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.
I’ve been playing basketball games for a long time – over twenty years, at least – and as I’ve said quite a few times before, I’m impressed when I reflect upon how far they’ve come. While it’s easy to get frustrated when we don’t see some of the most desired improvements year-to-year, when you start going back a generation or two, you can really see the leaps that basketball games have made. I’ve actually been spending a decent amount of time with older basketball titles as of late, as I continue to produce content for our ongoing 20th Anniversary of NBA Live celebrations.
Playing those older basketball games has been a fun trip down memory lane, but it’s also reminded me of some of the problems that were often present, even in the best titles from yesteryear. Needless to say, with basketball games progressing as much as they have, a few of those issues are even more glaring now. While today’s hoops games are still facing some of the same challenges, such as implementing a maximum difficulty setting that plays smarter instead of cheaper, there are some noteworthy problems that we no longer have to deal with. Let’s consider ourselves lucky that we’re not still battling the following five issues.
1. Roster Cut-Off Dates
Technically, roster cut-off dates are still a part of basketball video games. At some point, a game has to be finalised, and the rosters are locked at a certain date. This means that there will be some missing players out of the box, and the rosters won’t be current as of the release date. It’s an inevitable part of developing a basketball game, or indeed, any sports title. However, with official rosters now being standard practice in post-release support, the cut-off dates ultimately don’t pose much of a problem. Once the season gets underway, regular updates may continually enhance the rosters.
Of course, in the PC basketball gaming community, this wasn’t a huge obstacle back in the day. Thanks to the efforts of Tim, Lutz, Brien, and other key members of the community, we received consistently updated unofficial rosters. Unfortunately for console gamers, they were far more restricted in this area, due to limitations on the in-game roster customisation features and a lack of external editing capabilities. These days, official rosters come through regularly on all platforms, with the first update usually being pushed through not too long after release, rendering cut-off dates a mild, short-lived annoyance at worst.
2. A Lack of Official Patches
Speaking of official updates, we also tend to get several big patches and hotfixes for both NBA Live and NBA 2K throughout the year. As I’ve noted in one of my Monday Tip-Off columns, post-release support for basketball video games has come a long way in that regard. Ideally, day one patches wouldn’t be a necessity, but in reality, they are definitely needed and it’s a good thing that we do get them. In the early days of basketball gaming, official patches were rare, not always developed as quickly as they are now, and restricted to the PC platform. We often had to really push for them to be made, too.
I’m trying to think of the last basketball game to not receive any official patches, and I believe it would have to be the PC port of NBA Live 08, which was outsourced to HB Studios. That was definitely a shame, as NBA Live 08 PC really needed some fixes that were beyond the abilities of our talented patching community. Fortunately, post-release support has greatly improved in the years that have followed, and both EA Sports and 2K Sports continue to address issues and fine tune their basketball games months into their lifespan. Indeed, just this week, NBA 2K16 received its sixth title update, which addressed a variety of gameplay exploits.
3. Missing Superstars
Following on from something I discussed in this week’s Wayback Wednesday, older basketball games often faced a problem that just doesn’t happen today: the absence of superstar players. It’s one thing to have a couple of unsigned rookies or training camp hopefuls missing due to the roster cut-off date or non-guaranteed contracts, but can you imagine not having LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Stephen Curry in the latest NBA Live or NBA 2K release? Of course, for many years that was indeed the case with Michael Jordan, and as I noted on Wednesday, Charles Barkley as well.
For the uninitiated, the reason certain players were absent in those old basketball games is that they retained control over the use of their names and likenesses, and in some cases, had exclusive agreements with a particular developer. Michael Jordan was absent from NBA Jam, as well as NBA Live during his second run with the Chicago Bulls. Charles Barkley was absent from several games, and has rarely appeared as a Legend post-retirement. David Robinson did not appear in NBA Live 95, while Shaquille O’Neal was exclusive to NBA Live 97. Thankfully, outside of historical content, developers no longer encounter those issues with likeness rights.
4. Overly Simplified & Automated Controls
Quite a few basketball gamers have expressed a desire to see deeper controls in NBA Live 17, and that’s a suggestion that I certainly agree with. However, when we talk about how we want to see NBA Live’s controls expanded, we’re generally referring to having manual control over moves that are currently contextual, such as bank shots and bounce passes, and elusive moves such as floaters and pass fakes. When it comes to the basics, passing, shooting, dribbling, blocks, and steals are all covered, as are more in-depth controls such as playcalling, double teams, and direct passing and switching. That wasn’t always the case though, at least when it came to PC releases.
For the most part, the PC versions of NBA Live 95, NBA Live 96, and NBA Live 97 were the best versions of each game, with superior graphics, patching capabilities, and in some cases, a few extra features. Sadly, this superiority didn’t extend to the controls, as all three of those releases lacked a steal button! Steals were performed by moving the defender close to the ballhandler, at which point they’d start poking at the ball automatically. It was strange, as keyboards obviously had enough keys to cover that functionality, and multi-button gamepads were available and not uncommon. We just had to put up with it back then; mercifully, quirks like that are no longer an issue.
5. Unwanted Jumpshots
I never truly forget about this particular problem, though it does seem to slip my mind whenever I fire up an old basketball game. Of course, it doesn’t take too long before I’m reminded of it. Old games were extremely particular about the area on the court where you could successfully trigger a dunk or layup attempt, and it tended to be closer to the basket than a lot of athletic players will begin their gather. Depending on the game and the distance, if you were even slightly outside of the trigger area, you’d either perform an unexpected leaner, or a running, flying jumpshot that often took you behind the backboard.
In NBA Live 2001 and NBA Live 2002, a one-handed runner was added to curb the problem. While it certainly looked better, it still meant that basketball gamers would be making a lot of mid-air passes when dunks and layups weren’t triggered as desired. Fortunately, some adjustments were made in NBA Live 2003, and since then, it’s never really been a problem in basketball games. I have to admit that it’s had some lasting effects on my virtual game, though. From time to time, I’ll still try to get too close before attempting a dunk or layup, erring too much on the side of caution when it comes to the trigger area. Games may improve, but old habits die hard.
What are some of the problems in previous basketball games that you’re glad we no longer have to deal with? 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.