This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! From retrospectives of basketball games and their interesting features, to republished articles and looking at NBA history through the lens of the virtual hardwood, Wednesdays at the NLSC are for going back in time. This week, I’m reflecting on the 20th Anniversary of right stick dribbling becoming a standard aspect of controls in basketball video games.
There’s no doubt that the implementing dribbling controls on the right stick is one of the most important innovations in the history of the virtual hardwood. It’s not the only idea that has pushed the genre forward, but it has a case for being one of the best. Right stick dribbling is easy to take for granted now, as it’s become a mainstay of sim titles over the past twenty years. If you were playing basketball games when it made its debut however, you’ll remember what a big deal it was. And yes, as I am someone who remembers when it was a bold new idea, saying that does make me feel old!
Existential crises, bad knees, and yelling at clouds aside, the fact that we can now celebrate the twentieth anniversary of right stick dribbling mechanics speaks to what a great concept they’ve been. After all, we’ve seen a lot of gameplay ideas come and go, and control schemes that didn’t pan out. Right stick dribbling is a concept that was built to last, and basketball games are better for it. Let’s take a look back…way back…
When the possibility of NBA Live 2003 using the right analog stick for dribbling controls arose as a rumour, and was subsequently confirmed in previews, there was some concern. An aversion to change is natural, and such a drastic one seemed destined to either be revolutionary, or a spectacular failure. There was trepidation, but many gamers who played the NBA Live 2003 demo seemed to like it. I remember it being described as something that would take some getting used to as it changed the feel of the game, but that it was ultimately for the best. Freestyle Control was indeed a game-changer, and even in that first iteration, there was a lot to like about the idea.
The benefits were obvious. Until that point, dribbling moves were usually performed with a single button press. In theory, the game would choose the most appropriate dribbling move given a player’s ballhandling ratings, position on the floor, whether or not they were in motion, and what would make the most sense in trying to elude the defender. As we all know however, contextual animations aren’t always logical, and can seem as if they were chosen at random. Even if they worked well, performing a variety of moves and fakes required the use of multiple buttons or triggers. It was easy to forget about basic moves in the heat of play, with controls that were so spread out.
While it may have seemed more complex on the surface, right stick dribbling actually simplified and streamlined these moves, while increasing our control. If a player put the ball behind their back, made a simple crossover from right to left, or made a jab step out of the triple threat, it was the result of an easily repeatable input, and a move that we intended to make. There was no more pressing a button and hoping for the best. Right stick dribbling was simple enough to pick up, yet deep enough to make mastering advanced moves worthwhile. Even with NBA Live’s shortcomings, the series has always boasted some of the best dribbling controls in basketball games.
Conversely, for all the good things that NBA 2K was doing as it began challenging NBA Live as the brand leader, its lack of right stick dribbling was a weakness. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that the original Isomotion in NBA 2K was a barrier to me getting into the series, having developed such an affinity for Freestyle Control in NBA Live. Even now that I’ve had far more experience with NBA 2K and grown used to its style of gameplay, I do have trouble revisiting some of the earlier releases in the series before it adopted right stick dribbling. It just feels clunky and too difficult to pull off the moves I want, compared to Freestyle in the contemporary NBA Lives.
Of course, although right stick dribbling was hailed as a revolutionary new feature, there was some controversy with the PC version. Dual analog gamepads had been introduced as a key feature of what was then the latest generation of consoles, thus right stick dribbling was taking advantage of those new controllers. PC gamers didn’t necessarily have a dual analog gamepad, though they were obviously available. For many basketball gamers on PC, the introduction of Freestyle Control meant replacing their existing peripheral. It was an added expense on top of a new control scheme, so not all PC hoops gamers were thrilled about the introduction of right stick dribbling.
