Wayback Wednesday: Marking NBA Milestones in Video Games

Wayback Wednesday: Marking NBA Milestones in Video Games

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 reflecting on how video games mark different NBA milestones, and how it dates them.

On several occasions, I’ve mentioned that video games serve as wonderful time capsules for the NBA. They’re a snapshot of the league at the time they’re released, preserving the rosters, team branding, and the rules and formats of the era. When you revisit an old NBA video game, you’re often reminded of players’ brief and forgotten tenures with certain teams, “What If” scenarios and lineups that never lived up to the hype, and the jerseys and logos that you both loved and hated. In a way, old games can act as interactive almanacs, and are a fun way to revisit NBA history.

With that in mind, basketball video games preserve different eras and milestones in the real NBA as much as they’re a timeline of gaming and technology. In many of my Wayback Wednesday features, as well as my 25th Anniversary of NBA Live articles, I’ve reflected on how various titles have represented an evolution in the genre, and the improvements that are noticeable from year to year. On this occasion, I’m looking at how they represent NBA milestones and significant changes in the league, as well as the way those events make them dated. Let’s take a look back…way back…

Team Branding

Josh Howard in NBA 2K13

In general, traditionally annual releases such as NBA Live and NBA 2K represent the changes in team branding that occur year to year. Interestingly, when you look back at those two series in particular, it becomes apparent that there hasn’t been a year when at least one team didn’t make a change to their jerseys or logo. Unless I’m overlooking an example, the closest we’ve come was back in the 1999 season, in which most teams kept the same branding but the Orlando Magic debuted new uniforms. There have generally been more changes than that between seasons and video games, even if it’s just one team debuting completely overhauled branding, or a new colour scheme.

This means that from the mid 90s through to today, there hasn’t been a video game that didn’t have at least a few outdated art assets a year after it came out. In turn, this also means that wherever possible, current and retro roster mods have always required some custom artwork to be created in order to be as accurate as possible. Revisiting old games therefore also provides a timeline of when team branding changed, simply by firing up a title and scrolling through all the teams. As with the rosters, these changes and updates represent eras and milestones in a broader sense, as well as aspects that can generally be modded. That isn’t the case for other NBA milestones.

27-Team League

Milestones: 27 Teams (NBA Jam)

If you go back far enough, you’ll encounter licensed games that didn’t include every NBA team. EA’s NBA Playoffs series – the forerunner to NBA Live – is an example of that approach. Once including the entire league became standard practice in NBA video games, we became accustomed to seeing 27 teams. From games like TECMO Super NBA Basketball and NBA Jam through to NBA Live 95, that’s the NBA that was represented on the virtual hardwood. The Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, and Minnesota Timberwolves all felt new, as they were less than ten years old. It was an era of Hall of Famers in their prime, and exciting rising stars.

Apart from some changes to team branding and of course their rosters, games from the early 90s through to 1995 represent a fairly static era in the NBA. The number of teams had been established as the decade began and no clubs had changed their name or relocated for several years by the time licensed video games became commonplace. The league’s rules and format remained basically the same, though the adoption of three free throws when fouled on a three-point attempt is a noticeable change in later titles. Differences in branding aside, a game like NBA Live 95 can be taken back a number of years through roster mods, without too many problems or inaccuracies.

Canadian Expansion

Vancouver Grizzlies vs Toronto Raptors in NBA Live 96

Games set in the 1996 season onwards represent one of the biggest NBA milestones of the past thirty years: expansion into Canada with the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors. Although they were far from the first expansion teams – and not even the first Canadian teams, for that matter – it was the first big change to the NBA since licensed video games became popular. It immediately rendered all previous games noticeably outdated, with NBA Live 95 being difficult (though not impossible) to effectively update for the 1996 season and beyond. Furthermore, even though only a year had passed, the addition of two new teams made it feel like a brand new league.

Although there would be other changes that marked noteworthy milestones in the history of the NBA in the years to come, the number of teams and their subsequent alignment in the East and West Conferences and then-four Divisions remained the same for nine years. From a modding perspective, this offered a lot of flexibility when it came to current and retro mods, and while earlier years were difficult to reproduce with the two extra teams, it was easier than trying to make a 29-team league in a 27-team game. Again, the league did change in a few ways during that nine year span, but there was consistency in the number of teams and how they were organised.

