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 is a list of five things that the developers of basketball video games found themselves in trouble over.
Something that a lot of basketball gamers don’t seem to understand is that when it comes to licensed titles, developers are under certain restrictions that are imposed by the licenser. Most people understand that certain former players can’t be included because they haven’t granted the use of their likeness, though you’ll get the occasional person who’ll angrily claim that EA Sports or Visual Concepts have “forgotten” about those historical players. The NBA also isn’t really big on modding because of the way it skirts such licensing, which is why we don’t have any official modding tools.
There are plenty of other examples of these restrictions, such as an inability to include unsportsmanlike technical fouls, or fights beyond a bit of post-whistle shoving that’s out of our control. Bottom line, if it’s in NBA Live or NBA 2K, then the NBA itself has given it the green light…usually. There are occasions where developers have tried to sneak something into the games, and subsequently upset the NBA or another license holder in the process. These incidents have usually resulted in a reprimand, but on a couple of occasions, lawsuits have been involved. Here are five things that basketball game developers did that landed them in trouble, if only temporarily.
1. Hidden Players in NBA Live 96
Released while the lockout of 1995 was still in effect, the 16-bit versions of NBA Live 96 featured final 1995 season rosters rather than updated current season rosters, after NBA Live 95 PC established the latter as the new norm. This meant none of the offseason trades were included, nor were any of the Class of 1995 rookies. EA had the rights to include Shaquille O’Neal, and David Robinson was back in the game after having to be removed from the PC version of NBA Live 95, but Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were still absent. However, the developers came up with a couple of ideas to get around the licensing issues, and outdated rosters caused by the lockout.
First of all, there was the Expansion Draft, a feature that was exclusive to the 16-bit releases. It allowed gamers to fill the rosters of the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies, manually or automatically, so that they were playable. The second was the inclusion of prepared data for the Class of 1995 rookies, as well as MJ and Barkley. By entering their names in Edit Player, the game automatically filled in their ratings and bio data. A few retired legends including Larry Bird and Magic Johnson could also be unlocked in this way. The NBA was not happy about the latter workaround, however, and the developers were warned against doing anything like it again.
2. An Unlicensed Michael Jordan
The popular alternative to excluding unlicensed players was to use stand-in fake players that have come to be called Roster Players, based on the names they were usually given in NBA Live and other titles. As most of you are no doubt aware, these players were often replacements for Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, and on a couple of occasions, Shaquille O’Neal. They had similar ratings and sometimes even the actual player’s stats, but didn’t look anything like them. This way, we could use the Roster Players to pretend that the missing players were in the game, and on PC, they were handy to overwrite. It was a viable workaround for licensing restrictions.
Some developers walked the line with their Roster Players. NBA Live 97’s stand-ins for MJ and Sir Charles had fun with their bio data, making it very similar (and yet still noticeably different) to the real information. That same year, however, Konami threw caution to the wind with NBA in the Zone 2. “M. Guard” on the Chicago Bulls didn’t just have MJ’s stats and ratings; he flat out looked like him, too. No matter that he was number 83 by default, as that could easily be changed. This didn’t go down well, and in NBA in the Zone 98, MJ’s Roster Player was a generic white guy with number 80. It wouldn’t be the last time developers tried this, which leads us to our next example.
3. Placeholder Legends in EA’s NCAA Basketball Series
NCAA March Madness 08 and NCAA Basketball 09 featured something very cool: classic college teams, such as Michael Jordan’s 1982 North Carolina Tar Heels, and Ed O’Bannon’s 1995 UCLA Bruins. That second team in particular is significant, and we’ll come back to it. The catch with these classic teams is that much like the current squads in March Madness 08 – and all college sports games, for that matter – they didn’t utilise any real player names and likenesses. The stand-in players did bear some resemblance to the actual players though, and had the correct jersey numbers, height, weight, and other attributes. You might say it was dancing the line of what was legal.
As the courts would later rule, of course, it wasn’t legal. The inclusion of these classic teams with obvious stand-ins played a large role in Ed O’Bannon’s antitrust class action lawsuit against the NCAA; a case in which Electronic Arts and the Collegiate Licensing Company were originally also co-defendants. EA and the CLC finalised a settlement with former players to the tune of $40 million, and the classic teams were dropped from NCAA Basketball 10. On top of the ramifications for future college sports titles, it dissuaded developers from using lookalike placeholders. It’s why we don’t (and won’t) see a Barkley-like stand-in on NBA 2K’s All-Time and retro teams.
4. Crowds Booing Specific Players
Team and arena-specific sound effects have become a part of the authenticity boasted by basketball video games. Various games in the NBA 2K series have touted the inclusion of authentic sounds for each arena, from crowd chants to the way the arena’s acoustics make the ball sound when it hits the hardwood. EA Sports has implemented similar details in the presentation of NBA Live over the years, with one particularly noteworthy example in NBA Live 10. Whenever Vince Carter touches the ball in a game played in Toronto, the virtual crowd starts booing him, just as the real Raptors fans had taken to doing. Other players were also booed in places they weren’t popular.
This was a nifty detail and part of an impressive overhaul to the presentation in NBA Live 10, but the NBA itself reportedly wasn’t happy about it. They were apparently fine with the virtual crowds booing opponents in general, but not any one player specifically. With that in mind, it’s interesting that the developers were able to get that into the game in the first place. As confirmed by interviews I’ve conducted with Red Reddekopp and other developers on the early NBA Live titles, the league has always insisted on approving all aspects of the games before release. While the developers got into trouble for sneaking this one in, it at least resulted in a unique and cool detail.
5. Use of Copyrighted Tattoos in NBA 2K
We’re often critical of the inaccuracies that make their way into basketball video games, and there are certainly situations where that criticism is justified. However, there are also times when the developers’ hands are tied due to licensing issues, or some other restrictions imposed by the NBA or other entities. One of the details that may be affected by this is player tattoos. Some players’ tattoos bear trademarked imagery, and thus can’t be represented in games without permission/payment. Older WWE games have run into similar problems with CM Punk’s Pepsi tattoo, with the developers usually opting to remove it, or replace it with a legally safe substitute.
What about tattoos that aren’t trademarked logos, but simply original artwork? Solid Oak Sketches sued 2K back in 2016 over the inclusion of eight designs sported by players such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in NBA 2K16. Though this initially looked like it might be trouble, the situation was ultimately resolved in 2K’s favour. The initial claim seeking statutory damages up to $150,000 per infringement was dismissed in 2016, with Solid Oak continuing to pursue actual damages. Earlier this year, that case was also dismissed, and it was ruled that the players themselves had granted implied license for the use of their ink. A Pepsi logo is likely still out, though.
Do you remember these incidents where developers got into trouble? Can you recall any other examples? Let me know in the comments section 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.