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 the NBA Live 2003 soundtrack.
Music is an integral part of video games, no matter the genre. It creates atmosphere, pumps you up to play, and forges a connection with gamers. As such, it’s no surprise that a game’s soundtrack becomes a significant part of our nostalgia, leading us to seek out tracks on YouTube or Spotify, or contributing to the rush we feel when we fire up an old favourite once again. Many games have brought us original scores that have subsequently become iconic, but the inclusion of licensed songs has led to a lot of debates about the best soundtracks in video games.
That debate has naturally produced a variety of answers when it comes to basketball games, but there’s one playlist in particular that a lot of gamers mention: the NBA Live 2003 soundtrack. Many of its tracks have come to be associated with the game, and the album release was certified platinum, a first for a video game score. Let’s take a look back…way back…
Before we dive into the NBA Live 2003 soundtrack, I’d like to briefly reflect upon the game itself. It’s interesting how opinions of NBA Live 2003 have changed over the years, as it tends to be remembered more fondly these days. Although most of us can appreciate it for the debut of Freestyle Control, at the time there was much frustration due to the shift away from a more realistic style, and elements such as the courtside comedy cutscenes. Attitudes have softened as the years have passed, and gamers whose first hoops title was NBA Live 2003 now feel nostalgic for it the same way those of us who are a little older fondly look back on games like NBA Live 95.
While opinions of its gameplay experience tend to differ, the selection of music is an element of NBA Live 2003 that has always has been overwhelmingly positive. The NBA Live 2003 soundtrack continued the trend of licensing songs that began with NBA Live 2000, but took the concept a lot further. While the soundtracks in NBA Live 2000, 2001, and 2002 contained four to five songs – and in NBA Live 2002’s case, instrumental versions – NBA Live 2003 featured twelve tracks. The featured artists included some big names as well, headed up by Snoop Dogg who provided the title track “Get Live“, eight years before doing the same for NBA 2K11.
This partnership with recording artists also led to a phenomenon that has since been phased out of basketball gaming: special hoops and gaming-themed mixes of songs. Since more than a couple of the licensed tracks aren’t exactly family friendly, rather than simply including censored radio edits, the artists rerecorded their songs with lyrics that referenced NBA Live, EA Sports, the real NBA, and basketball themes in general. Some people might find that a little corny, and indeed, the songs can sound a little funny when you’re familiar with the original, more explicit version. It was great for the atmosphere though, and it’s a shame it doesn’t happen as much anymore.
The NBA Live 2003 soundtrack didn’t pioneer the use of hip hop and R&B as the “official” musical genres of basketball gaming – those genres were already deeply entrenched in the culture of the sport after all – but it arguably helped solidify them as the sound associated with the virtual hardwood. I’d suggest it’s quite accessible to gamers who aren’t big fans of those genres, with a good amount of variety between the tracks. You’ve got songs like Brandy’s “Full Moon” which are more soulful, the upbeat and sporty tracks like “Let’s Go” by Just Blaze and “It’s In The Game” by Fabolous, and crossover hits like Angie Martinez’s “If I Could Go“.
The main reason I’m looking back at the NBA Live 2003 soundtrack this week is that a recent Tweet by Timeless Sports reminded me of the album that was released. As I noted in my introduction, it became the first video game soundtrack to be certified platinum, selling 1.3 million copies worldwide. Titled NBA Livestyle 2003, the album featured seven tracks from the game: the aforementioned “Get Live”, “It’s In The Game”, and “Let’s Go”, along with “Blao” by Hot Karl, “Ballin’ Boy” by No Good, “Drop Drop” by Joe Budden, and “Here We Go” by Flipmode Squad. It also introduced EA Sports Trax, which became the in-game branding for Live’s music.
With those tracks, it’s not too surprising that NBA Livestyle 2003 achieved such success. It still holds the distinction of being the only sports video game soundtrack to go platinum, although that can also be attributed to the changing times as much as the quality of the songs. Releasing soundtrack albums to accompany basketball games has gone out of fashion, especially with streaming music services like Spotify making it far easier for EA Sports and Visual Concepts to release a digital playlist. Of course, the downside with all digital content is that availability isn’t guaranteed in perpetuity, nor does it make for a nifty collectible like the NBA Livestyle 2003 CD.
Subsequent releases would follow the example set by the NBA Live 2003 soundtrack, licensing popular songs by prominent artists with some “EA Sports Mixes” replacing lyrics with basketball-themed ones. As I mentioned before, the remixes were phased out in favour of including radio edits in order to keep a family-friendly rating. While the latter approach has been just as effective in introducing gamers to artists – I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has gained an appreciation for some new music through playing NBA Live and NBA 2K – there was something special about the basketball-themed remixes, and I do miss hearing them in the games.
Notably, a handful of the artists who contributed to the NBA Live 2003 soundtrack can be unlocked in the game. By entering codes as the surname in Create-a-Player, it was possible to unlock Busta Rhymes, B. Rich, Hot Karl, Just Blaze, and Fabolous, as well as DJ Clue?. Interestingly, despite providing the title track and being present in several other video games, Snoop Dogg isn’t unlockable. As you might expect, all of the unlockable artists have rather generous ratings. Their inclusion came in handy for projects such as the NBA Live Street 2003 mod, and other fantasy rosters. It could be argued that it also paved the way for what NBA Live is now doing with LIVE Events.
There’s a powerful sense of nostalgia associated with music that takes us back to the time we first heard it, and in some cases, that’s on the virtual hardwood. I have mixed feelings about NBA Live 2003, but I also feel nostalgic for it, and that extends to the soundtrack. It’s a great list of tracks that fit together and flow extremely well, despite the variation in tone. Whenever I fire up the game and those songs start playing, a lot of memories come flooding back; not just of the game itself, but the NBA in 2003, and even where I was at in my life at that time. Judging by other gamers’ comments, I’m definitely not alone in feeling that NBA Live 2003 soundtrack nostalgia.