The Friday Five: Top 5 Things Holding Back Basketball Games

Friday is upon us once again, so here is this week’s edition of The Friday Five! If this is your first time checking out The Friday Five, it is a feature that I post every Friday in which I talk about a variety of topics related to basketball video games, the real NBA and other areas of interest to our community, presenting my thoughts either as a list of five items or in Top 5 countdown format.

Being that we are a community of basketball video game enthusiasts, the way in which basketball video games can improve is naturally one of our favourite topics of discussion. While it’s important that we keep posting quality feedback on the games we play and innovative ideas for future titles, there are certain factors that unfortunately stand in the way of certain features being implemented, or at least make it difficult for developers to implement them exactly as envisioned. These are the Top 5 things that I feel are holding back basketball video games and posing a challenge to their developers.

5. Licensing Difficulties

NCAA Basketball 10 Screenshot

For the most part, developers of licensed basketball games are able to accomplish what they set out to do – albeit with varying degrees of success in certain areas – without issues regarding licensing and likeness rights getting in the way. That’s why they have the license in the first place, after all. When problems do arise, they are usually related to historical content, such as the inability to include certain former players with whom they can’t come to an agreement.

It does present some bigger challenges, though. At present, NCAA titles can’t be sold outside of North America. While there are obviously plenty of people in that market to buy those games, it’s still limiting their availability to a couple of countries and making them less profitable than games based on professional leagues. Even putting aside profits, the issue with international licensing for the NCAA simply prevents a lot of gamers worldwide from playing those games.

4. The NBA

LeBron James in NBA Live 10

Of course, even if you do have a licensed game that can be sold all over the world, you’ll find yourself running into a few roadblocks. The NBA has control over what does and doesn’t appear in games featuring its license, teams and players. If they say something can’t be included, it’s not going to be included. Given that the NBA is very image conscious, this means that a lot of things in real life that are perhaps a little controversial – “colourful moments”, shall we say – are not going to make the cut.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. The league has every right to protect its image and avoid glorifying certain aspects of the sport that don’t paint it in a positive light and aren’t in the spirit of the game. However, it also means that little details like specific players being booed in certain arenas is out. It’s been done at least once before in NBA Live 10, but the NBA reportedly didn’t like it and declared “never again”. Some of the things that are part of the sport’s culture or represent the human side of the game (like player, coach and GM personalities) could make for some nice touches but if the league says no, it’s not going to happen.

3. The complexity of the sport

KG vs Chandler in NBA Live 13

Basketball is a tough sport to realistically adapt for a video game, particularly when you consider the level of detail and realism that we want to see and experience. There’s so much going on in basketball with no stoppages after a made basket (situations where there are fouls excluded) and ten players constantly moving and making decisions in a relatively small playing field compared to other sports.

Additionally, points are scored more rapidly than in most other team sports and there’s a whole range of stats that are constantly being accumulated and tracked. Basketball is also an interesting mix of teamwork and individual brilliance, a unique sport with variables and idiosyncrasies that are difficult to replicate. Obviously, we have seen some basketball games that have done this very well and hopefully developers will continue to strive for innovation and excellence in making virtual basketball reflect the real thing. They certainly have their work cut out for them, though.

2. Technology

Clipping glitch in NBA 2K13

One of the biggest obstacles that developers have to overcome in representing true to life basketball in video games is the technology they have to work with. From physics and animations to artificial intelligence, developers are going to run into a wall at some point. It’s probably fair to say that they’re already pushing the limits of what can be done in those areas with the current tech.

The good news is that the next generation of consoles is right around the corner, which means developers will have more processing power to play with. It will be very interesting to see what can be done with basketball games as far as physics and AI are concerned. Players with a real presence in their movement and interaction with each other, with realistic animations and responsive controls? A sense of every player having a brain and the AI making strategic decisions instead of challenging through cheese? Yes, please. It’s easier to say than make happen of course, but with next gen tech on the horizon, those are a couple of the goals that I’m sure developers will be keeping in mind.

1. Reality

Kevin Durant's Signature Skills in NBA 2K13

In truth, this is the underlying theme for everything else that’s holding back basketball games and the one aspect that presents the biggest challenge: they’re based on reality, attempting to realistically depict something in real life. This is a challenge that other sports games obviously face as well.

When we play a basketball sim, most of us are aware that this player shouldn’t be scoring so many points or that player can’t shoot from that far out, and so on. We know how the players perform in real life and we want to see their virtual counterparts have the same tendencies and abilities. Even if the game is technically sound and realistic for the most part, inaccuracies like that do detract from the experience for us sim heads.

It’s something that doesn’t affect games like Fallout or Mass Effect, where the genre demands suspension of disbelief and has fewer ties to reality. Even a game that’s a bit more grounded in reality like Grant Theft Auto is still presented like an action movie, so it’s expected to take some more liberties with realism. I’m not about to complain about the SCIENCE! of the Fallout universe or the fact that I don’t get whiplash when I crash in GTA. Chris Duhon torching me for 30+ points and 15+ assists thanks to point guard domination issues in the AI of a basketball game, on the other hand? I’m more likely to grumble about that.

Now, I’m certainly not advocating that basketball games should forego realism. On the contrary, developers should absolutely continue to try to meet that challenge and once again, it’ll be interesting to see what the next generation of consoles will allow them to achieve in that regard. Absolute perfection is an unrealistic expectation but as we move forward, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect to see some very pleasing results all the same.

That’s all for this week. I invite you to post your thoughts on the challenges that basketball video games face in the comments below, as well as take the discussion to the NLSC Forum. Thanks for reading, have a great weekend and please join me again next Friday for another edition of The Friday Five!

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April 5, 2013 8:50 pm

i very much agree with the number 1 here. there are times where some regular ‘bench warmers’ in real life basketball take down my whole team when used by the AI.

April 6, 2013 4:34 am
Reply to  Andrew

This is a lovely write-up however I do disagree with some of the parts of technology such as the whole “Next-gen console” (lol, they’re using old specs) anyway..

There’s plenty of games at this point who have an amazing physics engine I think at the end of the day what makes such things work properly would be the tools the developers are working with. Clearly they’re using some inferior engine and obviously in terms of marketing they aren’t as successful as other major developers perhaps due to all those deals they need to make with the NBA and its players as well as sponsors like Gatorade, Sprite, Twitter and those other brands featured in the game.

You do have to take into account how popular their series has become and the revenue they have obtained should allow them to improve their technology for future installments which has not really been the case. They did well on 2K11 took two steps back with 2K12 and one step forward with 2K13.


Long story short: The developers have made mucho moneys getz betta’ toolz and designaz.

April 6, 2013 9:38 am

To me the focus on “reality” and current licensing takes away from the video game experience. WHen you are trying to replicate you are not innovating.

I play with a fictional league. All players I have created or edited. I like being able to do that.

I wish sports games would take into account the historical elements of the game (non-current strategies) and incorporate the totality of what the sport could be and give the user the ability to customize the game.

For instance Mike D’Antoni’s system is dang fun to watch with the right players. The Phoenix Suns played the game of basketball different than 29 of the other teams in the league. It was new in the mid 2000’s. Some people would call their style “cheese” or something other than real if it were in a video game.

Uncle Drew
Uncle Drew
April 7, 2013 12:18 am

The ability to block shots at the rim should be more prevalent. Those underhanded scoop shots are frustrating, because you can’t block them.

April 7, 2013 5:00 am
Reply to  Uncle Drew

You can actually but.. it’s like catching your 5th Active Reload on Gears of War.