Wayback Wednesday: The Misuse of Legends in NBA Live

Wayback Wednesday: The Misuse of Legends in NBA Live

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 taking a look back at how Legends have been misused in NBA Live over the years.

If you remember hitting the virtual hardwood before NBA Live 2000 was released, then you’ll recall what a big deal it was when Legends were announced for the game. Sure, we had modding, and even on console Create-a-Player could be used to make some serviceable retro players, but now they were going to be right there in the game by default! They’d have proper faces, and their names would be called by the PA Announcer and commentators. And of course, Michael Jordan would at long last appear in an NBA Live game. It was huge news, and a landmark feature.

Considering that EA Sports had found themselves in hot water after trying to sneak some Legends into the 16-bit version of NBA Live 96, it seemed like something that would never happen. That made the official inclusion of Legends even more special, and it’s why I won’t take historical content for granted. However, it’s fair to say that over the years, NBA Live didn’t do as much with the Legends as they possibly could have, leaving the door open for NBA 2K to blow us away with retro content and features. Even before that though, NBA Live was dropping the ball with throwback players. Let’s take a look back…way back…

While Decade All-Stars/All-Decade teams may seem like a quaint idea at a time when we’ve had classic NBA squads and historical challenge modes for more than a decade, they were an excellent way to bring Legends to NBA Live back in 1999. It provided a way to play with them immediately, in a format that made sense. The Legends Pool also allowed us to add those players to the current rosters, though the console versions required them to be unlocked first. Those Legends challenges added more content, and were a decent trade-off for the lack of Franchise mode, which was exclusive to the PC version at the time. It was a good introduction for Legends in NBA Live.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird on the 80s All-Stars

Better yet, the inclusion of Legends in NBA Live 2000 wouldn’t be a once-off feature. Those Decade All-Stars and historical players remained a staple of the rosters in the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, original Xbox, GameCube, and PC versions of NBA Live. A couple of players who hadn’t been licensed to appear in NBA Live 2000, such as Clyde Drexler, were able to be added in subsequent years. Unfortunately, other greats disappeared as they retired from the NBA, and EA were unable to strike deals to keep them in as Legends. This included Michael Jordan, whose last official appearance in the series came in NBA Live 2004, following the end of his stint with the Wizards.

It was unfortunate, but inevitable when it comes to negotiating likeness rights. Indeed, we’ve seen Legends come and go in NBA 2K over the years, not to mention a few that they’ve yet to agree to terms with. In the heyday of NBA Live modding, the missing Legends were a problem that we could easily overcome on PC. Console gamers were not so lucky, though the sixth generation NBA Live releases at least kept the Decade All-Stars and a declining selection of historical players. When the series launched on Xbox 360 with NBA Live 06, the Legends Pool and All-Decade teams were nowhere to be found. Even the sizeable selection of retro jerseys had been left out of the game.

As I’ve previously discussed in detail, the lack of content, modes, and features were the biggest knock on NBA Live 06 for Xbox 360, as the gameplay and graphics did impress. While EA would correct course by bringing back modes like Dynasty and All-Star Weekend in future games, the Decade All-Stars and Legends Pool never returned throughout the seventh generation releases. Conversely, NBA 2K6 launched with their version of the All-Decade teams, and even some All-Time squads. There were a number of big name absences, and the Jordan Challenge and NBA’s Greatest were several years away, but NBA 2K still featured Legends. NBA Live did not.

90s All-Stars in NBA Live 09 for PS2

In many ways, it exemplifies how and why NBA 2K was able to overtake NBA Live. Whether it was added detail in its franchise mode, an array of street courts, or as many historical players as could be licensed, NBA 2K tried to squeeze in as much content as it could. In contrast, NBA Live was doing the bare minimum as far as its core modes, features, and bonus content. Legends weren’t necessary, but they were certainly nice to have. I’m sure that the NBA Live developers did understand the appeal, as leftover remnants of classic teams in NBA Live 08’s database does demonstrate a willingness to ramp up the retro content. Sadly it fell through, and we got FIBA teams instead.

