The Friday Five: 5 What If Scenarios in Basketball Gaming

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 gets hypothetical, as I consider five “What If” scenarios in basketball gaming.

Even though we shouldn’t tie ourselves up in knots dwelling on the past, it’s hard to resist the allure of a fascinating “What If” scenario. What if Michael Jordan didn’t retire in 1993? What if he never returned in 1995, or in 2001? What if the Boston Celtics had won the Draft lottery in 1997? What if the Oklahoma City Thunder had never traded James Harden, or remained the Seattle SuperSonics? What if LeBron James had never taken his talents to South Beach? For each of these scenarios, we can debate and speculate as to how history would differ in both outcomes and perspective.

The real NBA provides us with plenty of “What If” scenarios, as there are so many events that have the potential to be pivotal: trades, free agent signings, lottery results, injuries, clutch shots, and fateful decisions in crunch time of the biggest games. For the most part, the history of the virtual hardwood goes hand in hand with the general improvements and progression of video games as a whole, but a few big moments – as well as a few things that didn’t happen – have shaped the hobby as we know it. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the twists and turns that basketball gaming may possibly have taken, but they are five “What If” scenarios that I find interesting.

1. What If NBA Live 08 Managed to Include Retro Teams?

Larry Bird in the Ultimate Jordan Roster for NBA Live 08

With all the amazing things that NBA 2K has done with historical content, it’s easy to forget that NBA Live tried to do it first. Upon the launch of NBA Live 08 PC, poking around in the players.dbf file revealed leftover data for ten retro teams, including the 1996 Chicago Bulls. The lack of any other data or art assets suggests that the idea was scrapped quite early on, with the eight FIBA teams being their possible replacement. This was all three years before 2K brought back Michael Jordan alongside The Jordan Challenge in NBA 2K11, and the idea of retro teams had obviously been around for even longer than that. Clearly, an inability to license all the players shot it down.

Needless to say, licensing Michael Jordan for the first time since NBA Live 2004 (as well as a few other Legends who had been lost over the years) would have been huge for EA Sports. There’s a good chance that he’d be signed to an exclusive deal, which would have meant that The Jordan Challenge never came to be. NBA Live’s issues at the time went beyond a lack of historical content, but it would’ve been a good hook to keep interest in the series after a shaky few years to begin the seventh generation. It would’ve been NBA Live rather than NBA 2K that did what once seemed impossible. It could’ve kept NBA Live afloat, and a huge selling point out of NBA 2K’s grasp.

2. What If EA Sports hadn’t tried to reboot with NBA Elite 11?

NBA Elite 11 Raises Many What If Scenarios

Make no mistake: before the ill-fated attempt to reboot NBA Live with NBA Elite 11, the tide had already turned. NBA 2K had been receiving rave reviews for some time, though a lot of gamers were still faithful to the EA Sports brand. It wasn’t until NBA Live 09 and NBA 2K9 that 2K edged ahead in sales, and despite NBA Live 10 being quite well regarded, the gap only widened. The new approach in NBA Elite 11 was risky, and even putting aside all the jokes about the infamous Bynum Glitch, it soon became apparent that the game was going to bomb. NBA Elite 11 was delayed, then cancelled, and an unopposed NBA 2K11 sold a then-record five million copies.

What, then, if EA Sports had instead built upon NBA Live 10 and released NBA Live 11? While I do think NBA 2K11 would’ve still sold more copies and scored higher with critics, particularly if nothing changed regarding MJ and The Jordan Challenge, I believe that NBA Live would be in much better shape and in a position to close the gap. They wouldn’t suffer the embarrassment of missing a year, and likely wouldn’t have lost Mike “Beluba” Wang back to Visual Concepts. They could’ve continued to build on a game that was promising and well-received, refining the gameplay and expanding on the modes. They may have still been number two, but in a closer race.

3. What If EA Sports had returned in 2011 with NBA Live 12?

NBA Live 13 is another What If for EA Sports

Assuming that the NBA Elite 11 debacle still happened, what if EA Sports had simply gone back to the drawing board and updated NBA Live 10 – along with enhancing the gameplay and modes – and released NBA Live 12 in 2011? Well, it’s safe to say that they would’ve avoided the embarrassment of cancelling another game with NBA Live 13, and the loss in relevance and gamer confidence that came with taking yet another year off. The situation with NBA Elite 11 would’ve still been damaging to the brand and NBA 2K would’ve still capitalised on the blunder, but NBA Live wouldn’t have been quite as far behind. With that being said, what would it mean for the game?