Bullets Become Wizards

Milestones: Bullets become the Wizards (NBA Live 98)

When the Washington Bullets became the Washington Wizards, I remember it feeling like a big deal. It was the first time a team had changed its name since I became an NBA fan, and indeed, the last time a team had adopted a new moniker was when the Buffalo Braves became the San Diego Clippers in 1978. This meant the games set in the 1998 season, such as NBA Live 98 and NBA Action 98, were the first titles to include a team that had changed its name from the season before. Previous games that featured the Washington Bullets obviously became even more outdated, drawing a clear line between eras and representing a milestone change in the NBA.

As I noted, branding changes have occurred every year for some time now, and those changes have been reflected in video games. Those 1998 season games reflect some rather significant rebranding efforts, however. In addition to the obvious overhaul with the Bullets becoming the Wizards, the Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, and Golden State Warriors all adopted significantly revamped logo and jersey designs that were a departure from tradition in colour scheme and style. Games from 1997 and 1998 mark an era where teams were trying to shed their styles from the 80s and early 90s, and keep up with the times. Naturally those designs eventually felt outdated, too.

Grizzlies move to Memphis, Hornets move to New Orleans

Milestones: Hornets move to New Orleans (NBA Live 2003)

The games from the early 2000s represent significant improvements in the genre, but as far as NBA milestones are concerned, they feature the first relocations since the mid 80s, when the Clippers moved from San Diego to Los Angeles and the Kings moved from Kansas City to Sacramento. NBA Live 2001, NBA 2K1, and all other games set in the 2001 season are the last titles to feature the Vancouver Grizzlies, who became the Memphis Grizzlies the following year. The original Charlotte Hornets followed suit a year later, with NBA Live 2003, NBA 2K3, and other 2003 season titles marking the first appearance of the New Orleans Hornets in video games.

Just as the Wizards’ name change had done, their new locations made games from only a couple of years ago feel extremely outdated. By that time it was getting much easier to mod in new assets to reflect a team’s relocation – audio aside – so older titles were able to match the latest release with a little bit of work. Once again, since the relocations didn’t result in any realignment of the Divisions and Conferences, older games remained “compatible” with the latest season, and vice versa. All the same, the Grizzlies and Hornets moving cities were big events in a league that hadn’t seen a team relocate in fifteen years, and video games provided a snapshot of the milestones.

Charlotte Bobcats make it 30 Teams

Milestones: Charlotte Bobcats join the NBA (NBA Live 2005)

By the time the Charlotte Bobcats officially joined the league in 2004 to make it an even 30 teams, it was clear that there was finally a need and an excuse to reorganise and realign their divisions. Expanding from four Divisions to six and moving the Hornets to the Western Conference, video games set in the 2005 season marked the first major shakeup of the league’s format since 1970, when it revamped the Eastern and Western Divisions into the Eastern and Western Conferences with two divisions each. This makes games such as NBA Live 2005 and ESPN NBA 2K5 the line that divides the former 29-team league and its format, and the current 30-team NBA.

Needless to say, this line is even more apparent when it comes to current and retro roster mods. It makes NBA Live 2004 the last game with a league format that can accurately represent every season dating back to 1996 (and thus NBA Live 2005 the oldest PC release that can be easily updated to the present day), while more recent games can only go back to 2005 before major divisional inaccuracies are apparent. It should be noted that NBA Live 2004 did feature the Bobcats as a bonus team full of placeholder players, but they can’t be used in the new Dynasty mode. As such, the 2005 season games represent a milestone change that remains accurate as of today.

SuperSonics become the Thunder

Kevin Durant in NBA Live 09 on PlayStation 2

Easily one of the most controversial milestones on the list, the Seattle SuperSonics hastily rebranded themselves as the Oklahoma City Thunder after their bid to relocate was approved in 2008. This makes the 2008 and 2009 season titles significant as the last games to feature the Sonics as an active team, and the first releases to include the Thunder, respectively. Since NBA Live 09 didn’t include the new branding (or for that matter, the Thunder moniker) at launch, it also provides a snapshot of the time before the reveal of the team’s name, jerseys, and logos. The PlayStation 2 version of NBA Live 09, which couldn’t receive the necessary DLC, retains the placeholder branding.

