The Friday Five: 5 Ways Basketball Games Have Improved

The Friday Five

Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! This is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to basketball video games, the real NBA or another area of interest to our community, either as a list of five items or in the form of a Top 5 countdown.

Sports games with annual releases are an interesting beast. For developers, it’s a lot of pressure: a shorter development cycle than most video games, with a goal of putting out a release that doesn’t just seem like an expansion pack. For us gamers, especially those of us who do buy those games every year, we want to see significant progress, and not feel like we haven’t gotten value for our money. No release is perfect however, and disappointment often leads to a cynical belief that the games just aren’t showing any improvement.

The fact of the matter is, basketball video games have come a long way, and shown a great deal of improvement over the years. That’s not to say that EA Sports or Visual Concepts can rest on their laurels, or that either game is currently as close to perfection as we’d like, but the improvement over the years is certainly evident. So, in this week’s Friday Five, I’m taking a look at five ways that basketball games have improved.

1. Player Movement

LeBron James vs. the Heat in NBA Live 15

Recently, NBA Live 06 PC has re-entered my basketball gaming rotation, as I’ve picked up my old Chicago Bulls Dynasty. I’m enjoying playing it in addition to NBA Live 15 and NBA 2K15, but as much fun as I’m having – and even though NBA Live 06 is one of my all-time favourite releases – I’m still reminded of how far basketball video games have come in recent years. Obviously, there have been huge advances in areas such as graphics and physics, but one area where the games have greatly improved over the years is player AI, particularly in terms of movement.

That’s not to say that earlier basketball games in no way reflected the real sport, but AI controlled teammates did have a tendency to just stand around and wait for the user to do something. CPU opponents weren’t always particularly proactive either, though they tended to be slightly more aggressive. Around the time of NBA Live 06, you’d see players sometimes try to get open, or come out and set a screen without a play being called, but as I said, generally speaking, there was a lot of standing around.

These days, it feels like we’re a lot closer to every player on the court having a brain; “moving with a purpose”, as members of the NBA Live Development Team have put it. Likewise, Da_Czar recently posted a video spotlighting play improvements in NBA 2K15, demonstrating how there is more player movement and fewer broken plays this year. I’m sure we’ll continue to see improvement in both series moving forward, but as it stands, you only need to go back a few years to see how much progress has been made.

2. Player Differentiation & Signature Styles

Nate Robinson in NBA Live 15

We arguably take them for granted these days since they’ve basically become a requirement, but once upon a time, getting signature player animations into the game was a long-standing Wishlist item. I remember the debates and arguments that arose whenever a new game came out, with someone claiming that a player’s jumpshot style was finally in the game. Ultimately, it would be proven that everyone had the same style (or for a while there in NBA Live, either a regular or “big man” jumpshot), and what the person had seen was merely an early/late release animation, or entirely their imagination, borne of wishful thinking.

Then, they were finally added. Signature animations were a long time coming, as were individual playing styles and true differentiation between star players and role players. Going back a decade or so, there were certainly attempts to separate elite players from the rest of the league, with gameplay elements such as Freestyle Superstars in NBA Live. The results weren’t necessarily what we wanted, as it led to some overpowered moves and exploits, but it was a genuine attempt to make certain players stand out.

The Synergy-driven attributes we see in NBA Live 15 and NBA 2K15’s Badges represent a deeper and more realistic approach to replicating a player’s style of play, as well as their abilities and even their personalities. More and more signature jumpshots and dribbling animations are making their way into the games, and it’s been confirmed that in the case of NBA Live, new animations can actually be added through official content updates. These elements all add a level of authenticity that just wasn’t there in the early days of basketball gaming.

3. Depth of Game Modes

MyLEAGUE Settings in NBA 2K15

Game modes are slated to receive some significant attention in NBA Live 16, which comes as very welcome news. While Dynasty Mode and Rising Star in NBA Live 15 are serviceable and enjoyable, there is much that can be done with them, and they’re certainly behind NBA 2K15’s MyLEAGUE, MyGM, and MyCAREER in terms of their depth and features. NBA Live’s modes are unlikely to catch up within the span of a year, but my hope is that they still make some significant strides.

