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 continuing my retrospective on franchise modes with a look back at multiseason play in NBA Live 99’s Season mode.
NBA Live 98’s GM Mode was an interesting first step in changing up the approach to Season play, but it wasn’t quite what basketball gamers had wanted. It laid the groundwork for a variety of exciting new features however, and it was clear that gamers and EA Sports alike were committed to the idea of a deeper experience. A fully-fledged multiseason mode was once again something that gamers expressed their interest in through the NLSC’s NBA Live 99 Wishlist, submitted to the NBA Live development team at EA Canada on December 10th, 1997.
It would be another year before a few of those wishes were granted, but NBA Live 99 did take the next step by implementing multiseason play in its Season mode. Lacking many of the key elements of later franchise modes, but also introducing several important features as well, it’s arguably somewhat of a forgotten milestone on the road to the deep multiseason experience that we wanted to see in basketball video games. Let’s take a look back…way back…
Although GM Mode proved to be a very brief experiment for the NBA Live series, it had certainly served its purpose. It was clear that some of the concepts were desirable features for Season play, and EA Sports were not about to discard them. To that end, options such as the fantasy draft, league and division customisation, trade restrictions, and declined trade overrides, were now incorporated into the main Season mode. It was a wise move that retained features that gamers had wanted for some time, while cutting a redundant mode from the game. That wasn’t all that EA did with Season mode in NBA Live 99, however.
New to the mode in NBA Live 99 was a Multiple Seasons option that, as the name would imply, finally introduced multiseason play. This allowed gamers to play up to ten seasons, beginning with the 1999 campaign. Over the course of those ten seasons, player ratings would evolve according to a hidden potential attribute, assuming that the Player Development option was enabled. CPU-controlled teams could and would trade among themselves and offer the user deals, though this could also be disabled if desired. It was also possible to modify their rosters, which meant that you could manage the entire league even without choosing to control every team.
By offering these features as optional settings, NBA Live 99 was able to provide a more traditional Season experience to gamers who preferred it, while moving towards a new, deeper concept. From an old school approach of a single season without trade restrictions, to multiseason play in a dynamic and evolving NBA, to a completely customised league and every other combination in between, the options in NBA Live 99’s Season mode were enough to satisfy a range of tastes. With multiseason play, player development, trades between CPU-controlled teams, and primitive trade logic, the game was a step closer to introducing its first proper franchise experience.
Of course, it wasn’t quite there yet. There was no rookie draft, so there were no new players entering the league. Players didn’t have salaries or contracts, so not only was there no salary cap to factor into trades, but players didn’t change teams unless they were traded, and never retired. Younger players had more room to grow than veterans, but even players in the twilight of their career could occasionally improve in areas where they should either hold steady or decline. Multiseason play in NBA Live 99’s Season mode was definitely more of a franchise experience than GM Mode had been in NBA Live 98, but without the draft, free agency, or salaries, it wasn’t yet complete.
It’s also fair to note that the features and concepts that were present were also still relatively primitive. If you run a few simulations in NBA Live 99, you’ll notice that the same trade offers keep popping up, especially in the first season. You’ll see those deals being made time and time again if the teams in question are being controlled by the CPU. Trade logic wasn’t terrible, but some deals were made simply for the sake of having trades happen. Additionally, teams could sometimes end up with logjams at a certain position, either through trades or the fantasy draft. The mode was far from unplayable, but the team building AI still had plenty of room for improvement.
The limitations of the era need to be taken into account though, and at the time, it was still very cool to see. The foundation had been laid for an in-depth, multiseason mode, and as it stood, it was far beyond what had been done with GM Mode the previous year. There were nifty additions such as transactions listings and a screen to chart player development, features that weren’t always in later games. As I said before, the combination of depth and customisation was one of the strengths of the revamped Season mode in NBA Live 99. We were starting to see a lot of the cool things that we’d be waiting for, yet still have an old school Season experience if we wanted.
Multiseason play has another very impressive feature, and it’s one that I’d completely forgotten about until I fired up NBA Live 99 again in order to write this retrospective. Installing the first official patch for NBA Live 99 adds an option for a 50 game season, and the abbreviated 1999 schedule. If you choose the 50 game season length option and enable multiseason play, the league will revert to the standard 82 games from the 2000 season onwards. That’s a fantastic way of handling the situation, as it means that you can play the 1999 season as it was, but not be locked into a shorter schedule thereafter.
Even though it’s lacking some of the key staples that truly make a franchise mode, I have a great deal of appreciation for multiseason play in NBA Live 99. Not only did it set the table for what was to come in future games, it definitely stands as a robust and enjoyable mode. I really like NBA Live 99’s menus and presentation, and there’s something about navigating through Season mode that just feels good. During that era, the NBA Live series was making good progress every year, packing a surprising amount of improvements into a single development cycle. The additions that EA made to Season mode in NBA Live 99 are fine examples of that.
In many ways, NBA Live 99’s revamped Season mode with multiseason play is symbolic of the game itself. Affected by the lockout and sandwiched between NBA Live 98 and NBA Live 2000, two highly regarded and significant games in the series, NBA Live 99 is easy to overlook despite being a great game and big stepping stone in its own right. That’s reflected in its Season mode, which improved greatly over its predecessor while paving the way for its successor. If GM Mode was the blueprint, then multiseason play in NBA Live 99’s Season mode was an impressive prototype for the concept that would become Franchise mode.