I think that in terms of quality, that hypothetical NBA Live 12 would’ve been decent at the very least. In this situation they would have still lost Beluba, and the loss would be 2K’s gain, but they’d at least have a solid foundation to build upon. Getting back into the market sooner and with a game that was already on the right track would’ve kept them in the race, been far less damaging, and likely put NBA Live in a better position as the eighth generation loomed. In hindsight, it should’ve been what they did after the folly of NBA Elite 11, rather than drag their feet on rebuilding the game (and team). Again, they’d likely still be number two, but in a position to catch up again.

4. What If Midway kept the NBA Jam name?

Scottie Pippen dunks in NBA Jam (Arcade)

NBA Jam is a beloved brand among basketball gamers that evokes plenty of nostalgia and fond memories on the virtual hardwood. Because I am so proud of it, at this time I’ll once again shamelessly plug our interview with Tim Kitzrow, the voice of NBA Jam. Interestingly, despite its iconic status, there haven’t been that many games with the NBA Jam branding, and only two that were made by Midway: the original, and NBA Jam Tournament Edition. This is due to Acclaim – who was responsible for the home ports of Midway’s games such as NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat – acquiring the name and going on to make their own series of (inferior) NBA Jam titles.

Midway also produced their own sequels to the original NBA Jam games, beginning with NBA Hangtime; a game I definitely want to cover in Wayback Wednesday in the not too distant future. A few of those follow-up titles were great in their own right, but without the NBA Jam branding (or Tim Kitzrow’s commentary), they just didn’t have the same impact. Had Midway been able to develop a few more titles under the NBA Jam name, I believe the series would’ve been even more successful. I’d say it would’ve endured as Mortal Kombat has, continuing with new releases every few years to this day. The best NBA Jam games are still on fire, but man, what could’ve been…

5. What if the NBA had followed the NFL’s example with exclusive rights?

Dwyane Wade in The Temple in NBA Live 06

It certainly wouldn’t be ideal, as I imagine everyone but the most dedicated Madden fans would attest. A lack of competition wouldn’t do us any favours as consumers, leaving us with a Hobson’s choice: we’d be free to boycott the lone basketball game and play something else, but that wouldn’t exactly satisfy our desire to play an NBA title. One might argue that with everything that’s happened, we are effectively in a scenario with only one viable choice, but at least the possibility for two great games does exist. An exclusive deal with any developer would likely see an eventual lack in quality, and even more gouging with microtransactions and pay-to-win mechanics.

So, if the NBA had decided to accept bids for exclusive rights to produce games with their license, who would have won, and where would we be exactly? I suppose it does depend on when they made the decision, but if it was around the same time the NFL did, I have a feeling that it would’ve been EA Sports. They had the longer partnership with the NBA, and until 2008, the more profitable game. The series’ shaky history over the past decade or so doesn’t inspire confidence in this scenario, but perhaps if there was no 2K, they wouldn’t have felt compelled to roll the dice on ideas such as NBA Elite 11. Either way, I think our reality is much better than the “What If” here.

What do you make of these “What If” scenarios? Can you think of any others that may have changed the course of basketball gaming? 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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May 31, 2019 11:48 pm

What about FIBA teams in Live 08, I didn’t notice that before (because I didn’t play too much in 08), but FIBA courts was wrong (PC version IIRC used generic NBA Live court), EA used NBA key isntead of trapezoid, 3pt line was also in NBA size. It might mean that FIBA teams was added in last minute.

June 1, 2019 5:05 pm

To bring the second paragraph back to the main point, what if live or 2K had a what if mode?.
These could be single game or season mode scenarios where you could play out some of the “What If …” questions from real life. To me this would be a compelling prospect. Rather than just playing match-ups that have or will happen, give me something that I never have and never will see.

Of course, now that I’ve broached the subject again, I must encourage you all to watch “30 for 30: Without Bias” on whatever video streaming service you can find it on. The ultimate NBA “What If …” IMHO.