Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown. This week’s Five lists what I feel are the five most significant years in the history of basketball gaming.
2019 is upon us, and as always, I’m hoping that it’ll end up being a fantastic year for basketball gaming! Hopefully, we’ll be able to get a lot of enjoyment out of the 2018 releases for the next eight or nine months, and then get our hands on even better titles to close out the year. While the success of basketball games ultimately rests with their respective developers, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact that we can have as a community. As such, it’s important that we speak up with constructive feedback, so that we can do our part in making 2019 a big year on the virtual hardwood.
There have been quite a few milestone years for basketball video games over the past three decades. They’ve marked significant improvements within the genre, through the release of many memorable games that have gone down as classics. Of course, there are also years that have been significant in terms of basketball gaming for far less positive reasons. As we tip off a new year and hope for the best when it comes to the future of basketball gaming, I feel there’s value in looking back at the road that hoops games have travelled. After all, it’s essential that forthcoming games not only build upon the success of their predecessors, but also avoid some of their pitfalls.
By the late 80s, it was clear that video games were more than a passing fad. They’d survived the infamous crash of 1983, and had already come a long way since the simplistic, single screen experiences of early arcade games. Basketball gaming still had a lot of room for growth in 1989, especially compared to the virtual incarnations of other sports, but Electronic Arts had a landmark release in the form of Lakers vs Celtics and the NBA Playoffs. The forerunner to the NBA Live series established a lot of the conventions of sim-oriented titles, right down to specific settings and gameplay mechanics. It was ahead of its time, with signature moves and more focus on realism.
While Lakers vs Celtics began paving the way for sim basketball gaming in 1989, the blueprint for the arcade experience was being devised by Midway’s Arch Rivals. The game isn’t an official part of the NBA Jam lineage, but it’s definitely a forerunner, much the same way that EA’s NBA Playoffs series is to NBA Live. Once again, a lot of the mechanics and concepts that would come to define the style of later games were present in Arch Rivals. Both games have been surpassed and haven’t aged as well as some of their classic successors, but as far as marking big steps forward in basketball gaming, they make 1989 one of the most significant years for the genre.
NBA Jam wasn’t the only basketball game released during 1993, but it’s the title that puts the year on this list. There have been far fewer games that bear the NBA Jam branding compared to series such as NBA Live and NBA 2K, but it’s undoubtedly been just as influential on basketball gaming. It all began with that first game back in 1993. Building on the concept established by the aforementioned Arch Rivals, NBA Jam took arcade basketball to the next level with crazy high flying dunks, the iconic commentary of Tim Kitzrow, and of course, the NBA license. Not only did its success inspire sequels, but also plenty of imitators of varying quality in the following years.
Occasionally, I’ll see someone remark that they don’t see what the big fuss is all about when it comes to NBA Jam, usually stating a preference for NBA Street at the same time. While I agree that NBA Street was also a tremendous series and can understand if someone prefers it – especially if they are a bit younger and grew up with the Street games instead – I do feel compelled to point out that if it wasn’t for NBA Jam, there probably wouldn’t be an NBA Street. It appealed to both hardcore hoop heads and more casual fans alike, shaping the arcade hoops genre and remaining pop culturally relevant in 2019. What else can I say but Boomshakalaka, and ’93 ’til Infinity!
Technology advanced rapidly through the 90s, with video games making a lot of progress by the end of the decade. Basketball gaming saw its fair share of milestone titles, with the genre having quite a few good years as we approached the turn of the millennium. However, I have to go with 1994, as it was the year that brought us NBA Live 95. With all the ups and downs that the NBA Live series has endured over the years – particularly the downs – it’s easy to forget how great and influential it once was. If you gotten into basketball gaming within the past decade or so, you may well not even realise that there was a time when NBA Live was held in such high regard.
That reputation began with NBA Live 95 in 1994. By that time, the NBA Playoffs series was beginning to show its age as far as being a fun and realistic basketball sim. Fortunately, NBA Live 95 was much more than a mere rebranding. While it did keep some familiar elements, NBA Live 95 overhauled the gameplay with a new camera angle, turbo/sprint control, deeper strategy, enhanced AI, and better presentation. The leap from NBA Showdown (the final game in the NBA Playoffs series) to NBA Live 95 was monumental, easily one of the largest we’ve seen in basketball gaming. Oh, and NBA Jam Tournament Edition came out, and was even better than the original.
NBA 2K turned a lot of basketball gamers’ heads when it debuted in 1999, and if you scour the archives of the World Wide Web, you’ll find posts opining that it left NBA Live in the dust then and there. I would disagree with that, as NBA Live had some great releases in the early 2000s, and also remained very competitive when it came to critical reception, sales, and popularity among gamers. It was the bigger name, not to mention more readily available when 2K was still a SEGA exclusive. The NBA 2K series did continue to gain momentum as it went from strength to strength, however, and it’s obviously emerged as basketball gaming’s premier and dominant brand.
The flip in sales wouldn’t actually happen until NBA Live 09 and NBA 2K9 in 2008, but the wheels had been set in motion three years earlier in 2005. That’s when both games launched on the seventh generation, with NBA 2K6 faring a lot better than NBA Live 06. The Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 06 is notoriously barebones, lacking many of the features of the prior gen release. EA’s new tech was clunky, making gameplay feel like a step back. Shallow modes and gameplay quirks remain issues in NBA Live to this day. 2005 thus marks a major turning point with NBA Live suffering long-lasting setbacks, while NBA 2K won over more and more gamers.
Even though NBA Live 09 had sold less copies than NBA 2K9, it was a competitive race. NBA Live 10 lost more ground to NBA 2K10, but the former’s reception was more positive than its immediate predecessors. It seemed as though the series had gotten back on track, and could compete moving forward. They’d even lured Mike Wang away from Visual Concepts! And then, NBA Elite 11 happened. Afflicted with bad design choices and a demo that yielded an embarrassing bug (you know the one), NBA Elite 11 was ultimately cancelled five days before it was set to launch. NBA 2K11, meanwhile, went on to sell five million copies to great acclaim.
I don’t think it’s melodramatic to suggest that in terms of years that shaped basketball gaming, 2010 has been one of the most significant to date. EA’s attempt at rebranding and revamping NBA Live into NBA Elite crashed and burned, while Visual Concepts released what many basketball gamers still consider to be the best hoops game of all-time. That’s debatable, but NBA 2K11 is an exceptional release, one made even more special by the inclusion of the Jordan Challenge content. Indeed, historical content has now become standard, aiding in the continued success of NBA 2K. Basketball gaming was shaken up in a big way in 2010, with effects that are still being felt today.
It remains to be seen what kind of year 2019 will be for basketball gaming, but I for one hope that it’s a positive one. We’ve experienced enough disappointment, be it games that come up short, or practices that are lacking in goodwill. I’d like 2019 to be another big year in basketball gaming, albeit for all the right reasons. What are some other significant years in basketball gaming in your opinion? Do you feel optimistic about 2019? Have your say in the comments below, 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.