To that end, those titles all represent a very controversial event in NBA history, the abrupt and rushed nature of the move, and the unveiling of what was basically a new team, albeit one that does officially share a heritage with its predecessor. All of the changes, excitement, and ill-feeling involved – depending on whether or not one hails from Oklahoma City or Seattle – unquestionably made it one of the most significant milestones in league history. It’s another before-and-after line that indicates how long you’ve been following the NBA and playing basketball video games, as evidenced by whether or not you can remember the changes and the furore surrounding the move.

Nets move to Brooklyn, Pelicans arrive, Hornets return

Anthony Davis in NBA 2K15

Within the first five years of the past decade, we saw three significant milestones as the Nets relocated from New Jersey to Brooklyn (2012), New Orleans adopted the Pelicans nickname (2013), and Charlotte dropped their Bobcats moniker in favour of reclaiming the now-available Hornets name (2014). Naturally, these changes were all accompanied by some major rebranding. Although it’s possible to add those changes to older games to some extent, the titles set in the 2013, 2014, and 2015 seasons all swiftly outmoded their predecessors. Over three consecutive years, we had games that reflected big moves that changed NBA history, retroactively and moving forward.

For those who are unaware, the current Hornets acquired the records of the original franchise from the Pelicans. This means instead of being recognised as a new team that joined the league in 2004, they’re now considered to have existed between 1988 and 2002, been inactive for two seasons, and rejoined the league for the 2005 season. The Pelicans meanwhile retain the records of the New Orleans Hornets, and as such, are retroactively considered to have joined the league in 2002. The impact of these moves can be seen in NBA 2K’s All-Time teams, by way of the historical players that have been chosen for the All-Time Pelicans and All-Time Hornets squads.


1998 Rosters in NBA Live 99

Obviously lockouts aren’t exactly fondly-remembered milestones in NBA history, though they have been a necessary evil in working out new collective bargaining agreements, and attempting to avoid similar disputes in the future. They’ve also impacted, and thus been reflected in, video games. The brief lockout in 1995 resulted in the console versions of NBA Live 96 including the Expansion Draft and excluding the new rookies, though there was a shortcut for adding them. NBA Live 99 and NBA 2K12 likewise shipped with outdated rosters. Updated rosters and the new abbreviated schedules were patched into both games (in the case of NBA Live 99, on PC only).

Even with updated rosters and schedules once the NBA season was finally underway, those releases stand out as “the lockout games”. In the case of NBA 2K12, the impact of the lockout is also very apparent in the focus on expanding retro content in lieu of launching with updated current rosters, with the addition of the outstanding NBA’s Greatest mode. On a similar note, it remains to be seen how NBA 2K20 will capture the league stoppage due to the Coronavirus pandemic, outside of the content added in MyTEAM. Of course, the inevitable server shutdown will eventually render the mode inaccessible, meaning the shutdown may not be represented as other milestones are.

Allen Iverson lays it up in NBA Live 2002

For gamers, revisiting old favourites tends to be an enjoyable trip down memory lane, and also puts into perspective how a genre has evolved. Sports games such as NBA titles have that added bonus of serving as interactive almanacs, a playable snapshot of league history. We remember the milestones not only from watching old NBA games, highlights, and documentaries, but by seeing their impact on the virtual hardwood as well. Retro gaming is all about reliving the joy of old memories, and that goes double for basketball titles. Not only do we fondly recall our time on the sticks, but also eras of real basketball that we watched, all through one nostalgic activity.

It’s also why older games were a valuable source of information for retro mods before resources like Basketball Reference were created. This could be a problem as rosters weren’t always 100% accurate and certainly not final, but for a timeline of branding changes, relocations, and a general overview of the NBA at the time, they were quite helpful. Modding aside, firing up those old titles for an afternoon provides us with a window into the past that many of us seek from time to time. From players who are long-retired to events that significantly changed the face of the league, those past eras and NBA milestones feel more tangible; history we can touch when the mood strikes.

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April 3, 2020 12:41 am

I remember Wizards got wrong court in Live 98, need to check other teams who made changes that season.

April 30, 2020 9:10 am

Honestly, the whole situation with the Hornets is complete bullshit.