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 concluding my retrospective on franchise modes with a look back at The Association in NBA 2K.
While NBA Live was offering multiseason management modes in the form of Franchise and Dynasty, NBA 2K was also providing basketball gamers with its own take on the franchise experience. The franchise modes in both games have had their ups and downs, but the 2K series has done a very commendable job from year to year, in many cases implementing features that have yet to be seen in EA’s game. For those of us who were mostly playing NBA Live back in the day, we looked on in envy as 2K implemented several of those much-desired features in its modes.
As of now, NBA 2K has featured the deepest and most advanced franchise modes in basketball gaming. For many years, that franchise experience went by the name of The Association, and it admirably paved the way for MyLEAGUE and MyGM in recent games. Let’s take a look back…way back…
Contrary to their recent track record, EA actually beat 2K to the punch when it came to implementing a franchise mode. While the original Franchise Mode made its debut in NBA Live 2000, NBA 2K for the SEGA Dreamcast lacked a similar multiseason experience. The series would introduce its own Franchise mode, using the same name that EA had adopted, in NBA 2K1. In terms of features, NBA 2K’s Franchise was very similar to NBA Live’s mode, with league customisation, trades and free agency, generated rookies and the Draft, a points limit in place of a salary cap, and so on. It also included aspects of the league that NBA Live did not, such as the preseason.
Features such as All-Star voting, hiring and firing of coaches, rookie signings, trading of draft picks, and a trading block where users could entertain offers from CPU-controlled teams, were already implemented by NBA 2K3. While NBA Live’s Franchise Mode was stagnating in the years leading up to the Dynasty revamp in NBA Live 2004, 2K were diligently innovating and expanding their mode. Some of the presentation was quite good for the era, though certain aspects of the interface (notably the Calendar) were a little clunky compared to NBA Live’s UI. Staff hiring was expanded in ESPN NBA Basketball, and the mode remained quite deep overall.
With EA adopting the Dynasty moniker in NBA Live 2004 to give its revamped franchise mode more distinct branding, 2K followed suit in ESPN NBA 2K5 with the first iteration of The Association. The mode, often simply referred to as Association, retained the same team management features as its predecessor, albeit with a revamped layout. Full Authority, an advanced coaching/simulation mode that even included generated highlights, was also introduced. As with NBA Live 2005, real salaries could finally be included, allowing for some added authenticity that had previously been beyond both EA and 2K’s control.
The Association also featured Team Chemistry, which was affected by interactions with players. Players would approach you with their thoughts on the current situation, and depending on your chosen response, the overall chemistry would rise and fall. The way in which you chose to handle training sessions also had an effect on Team Chemistry. Although NBA Live 2005’s Dynasty Mode was an enjoyable experience and benefitted from a better interface and the presence of the All-Star Weekend, The Association was the deeper mode. NBA Live had the basics down, but NBA 2K was really beginning to go above and beyond with the franchise experience.
That’s not to say that The Association and its predecessors didn’t have their issues, of course. Just as in NBA Live, simulated stats and award winners could occasionally leave something to be desired. Some gamers found the Team Chemistry and player conversations annoying, though it should be noted that they could be disabled. There was also a very nasty bug in ESPN NBA 2K5, which prevented gamers from advancing to the NBA Finals after the conclusion of the Eastern Conference Finals, regardless of whether they won or lost. For all the depth and innovation, 2K wasn’t immune to gamebreaking bugs, and back then, consoles didn’t receive title updates.
When both games made the leap to the next generation in 2005, NBA Live made the mistake of leaving Dynasty Mode out of the Xbox 360 version. It’s a prime example of a decision that has set NBA Live back, thus forcing it to play catch-up through the past couple of generations. NBA 2K, on the other hand, did not make the same mistake. The Association was present in the Xbox 360 version of NBA 2K6, and now featured fictional team owners with their own personalities. This factored into their expectations for your performance, as well as your level of job security (if that option was enabled). Draft classes could also be imported from College Hoops 2K6.
Over the next few years, The Association continued to be expanded with a new feature here and there, such as in-season player scouting and a mock Draft board, progressive fatigue, fatigue and rotation-based substitution options, and designated player roles. 2K also continued to refine the Association menus, making navigating the mode and carrying out tasks much easier. NBA 2K9 brought The Association 2.0, which included the ability to edit Draft prospects. This was the forerunner to the custom Draft Classes in NBA 2K10 onwards, and was a welcome feature for anyone who wanted to take the time to replace the generated rookies with real prospects.
By the end of the last generation, The Association had become a deep, fully-featured franchise mode with a pleasing amount of customisation options. The concept of the fictional team owner had been done away with, which I would suggest was the right move. The D-League was briefly introduced, and included the ability to both assign players to the D-League for development, as well as edit and sign players from the D-League teams. It was dropped in NBA 2K13, but other staples of the mode remained, including HoopCast simulation control, contract extensions, training, extensive team management functionality, and a sim engine that produced generally good results.
In the final years that The Association was featured as NBA 2K’s franchise mode, there were a couple of major innovations. The first was the introduction of The Association: Online in NBA 2K12, which as the name implies, was an online version of the mode. It was somewhat basic compared to the offline mode, but it was still serviceable for basketball gamers looking to run online leagues. The other innovation was the ability to start a new Association game either at the beginning of the season, or as of the current date with all of the real season statistics. This was a great option for gamers starting a new game late in the year, and was very well-received.
Aside from those significant additions however, innovation in The Association had generally slowed down towards the end of the generation. There are a couple of reasons for that, of course. The first is that the mode was already extremely deep, and had made the most of the technology that was available at the time. The second reason is the introduction of the single player career mode in NBA 2K10. Debuting as My Player and later rebranded as MyCAREER, it became the mode of choice for a lot of basketball gamers. With The Association already in such great shape, developing the MyCAREER experience became the higher priority for Visual Concepts.
Since then, NBA 2K has continued to innovate with MyLEAGUE and MyGM, in the process developing even deeper franchise modes. The Association provided the NBA 2K series with an excellent foundation to build upon though, and looking back, it’s definitely impressive how they were able to keep improving it year to year. Some titles saw more additions and innovation than others, but the depth and quality remained very consistent with each game. Not many features or functions were lost, with the D-League and Team Owner standing out as prominent examples. Both concepts have since returned in some capacity in the contemporary modes.
I’ve had a lot of fun with the franchise modes in NBA Live over the years, and EA deserves credit for some of its innovations, as well as the introduction of the first Franchise Mode back in NBA Live 2000. However, Visual Concepts really took the idea and ran with it, introducing many functions and features in its early franchise modes that we now take for granted. As I noted, some of them have yet to be seen in any of NBA Live’s modes. By the time 2K introduced the revamped Association in ESPN NBA 2K5, they had established a more comprehensive franchise experience that never really took a big step backwards, as Dynasty Mode unfortunately did.
Franchise gaming admittedly isn’t as popular as it once was. Many gamers have gravitated towards the single player career experience and the connected online modes, and I must admit that I’ve found myself doing the same. I’d like to make a return to franchise gaming this year though, as it remains a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable experience. I hope that 2K will continue to improve upon MyLEAGUE and MyGM, and that a deep Franchise mode will return to NBA Live in the years to come. When you consider how much we enjoyed those early franchise modes, and how far they’ve come since, there’s undoubtedly still a lot of fun to be had in playing GM.