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The Friday Five: 5 Ways Basketball Games Haven’t 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.

Last week, I talked about the ways in which basketball video games have improved over the years. I still stand by that, and believe it to be true; beyond the advances in graphics and technology that have benefitted video games in general, basketball games have come a long way in replicating the sport. However, there are also still areas in which they leave something to be desired.

That’s what I’m taking a look at this week: five ways that basketball games haven’t improved, or at the very least, haven’t improved to the extent that we would like. They’re the nagging, lingering issues that I believe detract from games that we otherwise enjoy. Issues such as…

1. Unintuitive Control Configurations

Kevin Durant in NBA 2K14

Controls in basketball video games have gotten deeper, and for the most part, they’re perfectly functional and easy enough to get the hang of. Last week, I mentioned that they’re one of the ways that basketball games have improved, but I also noted that they’re still somewhat problematic. While the controller configurations are intuitive for the most part, in other ways, there are certainly some frustrating (or at least slightly cumbersome) design choices.

Assigning Shoot to the same button as Steal is one of the first examples that comes to mind. It’s become a staple of basketball video game controls, and every so often, it will lead to an undesirable shot from beyond midcourt. Then you have NBA Live’s playcalling functionality. While I don’t mind it too much and I am used to it, having to take your thumb off the left stick to call plays on the D-Pad can break the flow of the game, and leave your player vulnerable to a steal as they idle out of your control.

On the NBA 2K front, while I like that they’ve adopted right stick dribbling controls, pulling off moves just doesn’t feel as good as it does in NBA Live. The moves look great and can be used effectively, but the delay takes some getting used to, and I’m not a fan of the camera relative option being the default setting, as I feel that approach is just awkward. Right now, I believe that both NBA Live and NBA 2K are striving to find a balance between great looking animations and feeling completely in control of your player. Neither game is quite there yet, and they need to iron out issues with their respective controller configurations, but they are certainly trying, which is promising.

2. Unbalanced AI

Joakim Noah dunks in NBA 2K14

As I said in last week’s Five, basketball video games have become more strategic and realistic over the years. The user is rewarded more consistently for making good basketball decisions, and the AI likewise plays a realistic style of basketball, for the most part replicating what we see in the NBA much closer than in the early days of basketball gaming. That said, we still get frustrating moments where things seem to be unfairly tilted in favour of the AI.

In all fairness, there are limitations to what can be achieved here, and it’s not for a lack of trying. The AI in basketball video games has come a long way, but there are recurring annoyances, such as AI controlled opponents having better control over loose balls, and your AI controlled teammates lacking aggressiveness (or seemingly forgetting how to play basketball, when it’s convenient for the CPU). There are times when AI opponents seem to be a lot quicker and more agile than user controlled players, and more adept at brushing off or fighting through contact.

On one hand, the AI does need a slight advantage to be able to keep up with a human mind that can think laterally and creatively, but it can feel a little too unbalanced. Even keeping in mind that we need to adjust our approach as basketball games become more realistic, and that declarations of “scripted” are often a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, it’s understandable why some gamers come to that conclusion. There’s still a point where the games stop being challenging because of intelligent play, and instead become challenging because of a lack of balance. In short, there’s still room for improvement, and I’d like to see the most egregious AI quirks eliminated.

3. Customisation (at least, not as consistently, or to the extent we’d like)

Derrick Rose in NBA Live 15

I went back and forth on this one, because it wouldn’t be fair to say that the customisation elements of basketball video games haven’t gotten better or deeper through the years. NBA 2K15’s MyLEAGUE is an incredibly customisable sandbox mode, and roster editing functionality is available, along with gameplay sliders. NBA Live 15 is severely lacking in customisation features, but the series has done a decent job with them in the past, and they’re reportedly in the cards for NBA Live 16. So on the whole, between the two series, there has indeed been improvement.

Still, it’s often felt like one step forward, two steps back. NBA Live really needs roster editing functionality to return in NBA Live 16, regardless of any improvements that are made in terms of the official updates. Sliders are also sorely needed to tweak the experience to the individual user’s liking. Custom teams haven’t been included since NBA Live 2000, barring the Quick Pick functionality in NBA Live 09 and NBA Live 10, which wasn’t really a satisfactory substitute. And of course, the lack of a PC version has basically shut down patching.

Things have been better on the NBA 2K front, barring the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One version of NBA 2K14, but there are still a few issues. As I said, MyLEAGUE is amazing, but the way NBA 2K’s roster editing functionality is set up has always felt a bit convoluted and contrived to me. 2K’s customisation features are deeper than Live’s, but Live’s roster editing options – when they had them, at least – were more user-friendly, at least in my opinion. Basically, I’d like to see both games show more improvement in this area. Needless to say, I’d also like to see both series released for PC, with adequate support for modding.

4. Free Throw Shooting

Nick Collison attempts a free throw in NBA Live 14

I’ve written an entire Friday Five article on this before, so I’ll try my best not to repeat myself too much. However, it remains one of my biggest complaints about recent basketball video games: I’m just not a fan of the current methods of shooting free throws. Both NBA Live and NBA 2K currently use the “hold shoot” method; that is, hold down the shoot button to begin the shot, and release it at the optimal moment to knock it down. In other words, the same principle as shooting a regular jumpshot.

It’s functional, it’s easy enough to master, and it does make sense to avoid anything that feels like a mini-game, instead aping the usual shooting mechanics. However, I still feel that it doesn’t give us enough control over the shot, make or miss. If I make the free throw, I want it to be because my aim was true, or close enough that it’ll rattle or bank in. If I miss long, short, to the left or to the right, I want it to be because my aim was off in that regard. And if I need to aim a deliberate miss so that my top rebounder has the best chance of snagging the board, I want to be able to do that.

When it comes down to it, I just don’t feel that any basketball game has really improved upon the T-Meter that was in earlier NBA Live games. The T-Meter concept itself was improved upon, as I really like its implementation in NBA Live 2004, NBA Live 2005, and NBA Live 06. The problem is that it’s kind of antiquated at this point, but none of the methods that have succeeded it have really resonated with me. Ideally, I’d like to see the T-Meter approach revamped and updated for the modern era, or a new concept that gives us a bit more control over aiming free throws.

5. Ensuring Fair Online Play

John Wall in NBA Live 15

Referring back to a more recent Friday Five, I’ve previously outlined the reasons that I’m not one for playing basketball video games online. One of the main reasons is that the games don’t do much to ensure sportsmanship and fair play; as I said, it’s really annoying to play through a game until the fourth quarter and start pulling away from your opponent, only to have them ragequit or intentionally disconnect, sparing themselves the loss and robbing you of a win.

Now, the online basketball gaming experience has improved in a lot of ways, with deeper and more interesting online modes (in some releases, at least), dedicated servers, and of course, faster Internet connections. However, the experience can still be easily ruined by poor sportsmanship, which unfortunately goes largely unpunished. Calling the game and assigning a win and a loss when there’s a disconnection or ragequit would surely be something of a deterrent, or at least compensate gamers who have the misfortune of being matched up with a sore loser.

Looking at other sports titles, NCAA Football once implemented sportsmanship points for online gamers, which were awarded for actions that represented good sportsmanship (not running up the score in blowouts, not calling timeouts if you’re ahead during the end-game, and so on and so forth). Reading some posts on the official EA boards, it appears as though the concept wasn’t without its issues, but I still think it’s a good idea in theory. Properly implemented, it could cut down on bad sportsmanship, or at least make it easier to avoid being matched up with poor sports.

What are some of the ways that you feel basketball games just haven’t improved, or haven’t improved quite enough for your liking? Sound off 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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