This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at the addition of a referee in NBA Live 2000.
On this day in 1988, the NBA decided to add a third referee to officiating crews, a change that went into effect the following season. Referees are often unpopular figures in any sport, and the NBA has seen its fair share of officiating controversies over the years. Whether it’s some of Joey Crawford’s antics, free throw discrepancies, or other bewildering calls, I’m sure we can all name an incident involving a referee that makes our blood boil. The officiating in basketball video games tends to be more consistent – that’s how it’s programmed, after all – but until NBA Live 2000, EA’s games lacked an actual referee on the sidelines.
It probably doesn’t sound like a big deal now, as we obviously expect to see more than one referee on the sidelines of contemporary basketball video games. At the time however, it was a significant addition to the presentation in NBA Live. Let’s take a look back…way back…
When we look back at old video games of any genre, we have to take into account the limitations of the hardware of the era. A lot of games were making the most of the technology at their disposal, pushing the hardware to its limits and doing as much as they could without compromising performance. Older basketball games simply weren’t capable of including the same amount of detail as their modern counterparts. For many years, the idea of having a referee on the sidelines was asking too much, as it would be stretching the game’s resources too thin…at least while games continued to be ported to older hardware.
In that stone age of basketball gaming, the presence of a referee was at least implied, if not visually represented. Games were obviously officiated in so much as calls were made and the rules were represented; there just wasn’t a referee to be seen blowing the whistle. Instead, the ball floated mysteriously in midair as the players waited for the tip-off, at which point it was tossed up by invisible hands. At the free throw line, whether the attempt was made or missed, the ball was bounced back to the shooter by the unseen referee. In dead ball situations, players either collected the ball, or it warped into the inbounder’s hands when they were in position.
The addition of an actual referee was something that basketball gamers often brought up in Wishlists, and in NBA Live 2000, EA Sports made it happen. There was only one referee visible on the court at a time, rather than the three that we see officiating real NBA games, but that didn’t really bother anyone. Simply seeing a referee out there making the appropriate hand signals and tossing the ball to players was a significant improvement to the presentation. Although it’s not really something that affects gameplay too much, I do remember gushing about it to some fellow basketball gamers upon picking up NBA Live 2000.
Of course, the presence of a referee did have some effect on the gameplay. Although it enhanced the presentation, it also slowed play down a little as the referee didn’t immediately return the ball to free throw shooters, or hand it to players for the inbounds pass. If you’ve ever been annoyed by a referee taking their time in a recent NBA 2K game, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The referee could actually be switched off in NBA Live 2000’s options, which sped things up a little. It was also a means of reducing the detail settings in the PC version, if his presence was affecting performance in addition to the pace of gameplay.
Although there was only one referee on the court at a time, there were three different referees in the game. No real referees were used, and their names (which were all Ref Referee) don’t show up in-game at all, but as their data could be found in the players.dbf file and their face textures were also located with the players’ artwork, they could easily be edited. The referees have their own team in the database – ID 38 – which separates them from the playable roster. As such, if you assign any other player in the database a TEAMID of 38, they’ll also disappear from the active roster and randomly show up as a referee.
Unfortunately, referees were absent from the sidelines in the next couple of NBA Live games, though they did appear during cutscenes. They would subsequently make a return however, and with the current emphasis on authenticity, it’s difficult to imagine that they’ll disappear again anytime soon. With the NBA’s adoption of Instant Replay rulings, cutscenes depicting buzzer beating shots being reviewed have also since been added. Of course, in a couple of NBA Live games, a bug would sometimes cause the wrong cutscene to trigger (the referee indicating no basket when it counted, and vice versa), though the correct call would actually be reflected on the scoreboard.
NBA Live 2000 wasn’t the first basketball video game to feature a referee in some capacity. Off the top of my head, a referee was also featured in NBA Jam Tournament Edition, tossing up the ball at the tip-off before sliding backwards off the court and disappearing for the rest of the game. Refs also appeared in other early basketball games, often in pop-up overlays when infractions occurred. However, their in-game presence was another addition that made NBA Live 2000 such a great release. Having a referee (or two, or three) on the sidelines is simply expected these days, but in the early days of basketball gaming, it was a big deal to finally see that level of detail.
It seems unlikely that we’ll see actual referees represented in future games; I assume that has something to do with their union, and possibly some concerns on the NBA’s part as well. I also think we can do without a Referee Mode, which I could see losing its appeal very quickly (it’s not even that fun in pro wrestling games, in my opinion). I am glad that we see them roaming the sidelines in modern games though, and I do have fond memories of seeing that referee in NBA Live 2000 for the first time. Even if he did hold up the gameplay for a few seconds here and there, there was no way that I was switching him off, and going back to those mysterious, invisible officials.