Wayback Wednesday: Freestyle Superstars in NBA Live 06

Kevin Garnett with the Freestyle Superstars shot in NBA Live 06

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 Freestyle Superstars in NBA Live 06.

As basketball video games have improved along with gaming technology in general, our expectations have also grown. When it comes to aspects such as realism, advanced or flashy moves, signature styles, and player differentiation, the bar has been raised higher and higher. Signature moves were present in EA Sports’ NBA Playoffs series, and skill levels were more defined beginning with the implementation of player ratings in NBA Live 95. However, star players still didn’t quite stand out from the pack. Freestyle Superstars was arguably EA’s first major effort to incorporate individual playing styles, and properly represent differing skill levels.

It was a concept that had its drawbacks, but I also believe that it was innovative and reasonably successful. Although the criticisms of Freestyle Superstars are fair, it’s a little underrated in terms of being an important stepping stone in the progression of basketball video games. How so? Well, let’s take a look back…way back…

The goal of sim-oriented basketball games is to have players play like their real life counterparts, and stand apart from one another. As I mentioned, the NBA Playoffs games such as Lakers vs. Celtics featured signature moves which tended to be nigh unstoppable, and player stats also offered some clues as to the players’ abilities. However, it wasn’t until player ratings were made visible in NBA Live 95 that we had a clear understanding of player skill levels, as well as a consistent measure of their impact on gameplay. In early games, ratings also determined the availability of dunk and layup animations, while later games featured assigned animation packages.

Dwyane Wade with the Freestyle Superstars dunk in NBA Live 06

By the time NBA Live 06 was being developed, gaming was well into the PlayStation 2 and Xbox era. Basketball games had demonstrated a lot of visual improvements, making players recognisable and more easily identifiable from one another. The emphasis now was on bringing more realism to the gameplay, which included touches such as signature styles and animations. Freestyle Superstars was an early attempt at achieving this, granting players with high enough ratings special moves and abilities that gave them an edge offensively or defensively. It’s an idea that had merit; indeed, we still see a variation of it in recent games, in the form of NBA 2K’s Badges.

There were eight different types of Freestyle Superstars players: High Flyer (spectacular dunkers), Playmaker (crafty passers and floor generals), Inside Scorer (great post-up players), Outside Scorer (talented wing scorers), Shooter (deadeye marksmen), Power Player (inside scorers known for their power moves), Inside Stopper (great interior defenders) and Outside Stopper (great perimeter defenders). By holding down the Freestyle Superstars trigger and pressing one of the face buttons, players could execute advanced moves such as bank shots, flashy passes, dazzling dunks, elusive layups, and more, all of which had a higher likelihood of success.

Although there are no player-specific animations, Freestyle Superstars still gave players a semblance of signature style. The expanded movesets with their more effective abilities definitely gave them an edge over players who didn’t possess them. The qualifying ratings for Freestyle Superstars moves were generally logical, ensuring that only the best specialists would attain a moveset relevant to their area of expertise, while only the best players in the league would have several movesets available to them. Although players could only have one offensive and defensive moveset equipped at a time, they could be changed before games, or even disabled completely.

Freestyle Superstars therefore represented a step forward in gameplay mechanics and player differentiation, but it was by no means a perfect solution. Some of the moves were definitely too effective, which compromised the level of realism. Certain moves, such as bank shots, should’ve really been available to all players. The inability to switch movesets during gameplay pigeonholed multitalented stars into one facet of their game. Qualifying ratings could also be problematic in terms of the way players were usually rated. For example, lockdown defender Bruce Bowen was an Outside Stopper, but his steals rating needed to be fudged in order to qualify.

Jason Williams with the Freestyle Superstars pass in NBA Live 06

NBA Live 07 expanded upon the Freestyle Superstars concept, introducing Star and Superstar tiers to further differentiate between skill levels. It also introduced the ability to switch between movesets on the fly, but unfortunately removed the ability to disable Freestyle Superstars moves altogether. The X-Factor mechanic also made its debut in NBA Live 07, representing key role players who could step up at crucial moments. If an X-Factor played well, they would eventually activate the Star level Freestyle Superstars moves that best suited their abilities (i.e. the ones that they were closest to qualifying for). Still, the problem of overpowering moves remained.

As a result, Freestyle Superstars was quietly phased out in NBA Live 08, replaced by Go To Moves and signature jumpshot animations. However, I believe that it’s unfair to say that Freestyle Superstars was a bad idea, or a complete failure. It was an important step in making star players stand out with special moves and abilities. Unfortunately, some of the moves simply weren’t balanced enough, and the idea was a little restrictive, but it did pave the way for mechanics that were better tuned and more realistic, such as Signature Skills and Badges in NBA 2K. Signature animations and a larger variety of animation packages are also now commonplace.

Additionally, while they may not have always been realistic, Freestyle Superstars moves provided users with some effective and reliable offensive weapons. Jumpshots weren’t always as reliable as they should have been in older basketball games, and NBA Live 06’s comeback logic also made high percentage shots around the rim seem like attempts from the backcourt when it was in full swing. Being able to rely on Freestyle Superstars moves when you were in desperate need of a few buckets was extremely handy when the AI wasn’t playing fair. Indeed, if you started missing Outside Scorer layups, you knew that the comeback logic was getting nasty.

It’s also important to remember that in NBA Live 06, Freestyle Superstars moves could be deactivated. This meant that you could disable them entirely – either manually or with the help of a batch file – or simply deactivate the movesets that tended to be a little cheesy, such as Outside Scorer. This provided us with some degree of control over the impact of Freestyle Superstars, with specific movesets or indeed the entire mechanic being taken out of play altogether. Since we’re usually stuck with an undesirable feature or mechanic until it’s fixed or removed in the following game, it was somewhat innovative to give us that level of control over it.

Kobe Bryant with the Freestyle Superstars layup in NBA Live 06

Looking back, I believe that Freestyle Superstars can be considered a work in progress that was ultimately succeeded by better ideas that sprang from the concept it introduced. It marked a milestone in the expansion of player differentiation and control, and subsequently provided a stepping stone to the development of better solutions in that aspect of the game. Its results weren’t always desirable, but they also achieved some degree of success. At the end of the day, Freestyle Superstars was an innovative idea that was worth trying, in order for NBA Live and basketball gaming to take that next step in developing deeper gameplay mechanics.

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