discussing recent news and events from the real NBA. Jalen Rose ended up as the “host” of these segments (or “mini-podcasts”, as they were sometimes referred to), and new snippets were pushed through as the season wore on. They meant well and they did spice up the presentation a bit, but it wasn’t long before they became repetitive. On top of that, I highly doubt they were a popular source of breaking news during the mid 2010s!
5. Sixaxis Free Throw Shooting
Let’s get back to a gameplay mechanic to wrap up this list of gimmicks that didn’t last long. The PlayStation Move wasn’t the only form of motion controls on the PS3, as the Sixaxis controller also included that functionality. There was some controversy surrounding it in general, with speculation that it was a late decision to try to counter what Nintendo were doing with the Wii. As far as basketball gaming is concerned, the motion controls of the Sixaxis were put to use for free throw shooting in NBA 2K7 and 2K8, and College Hoops 2K7 and 2K8. The idea was that by tilting the controller, gamers would mimic a shooting motion, with appropriate timing and follow-through.
Around that time, NBA Live was trying to do the same thing with the right analog stick. That method had problems too, but the Sixaxis method in 2K was much worse. Beyond any challenge gamers might’ve encountered in mastering the controls, if you were using a third party controller without the Sixaxis motion technology, there was no way to shoot free throws! Your only option was to wait out ten seconds on each attempt, and let the CPU take the shot automatically. A traditional method did get patched in, but Sixaxis remained the default setting. After that, 2K wisely dropped the idea of such gimmicky controls…at least until the PlayStation Move came along.
What’s your take on these short-lived gimmicks? What are some other gimmicks in basketball games that didn’t stick around, for better or worse? Let me know in the comments, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.