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The Friday Five: 5 Underrated Improvements 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 is a list of five often underrated improvements in basketball games.

The preview season is almost over, with NBA Live 19 and NBA 2K19 coming out next week (or the week after, in the case of NBA 2K19’s Standard Edition). For those of us who are picking up this year’s basketball games, we’re naturally hoping that they will provide us with a lot of fun and fulfilling experiences on the virtual hardwood over the course of the next twelve months. From returning features to new modes and content, hopefully we’ll see a satisfactory number of improvements that make all of the anticipation worthwhile.

Of course, when we’ve been buying the newest basketball games every year, many of the improvements can feel rather incremental. It’s not until we go back and play the previous game, or maybe a game from a few years back, that we really recognise and appreciate some of the improvements that have been made. Although there are older games that do still hold up, the further back we go, the more we can see just how far basketball games have come. Some of those improvements are certainly easy to take for granted, so for this week’s Friday Five, I’m taking a look at five improvements in basketball games that tend to be somewhat underrated.

1. Deeper Rotation & Substitution Logic

Improvements to rotations have enhanced basketball games (NBA Live 18)

There are many ways in which modern franchise modes are clearly superior to their predecessors, but there is one aspect that I feel doesn’t get enough credit. If you go back and play a title that’s anywhere from about ten to fifteen years old, you might notice that the bench doesn’t really get much of a run. The starters will play a bulk of the minutes, the sixth man only receives a bit more court time than the other reserves, and most of the numbers will be contributed by the five players who were on the floor at the beginning of the game. It’s even more noticeable in simulation, where limited court time results in some very underwhelming Sixth Man of the Year performances.

Simply put, there was very little depth or nuance to the substitution and rotation logic, both in gameplay and in simulation. Basketball games from the mid 2000s and earlier couldn’t really account for sixth men who played starter minutes and tended to finish games, or starters that played less than half the game and often finished it sitting on the bench. Fortunately, improvements to rotation settings and substitution logic have resulted in a lot more realism in that regard, for user and CPU-controlled teams. We see the key reserves out on the floor earlier and in crunch time, Sixth Man winners who aren’t averaging just eight points per game, and dependable automatic subs.

2. More Realistic Shot Distribution

Improvements to shot distribution make James Harden a real threat (NBA 2K18)

If you’ve been playing basketball games for a long time, you may recall an issue we often referred to as point guard domination. It also affected other positions in various releases, but it was most common with point guards. Basically, the issue is that the AI would always play through a certain position on offense, taking the most shots with the player at that position regardless of whether or not they should be the one leading the team in attempts. This led to the wrong players regularly scoring the most points, or a laughably easy win if you shut them down since they didn’t pass the ball around enough for a balanced attack with realistic shot distribution.

Even if there wasn’t an issue with a common position dominating the offense, the shot distribution in older games did leave something to be desired. The point was that the right players weren’t scoring the most points or taking the most shots, which meant the league’s offensive juggernauts were not as dangerous as they should’ve been. It’s true that there are still some iffy results in modern games, but there have been several improvements in this area over the years. A wider array of ratings and attributes now govern player performance, and team strategies are also deeper and more realistic. The current results aren’t always perfect, but they are generally greatly improved.

3. Interactions with the Environment

Improvements to rim interactions are evident (NBA Live 18, LeBron James)

Sometimes, the little details make a big difference in basketball games. I’ve written an entire article lamenting how bugs and technological limitations often resulted in some disappointing screenshots in older titles. In short, what felt like a really cool moment didn’t look nearly as good when we fired up instant replay and saw players clipping through each other, grabbing hold of thin air instead of the rim, and their hands not coming anywhere near the ball on steals and blocks. It usually wasn’t that noticeable during gameplay and thus didn’t completely ruin the experience, but the limitations did often diminish our excitement for a memorable play upon taking a second look.

Over the years, improvements have been made to gaming technology. Clipping hasn’t been eliminated in newer games – that’s easier said than done, after all – but we do see players grabbing hold of the rim on dunks, and their hands connecting with the ball on blocks and steals. Not only that, but we see them collide with each other and the on-court referees, run into the scorer’s table (and in some games, dive into the crowd), and react to getting hit in the face (and groin) with the basketball. Players have more of a physical presence and along with the environment, seem more alive. We grumble about issues with clipping and physicality, but things are so much better now.

4. AI Improvements in General

Giannis Antetokounmpo dribbles the basketball (NBA 2K18)

As with the other items on this list, I’m not suggesting that there is absolutely no room for improvement in future games. Designing AI that can play with the level of realism that we want to see out of basketball games is easier said than done, but these days the results are a lot closer to what we’d like to see. Recent titles have offered up their own examples of AI breaking down, but years ago, the CPU could be counted on to falter spectacularly, or at the very least rely on simplistic strategies that could be anticipated and easily countered. Rubberband AI was a necessity in order for the CPU to remain competitive, though it didn’t do much for realism (or gamer sanity, for that matter).

We can still expect to see plays breaking down and the CPU getting stumped in newer basketball games, but improvements to the AI mean that we usually don’t see the CPU firing up a potential gamewinning shot from 75 feet with timeouts in their back pocket or enough time to get the ball into the frontcourt. We don’t see them inbounding to their worst shooter at half court with one second on the clock, or running out the clock while backing up for a 40-foot shot instead of working for a good look. Improvements to the AI have made for much smarter and more realistic games of virtual basketball, and a challenge that needs to be countered with good strategy and sharp stick skills.

5. The Ability to Play Good Defense

Defensive improvements are noticeable in newer basketball games (NBA Live 18, Karl-Anthony Towns)

I know that many of us still gripe about playing defense in modern basketball games, and we do have valid complaints. Offense is more glamorous than defense, so it’s inevitable that it feels like it gets most of the attention in virtual basketball. However, there have been several significant improvements at the defensive end over the years, to the point where most titles do allow you to play some semblance of lockdown D. At the very least, we now have the tools and the ability to make stops and shut down opponents, rather than just hoping that they miss and then doing our best to outscore them at the other end. We can have a two-way battle, rather than just wild shootouts.

This wasn’t really the case in many earlier games. Sure, it may have been possible to block shots, make steals, and force opponents into bad attempts to some extent, but we were definitely at a disadvantage. A lack of physicality and realistic collisions often meant that opponents could get to the hoop too easily. The logic behind altering shots was far more primitive, thus effective shot defense required getting the block. AI teammates wouldn’t rotate properly or challenge their man, giving the offense easy looks. In some games, making a steal or block was virtually impossible. Try to D up in much older titles, and you’ll realise just how satisfying it is to play defense now.

Hopefully, we’ll continue to feel improvements across the board in NBA Live 19 and NBA 2K19. In the meantime, what are some other improvements in sim basketball games that you feel tend to be underrated? Have your say 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.

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