Still, the Dynasty Mode and Rising Star experiences on offer in NBA Live 15 are much, much deeper than what we had back in the day. Compared to the early days of Franchise Mode in NBA Live 2000-2003, or the first couple of iterations of Dynasty Mode starting in NBA Live 2004, the current mode is much more advanced…for the most part. Go back to the earlier games, when all we had was a single season mode, a standalone Playoffs Mode, and exhibition play, and you can certainly appreciate what’s in NBA Live 15.

And then, there’s NBA 2K15, with the aforementioned MyLEAGUE, MyGM, and MyCAREER. Again, way back in the day, all we had was a single season mode, or the ability to run our own NBA Playoffs with the teams of our choice. And we had a lot of fun doing that. But the phenomenal depth, the level of customisation, everything that’s on offer in MyGM, or its sandbox alternative, MyLEAGUE? Incredible. As for MyCAREER, while I’m not the biggest fan of its current direction, I can certainly appreciate the work that’s gone into it. Simply put, the depth modes in basketball games are no longer just means of extending gameplay; they’re experiences.

4. Strategy

Jabari Parker in NBA Live 15

While preparing content for our upcoming 20th Anniversary of NBA Live feature, I’ve gone right back to the beginning to play a little NBA Live 95, in order to refresh my memory and write a proper retrospective. While playing the PC version, I found a couple of habits difficult to break. First of all, every so often I’d try to perform a crossover with the right stick on my gamepad; needless to say, that didn’t do much good. Second, I found myself playing the game as I would its modern successors: more strategically, more realistically. And you know what? As outdated as NBA Live 95 is, the game played along.

Well, it tried to. The player movement wasn’t consistently there of course, and open midrange jumpshots were not as reliable as they should have been. When all else failed, video game strategies were far more dependable than smart, realistic basketball. But the foundation was there, and it’s something that’s definitely improved over the past couple of decades. Sure, these days there are still lapses in the AI, and room for further improvement. But go back and play some older games, and you’ll quickly see the difference.

These days, we have individual playbooks and coaching styles for all the NBA teams, which are even kept up to date as the current season progresses. The AI will run those plays and we’re encouraged to do the same, even if it’s just running a quick play, or freelancing with sound basketball strategy in mind. There’s incentive to work players open for jumpshots, make extra passes, and not just try to take it inside for a dunk or layup on every single play. Of course, there are still exploits, and as I said, room for further improvement. But the games have come a long way in representing real basketball, and real basketball strategy.

5. Controls

Pau Gasol in NBA 2K15

Spoiler for next Friday: I’ll be talking about the five ways that basketball games haven’t improved, and one of the items on my list is Controls. As such, it may seem like a contradiction to also feature it in my list of ways that basketball games have improved, but honestly, I believe both to be true. In some ways, they have improved, but in other ways, not so much. I’ll get into the latter next week, but for now, let’s take a look at the ways the controls in basketball games have gotten better.

Basketball games have adapted nicely to the changes that have been made to game controllers over the years, taking full advantage of the additional buttons and triggers, as well as the analog sticks. It’s great to see both NBA Live and NBA 2K making use of the right analog stick for dribbling moves; as I’ve said many times before, I’ve liked that approach since it debuted in NBA Live 2003, and 2K’s decision to adopt its own form of right stick dribbling controls made the series far more accessible to me. Some users may find a few of the right stick manoeuvres a bit tricky, but the increase in control is far preferable to tapping a crossover button, and hoping for the best.

Similarly, whether it be separate buttons for jumpshots and dunks/layups, modifiers, or 2K’s Shot Stick, we’re given more control over the kind of shots we want to attempt. These days, we have a wide array of tools at our disposal at both ends of the court, and for the most part, the controls are intuitive. Also, I remember the days of not having a steal button in NBA Live 95 through NBA Live 97 on PC, despite keyboards and gamepads of the era certainly having enough buttons to support one (steals were instead initiated automatically when you were close enough to an opponent). Somehow, I don’t think that’d ever happen with today’s controllers.

As I said, next week I’ll be taking a look at the flipside of the coin and listing five ways that basketball games haven’t improved, but those are five areas where I feel we have definitely seen progress since the early days of basketball gaming, in addition to the obvious advances in graphics, physics, and whatnot. What are some of the ways that you feel basketball games have improved since you started playing them? Let me know in the comments below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum. Thanks for checking in this week, please join me again next Friday for another Five.

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