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, my retrospective on franchise gaming continues with a look back at the mode that helped coin that term: the original Franchise Mode featured in NBA Live 2000 through NBA Live 2003.
With GM Mode, EA Sports had experimented with altering the traditional Season experience. The expanded Season mode in NBA Live 99, with its multiseason play and dynamic features, laid the foundation for an even deeper mode. Come NBA Live 2000, basketball gamers wouldn’t have to wait any longer for a multiseason mode that replicated even more aspects of the real NBA season, including free agency and the rookie draft. Needless to say, it isn’t as deep as its successors, but looking back, it’s still impressive to see just how much EA were able to accomplish with that first iteration of Franchise Mode.
From NBA Live 2000 through NBA Live 2003, Franchise Mode was definitely the centrepiece of NBA Live’s game modes, and the most popular. It was an extremely important development in basketball gaming, so let’s take a look back…way back…
I remember being blown away by Franchise Mode the first time that I played it in NBA Live 2000. The concept was something that we’d wanted to see for a few years at that point, and thus it had become a staple of the NLSC Wishlists. After NBA Live 98 and NBA Live 99 took the first few steps towards introducing an experience that we’d come to know as a franchise mode, it was very exciting to see it all come to fruition. NBA Live 2000’s Franchise Mode didn’t include all of the features we’d come to enjoy and expect in later games, but many of the basics were covered. Indeed, in some ways, the original mode is deeper than its namesake in NBA Live 18.
Many of the basic elements of Franchise Mode were established in NBA Live 2000. You could play up to twenty-five seasons, which was admittedly more than most gamers would end up doing. Players improved and declined throughout the course of their careers, according to their age and the same hidden potential attribute that had been introduced in NBA Live 99. Unlike NBA Live 99 however, players also retired, generally when they were over the age of thirty-five, though sometimes as young as thirty-two. Fictional rookies were generated in between seasons and entered the league via the Draft, the order of which was determined by the real Lottery rules.
Trades occurred between CPU-controlled teams, and free agency was also added, leading to player movement becoming far more realistic in nature and frequency. At the time, EA Sports weren’t allowed to use real salary figures, so player salaries were represented by a simplified “points” system. The initial cap was set at one million points, while the maximum and minimum salaries were three hundred thousand and thirty thousand respectively. Aspects of the collective bargaining agreement such as annual cap raises, conditions for teams trading while above the cap, Bird Rights, minimum contracts, and even the rookie scale, were all represented.
The PC version naturally offered a way around the restrictions regarding real dollar amounts. Player salaries could be modified in the players.dbf file, while the salary cap values were stored in a file called salary.ini, which could likewise be edited. With a little work, it was quite feasible to give players their real salaries, and have Franchise Mode operate with the actual salary cap figures. Alternatively, since there was no in-game option to disable the cap, you could simply set it to a much higher amount while leaving the default points system in place. If you wanted the depth of Franchise Mode with the simplicity of Season mode, this was a viable workaround.
To some extent, users were able to decide how much realism they wanted in Franchise Mode. Obviously, the longer you played the mode, the more detached from reality it would become, but the ability to start out by completely customising the league and holding a fantasy draft also remained. Even if you chose to begin with real rosters and the default league settings, you’d see the NBA evolve over time, and could also play an active role in reshaping it. Negotiating multiplayer trades, freeing up cap space and vying for free agents, seeing CPU teams shake up their rosters, and watching generated players gradually take over the league, was all part of the fun.
While the regular season and Playoffs utilised the familiar schedule and brackets, the offseason was broken up into tasks that were progressed through linearly. First, the list of retiring players would be displayed. This would be followed by the Draft Lottery. Users were then able to re-sign their own players, and take advantage of Bird Rights. The Draft was up next, during which you could scout the prospects on the board and watch them get picked in real time. Teams were then able to negotiate with other free agents. This became the standard approach for progressing through the offseason tasks, even when some games implemented a calendar during the offseason.
Beyond all the management functions, and the gameplay itself, one of the best things about Franchise Mode was the amount of information at your disposal. The “At a Glance” menu featured news from around the league, all season long. Winning and losing streaks, transactions, injuries, and the weekly and monthly award winners were all reported here. Speaking of award winners, with new players entering the league every offseason, there was actually a player eligible to win the Rookie of the Year award beyond the first season. Player and team progress could be tracked, and if you made it to the end of twenty-five years, you could review your overall performance.
This all made Franchise Mode an immersive and engaging experience. Of course, the simplified salary cap rules and issues such as an inability to trade Draft picks make it look a bit primitive now, but for the most part, the mode nailed all the basics. Team building logic was improved, though some trades and free agent signings certainly still happened just for the sake of having player movement. DSTATS could cause issues with simulated stats as the years progressed, and since there was no training function, you were at the mercy of a dice roll in terms of the way players developed. Fun as it was, there was room for improvement, and plenty of untapped potential.
However, Franchise Mode in NBA Live 2000 remained functional, enjoyable, and addictive. It had been another huge leap forward – as was often the case for NBA Live at that point in time – and while there was potential for the mode to become even deeper, it was already an experience that we’d wanted to have in the game for a number of years. Of course, the old Season mode was still present, but it became largely useless with the debut of Franchise Mode. It retained the custom league options, and forewent aspects such as the salary cap and multiseason play in order to provide a more traditional experience, but most gamers migrated to Franchise.
Unfortunately, after a couple of years, Franchise Mode had become a little stagnant. There were token improvements to aspects such as the ream building logic, and the occasional new feature such as the ability to assume control of new or additional teams in between seasons, an MVP Candidates listing, and a trading phase in the offseason. Beyond that, however, there weren’t a lot of major additions, and some of the Franchise history and progress screens were actually cut. NBA Live 2002, being a console-only release, also reduced the length of the mode to ten seasons. NBA Live 2003 subsequently increased the number of seasons back to twenty-five.
That general lack of innovation and loss of features here and there was disappointing, especially as Franchise Mode had become so popular. Looking back now, it can probably be attributed to a larger focus being placed on other aspects of the game, several of which were being rebuilt and revamped around that time. NBA Live made a few missteps and subsequent course corrections during that span, and important gameplay innovations such as Freestyle Control were also being implemented. Since Franchise Mode was relatively deep and robust, all things considered, it’s likely that it ended up taking a backseat to other areas of concern.
Despite those issues, Franchise remained the mode of choice for most NBA Live gamers back then, and we enjoyed it as best we could. Although we had our gripes, we were still able to live out our GM fantasies by wheeling and dealing with other teams, signing big name free agents, and selecting The Next Big Thing or a diamond in the rough come Draft time. At the same time, we could also be the coach of the team, and control all of our players on the virtual hardwood. There was still immense satisfaction in guiding a team through an entire season and Playoffs, winning the championship, and then trying to do it all again after an eventful offseason.
Big things were in the pipeline, and the experience has unquestionably evolved, but the original Franchise Mode deserves recognition for the fun and the foundation that it provided. The very first iteration of the mode in NBA Live 2000 was a huge leap from the year before, establishing solid concepts and mechanics, and offering up an experience that we’d been craving. We could truly play the part of a GM, doing what we wanted to see our favourite teams do in real life. We could enjoy the journey of the NBA season, year after year. We could play into a speculative future, and even build a dynasty. As it turned out, in NBA Live 2004, EA Sports would do the same.