As such, there was some pushback. Some PC gamers were adamant about using the keyboard, and were upset that it didn’t work as well with Freestyle Control. This was definitely an example of needing to get with the times though, and I’ve always been puzzled by the resistance. “Console vs. PC” sentiments have undoubtedly played a role in that, but it doesn’t make sense as special peripherals have long been a part of PC gaming. After twenty years of the concept being a staple of basketball games, I’d say those objections have dwindled down to a rare and unpopular opinion. It’s now hard to imagine a hoops title not utilising the right analog stick in its control scheme.
With that being said, right stick dribbling has only been a staple of the NBA 2K series for ten years, having been implemented for the first time in NBA 2K13. It’s surprising that it took as long as it did to adopt those mechanics. Looking back, NBA 2K’s image as the “anti-NBA Live” possibly played a role in the developers’ reluctance to borrow an idea from a bitter rival they’d pulled ahead of. There were also gamers who liked Isomotion, and 2K was putting the right analog stick to use in its advanced shooting controls. It was the right move in the long run though, as was pairing it with shooting controls to create the Pro Stick. Funnily enough, EA would then borrow that idea!
Although I’m focusing on right stick dribbling in this retrospective, the use of right analog stick controls obviously extends beyond ballhandling. They’ve also allowed for greater control on defense such as challenging shots, playing the passing lanes, and attempting on-ball steals, as well as performing elusive off-ball moves on offense. We do tend to think of the right stick revolution in terms of dribbling moves however, being such an impactful change to an aspect of basketball that is both fundamental and a way in which players demonstrate creativity and flair. Seamlessly chaining together dribbling moves and breaking ankles is a clear sign of mastery on the sticks.
The combination of longevity and consistency is a testament to the brilliance of right stick dribbling. In terms of its basic approach and functionality, it hasn’t needed to change too much over the past twenty years. Improvements have been technological, rather than philosophical. New tech has facilitated better 1-to-1 control, allowed faster stick movements to result in quicker moves, and improved our ability to chain moves together or break out of animations. In contrast, we’ve seen more experimentation with shooting mechanics and controls. Outside of a small number of changes to the way certain moves are performed, that hasn’t been the case with dribbling controls.
To that point though, it’s extremely noticeable when the required input feels more contrived than it needs to be. For example, despite pioneering the concept, NBA Live has had a habit of using simple stick movements for more advanced moves, and more complex combinations for basic ones. In at least one release, moving the stick left to right (or vice versa) performed a between-the-legs dribble, while a basic crossover required holding a modifier. Similarly, NBA 2K has recently reconfigured some of its dribbling moves, with down/away on the stick no longer performing behind-the-back dribbles. Instead, diagonal movements in the appropriate direction perform that move.
However, while not everyone may be a fan of small changes like this, it’s been easy to adapt to them. Once again, compare this to some of the changes that have been made to shooting mechanics, which have felt more intrusive and thus been poorly-received. The biggest issues with dribbling while utilising the right analog stick have tended to be with the underlying technology, rather than the inputs and overall concept. If the motion engine and animations are sluggish and clunky, dribbling will obviously be affected along with everything else. The difference is that it’s worked fine with better tech, whereas an idea like shot aiming has been problematic with multiple engines.
It would be fair to say that there’s always concern about unnecessary changes being made in annual releases. Cynicism leads to us wondering if some are made simply for the sake of having something new to hype up, and then “fix” as a selling point in the next game. I’m more inclined to think that some ideas for improvements simply don’t pan out, perhaps because what’s in place is already close to an ideal solution. I think that’s what we’ve seen when there have been small changes to right stick dribbling that we don’t like. Fortunately, because it’s such a robust concept, it’s been able to weather a couple of ill-advised changes, or be just as good once we’re used to them.
I’ve seen some comments opining that right analog controls saved not only basketball games, but gaming in general. I think that’s a fair statement, especially in regards to the virtual hardwood. Being the fan of retro gaming that I am, I can enjoy an old title without right stick dribbling, but games that have it do tend to hold up better. Other improvements that were being made around the same time are a factor too, but I do miss the complete control that the right analog stick facilitates, and there’s no way a new sim game should eschew those dribbling mechanics. Twenty years later, right stick dribbling is still one of the biggest and best improvements in basketball games.