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The Friday Five: 5 Traditions in Basketball Games

The Friday Five

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 looks at five traditions that you may have noticed in basketball video games.

Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings, basketball gamers! I’m sure that most folks around these parts are spending time with loved ones, as am I (I scheduled this a day in advance, so presumably that’s what I’m doing!). If you’ve decided to check in and read this week’s Friday Five, I definitely appreciate it! It’s always my intention to bring you features that entertain, spotlight, and advocate, and hopefully I’ve been able to achieve that goal throughout the year. Since it’s both Christmas Day and the last Five of the year, however, I’m opting for a lighter topic this week.

Given that it’s Christmas time, my thoughts have turned to traditions. Apart from spending time and eating Christmas lunch with my folks, one of the traditions that I’ve adopted for the holidays is pulling out old favourites for some retro gaming. Some of that is in aid of content for the NLSC, but I like to break out classics across a variety of genres: Donkey Kong Country, Sid Meier’s Pirates, Jazz Jackrabbit, Epic Pinball, and even a more recent favourite like Fallout 3, just to name a few. Basketball video games themselves have a few traditions, so in the spirit of familiar things that bring us warmth and joy – not just at Christmas, but all year round – here are five examples.

1. Previous NBA Finalists as Default Play Now Teams

Stephen Curry with the layup in NBA 2K16

One of the oldest traditions in basketball games – particularly 5v5 sim-oriented titles – concerns the default teams in Play Now/Exhibition mode. I have seen games that pick random teams (Fox Sports NBA Basketball 2000 is one), and several games set the last two teams you picked as the new default options, but in many titles, the teams will reset to the default selections on every boot. The tradition that most games have followed is to use the previous year’s NBA Finalists as the default options. It makes sense after all, as the champion and runner-up obviously stand out as two of the most prominent teams in the league over the past twelve months, and are usually popular.

If there’s an issue with this tradition, it’s that the NBA has a tendency to see repeat champions and rematches, meaning the same teams can end up being the default choices over and over again. Unless you’re a fan of them, it can get a little stale, which is why it’s great when games allow you to set new default teams for Play Now. However, there are occasions where games have deliberately eschewed this tradition from the beginning. NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360 notably used the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns as the default teams, despite neither being in the 2005 NBA Finals. Of course, the Heat went on to win it all in 2006, led by cover player Dwyane Wade.

2. New Camera Angles Set as Default

2K Camera Angle in NBA 2K17's 2K Pro-Am

It’s certainly logical to push the new features that were selling points in the preview season, but to that end, I think we can still call it one of basketball gaming’s enduring traditions. If there’s a new or revamped camera angle in a sim game, you can usually expect it to be the new default setting. Again, this makes sense, as developers aren’t going to add new things to the game and just hope that we try them out. NBA 2K21 Next Gen provides us with the latest example, as the new Wire cam is the default angle. It was a bit too close for my taste, so I’m using Broadcast cam for most modes and MyPLAYER Default for player locked gameplay, as is traditional for me.

That does raise a pertinent issue with this tradition, of course. Gamers tend to have rather strong preferences about their camera angles – that’s a topic for another time – and the new angle may not be to everyone’s liking. It’s hardly difficult to change the setting, but sometimes it can lead to one’s first impression of a game being tainted. Anyway, it’s interesting to go back through the years, and see which camera angle has been the default in NBA Live and NBA 2K. You’ll often find that if it isn’t a brand new setting, it’s been revamped and enhanced in some way. Hey, as long as we can change it without having to exit to the main menu, it’s no great inconvenience.

3. No Repeat Cover Players for NBA Live

Dwyane Wade in NBA Live 06 for Xbox 360

This is one of the more interesting traditions, especially as it represents a difference in approach between NBA Live and NBA 2K. In over 25 years, NBA Live has never repeated a cover player (sort of; we’ll get to that). Players who have appeared on the cover of March Madness/NCAA Basketball have gone on to be the NBA Live cover player as well, and the regional covers have re-used the same players as they remain the most marketable name in their home countries. Tony Parker has also appeared on various French covers, and the main cover of NBA Live 09. Apart from that however, no player has ever been the face on the main NBA Live cover more than once.

At least, that’s if we go by games that were actually released. According to former NBA Live Executive Producer Sean O’Brien, the unannounced cover player for the cancelled NBA Live 13 was Dwyane Wade. As I mentioned before, Wade had been the cover player for NBA Live 06. As such, had NBA Live 13 not been cancelled, he would’ve broken this long-standing tradition to become the first repeat cover player in the history of the NBA Live series. Although the choice of cover player is ultimately inconsequential as far as the quality of the game is concerned, I’m kind of glad it didn’t happen. The tradition allows every game to have its own face and identity.

4. NBA Live Cover Players in 1-on-1/Practice Mode

Michael Jordan in 1-on-1 (NBA Live 2000)

Speaking of cover players in NBA Live, they’re often utilised as the face of the game within the game as well. From the introduction of the 1-on-1 and Practice modes, more often than not, they’re one of the default players selected for 1-on-1 play, and the first choice of player to shoot around with in Practice. When the next generation introduced The Temple and then the empty arena in NBA Live 08, the players that you controlled upon bootup were the cover athletes. As with the other traditions, it makes sense. Someone has to be the default player, and the obvious choice is the player that you’ve paid all that money to, to promote and be the face of the game.

There are a few exceptions and special cases. While Tim Duncan was one of the default players in NBA Live 2000’s 1-on-1 mode, Michael Jordan was the other, given that the mode was branded with his name. The 90s All-Stars version of MJ was also one of the default players in 1-on-1 in NBA Live 2002, as well as the default practice player even though Steve Francis was on the cover. Of course, His Airness did appear on the Japanese cover of NBA Live 2002, sporting his Washington Wizards uniform. In short, the NBA Live devs have been willing to break this tradition whenever the situation calls for it, and I’d suggest that’s a fine approach to traditions in general.

5. Team Order in NBA Live & NBA 2K

Roster Editing in NBA Live 19

Getting back to traditions that highlight a prominent difference between NBA Live and NBA 2K, the order in which teams are displayed in Play Now and roster menus differs between the two series (or used to, anyway). Traditionally, NBA Live ordered teams alphabetically by their location, beginning with the Atlanta Hawks, and ending with the Washington Wizards/Bullets. Conversely, NBA 2K has traditionally ordered teams alphabetically by name, beginning with the Philadelphia 76ers and also ending with the Wizards. Notably, NBA 2K9 places the Trail Blazers among the “B” teams as it abbreviated the name to “Blazers”, though normally they’re among the last teams.

Because I grew up with NBA Live, that’s the order that I preferred, as it’s what I was used to. Over the past generation, NBA Live has adopted the same order as NBA 2K. Funnily enough, because I’ve grown so used to it, when I go back and play older NBA Live games I’ll often begin to look for teams as if they’re sorted by name, rather than their city/location. It just goes to show that it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks (or old basketball gamers new traditions). The games that really throw me are titles like Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside, which sorts the teams alphabetically by division. I miss having multiple games on the market, but I do like a standard approach.

Can you think of any other traditions in basketball video games along these lines? Let me know in the comments below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! I hope you’re enjoying the holiday season, and my best wishes to you and your family at this time. Thank you again for reading The Friday Five throughout the year; more fun is in the pipeline for 2021! Until then, thanks for checking in, have a great Christmas and Holiday Season, and please join me again next year for more of The Friday Five.

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