Had NBA Live been able to beat NBA 2K to the punch with an assortment of classic teams, one wonders how it would’ve affected the course of basketball gaming history. Obviously, the series would’ve still had to avoid the ill-fated rebrand and revamp with NBA Elite 11, but had they stayed the course with NBA Live 10, continued to build up Dynasty mode, expanded Be a Pro into a fully-fledged career mode, kept adding historical jerseys, and had the benefit of classic teams including a Bulls squad with Michael Jordan, then NBA Live 11 may have held its own against a very different NBA 2K11! Instead, historical content has become a staple of the NBA 2K series.

With that in mind, it’s understandable that when NBA Live did finally return, they didn’t try to go head-to-head with their use of Legends. A small selection of historical players on the traditional Decade All-Stars squads – and possibly a Legends Pool, once they brought back roster customisation in NBA Live 18 – pales in comparison to NBA 2K’s efforts. At the same time, it would’ve been something, and something is almost always better than nothing. No, it wouldn’t have been as impressive as what NBA 2K was doing, but it would’ve fostered goodwill by giving basketball gamers something above and beyond the bare minimum. It’d be something else to play with.

Signature Shawn Kemp Tomahawk in LUT18

Instead, Legends were exclusive to Ultimate Team, the one mode in NBA Live that had microtransactions. To the game’s credit, Ultimate Team did make pretty good use of those players. There was a respectable variety of historical players including some prominent role players/tertiary stars, weekly challenges that introduced them, and the Legends packs in NBA Live 18 guaranteed a retro pull. Making Legends exclusive to Ultimate Team certainly gave it a hook, and went a long way in making the mode enjoyable for me, even to this day. Their use in LIVE Events and Court Battles in NBA Live 19 was also a good expansion of their role. However, it wasn’t enough.

There were more than enough Legends in the game from NBA Live 14 through to NBA Live 19 to cobble together some kind of historical squads for use in Play Now. Considering that Ultimate Team wasn’t nearly as popular as MyTEAM in NBA 2K, and that some truly excellent work went into their faces, the licensed Legends were honestly wasted by not being made freely and readily available. Of course, they did fall victim to some similar ratings issues as many of the historical players in NBA 2K. For example, Hakeem Olajuwon is a terrible midrange shooter in NBA Live 18, even though he often scored from there in reality. A few dunk packages are also inaccurate.

If Legends were part of the regular rosters and could be edited, that wouldn’t be an issue. We’d be able to play some exhibition games with fixed animations and ratings, and have some fun doing so. Instead, NBA Live stuck us with collecting them for our Ultimate Team and LIVE Events/Court Battles squads, with whatever inaccuracies they may have had. There may be some bewildering, even insulting errors with many of the Legends and other historical players in NBA 2K, but they can at least be fixed for modes that support the use of custom rosters. NBA Live just dangled Legends as exclusive rewards in a couple of modes that not everyone was interested in playing.

Legends in NBA Live 2004 (Michael Jordan & Clyde Drexler)

There was no goodwill in that move, and goodwill is something that NBA Live sorely needed after so many missteps. Of course, long before the series collapsed, its overall treatment of Legends was squandering goodwill and appeal with gamers. Once again, the removal of all Legends with the launch on Xbox 360 sent a message that going above and beyond the bare necessities wasn’t a goal or priority. Even allowing the big names from the 90s to disappear as their likeness deals expired gave the impression that EA were too comfortable in letting the game take backwards steps. “We’ve done that, featured those Legends in a couple of games. No need to keep building on it.”

Perhaps that’s a glib and unfair assertion, especially considering how expensive those likeness deals can be. After all, video games were not quite the money-makers then that they are today. However, introducing an appealing new feature and then failing to realise its potential in future games has become an unfortunate recurring theme with NBA Live. There was a time when the series kept getting better every year, packing more and more content and features into new games while improving the gameplay and graphics. NBA Live’s Golden Age resembles the best years of NBA 2K in the way that it continually innovated and added new content while being the brand leader.

Unfortunately, NBA Live stopped pushing the envelope, while NBA 2K reached for the sky. NBA 2K outsold NBA Live in 2009, and the rest is history. It may not be the most important issue with the NBA Live series, but the misuse of Legends stands as a prime example of how it failed to capitalise on something that it established, and win over gamers by going the extra mile. I’m grateful that we at least saw Legends return in Ultimate Team and a couple of other modes, but they could’ve been used so much better. From their original implementation to the cut classic teams to their latest incarnation, there are too many What Ifs when it comes to Legends in NBA Live.

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