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 unusual ratings in NBA Live 2004.
As I noted in my in-depth retrospective of NBA Live 2004 for our 25th Anniversary of NBA Live celebrations, the game was a strong return to form after NBA Live 2003 was skewed in more of an arcade direction. It revamped the franchise experience into Dynasty mode, saw the addition of gameplay sliders, and introduced new player animations and physics with 10-Man Freestyle. It’s a fantastic game for its era, and tipped off a strong three year run for the series. I’d still rate it as one of my favourite games, and rank it among the best all-around NBA Live titles.
Of course, it does have a handful of issues. I’ve talked about some of the problems that occurred in the offseason of the new Dynasty mode, and mentioned a couple of other quirks in my retrospective. Something that a lot of gamers who played NBA Live 2004 will no doubt remember is the unusual ratings – specifically the Overall Ratings – for many of the players, past and present. As usual, there’s a story behind the oddity, so let’s take a look back…way back…
First of all, let’s talk about the history of ratings in NBA Live. The introduction of player ratings in NBA Live 95 was one of the enhancements that made it such a huge improvement over its predecessor, NBA Showdown. Player ratings were on a scale of 50-99, which in hindsight is a little odd, but it was something we just accepted at the time. It probably looked less insulting to the players than having ratings below 50, though it also resulted in a more limited scale. Although we understood the lowest rating was 50 and the highest was 99, the scale appeared to begin with a fairly high rating. If nothing else, the scale seemingly ranged from mediocre to excellent.
However, appearances could be deceiving. As we’d find out when NBA Live ended up switching to DBF files for its rosters, the raw value for a rating of 50 ranged from 0-1. 2-3 in the database was represented as 51 in the game, 4-5 equated to a rating of 52, and so on. In short, under the hood, the game’s mechanics worked with ratings that ranged from 0-99, but represented them with the 50-99 scale in-game, presumably because it was more aesthetically pleasing, or again, less insulting. Players’ Overall Ratings were also hidden until NBA Live 99, when multiseason play was introduced. Once Franchise mode was added in NBA Live 2000, Overall Ratings were a must.
The 50-99 in-game scale was retained through NBA Live 2003, before the developers decided to standardise ratings by switching to the 0-99 scale in NBA Live 2004. This meant that if you were editing ratings externally by modifying the database, whatever value you entered was what showed up in the game. Cosmetically, it meant that there was a clear differentiation in player abilities, as well as logic to the in-game scale. A rating below 30 clearly indicated a weakness, while ratings in the 50s and 60s were average or decent. Ratings in the 80s or higher stood out as elite. When we created or edited players, it felt like we could better fine-tune all of their abilities.
Unfortunately, there was a downside to the change. The formula for Overall Ratings wasn’t adjusted accordingly, and there were several individual ratings that weren’t updated for the new scale either. This led to many players being severely underrated in the default rosters. We actually noticed this in preview screenshots for the game, when a couple of key players seemed to have very low Overall Ratings. As we saw a couple of ratings below 50, we guessed that the scale must have changed, and that a few fixes would probably be made. We were correct on the first point, but discovered that a lot of ratings weren’t properly amended before NBA Live 2004 was released.
These unusual ratings stick out like a sore thumb. There are star players whose ratings appear in the normal range: cover player Vince Carter is an 86 Overall, while 2003 Finals MVP Tim Duncan is 91. Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant are both rated 97 Overall, while Shaquille O’Neal is 92. Tracy McGrady (92), Jason Kidd (89), Chris Webber (86), and Allen Iverson (86) are also sensibly rated. However, Reggie Miller is 61 Overall, which is lower than Jamaal Tinsley’s rating of 64. Michael Redd is 65, Eddie Jones is 69. All-Stars and key players like Manu Ginobili (67), Tony Parker (66), Mike Bibby (67), and Peja Stojakovic (73), are also notably underrated.
The list goes on, with the Class of 2003 not faring too well; LeBron James (69) and Carmelo Anthony (63) are prominent examples. Capable veterans like Horace Grant (49) also have unusually low Overall Ratings. The 50s, 60s, and 70s All-Stars are also hit hard by the change in scale, though the 80s and 90s are better for the most part. The older version of Michael Jordan on the default East All-Stars squad is rated 73 Overall; for comparison, Kenyon Martin is 74 Overall. There were adjustments and corrections that could be made to the individual ratings, and fixing those inaccuracies did make some of the Overall Ratings look better, but the formula was still a problem.
In some respects, these unusual ratings are mostly aesthetic. A lot of key ratings are more or less correct, after all. For example, Reggie Miller’s Overall Rating may be unrealistically low, even for his second to last season in the league, but his shooting ratings are fairly accurate. Because a majority of the league is rated lower than usual, there’s less imbalance. There are unusual ratings that needed to be fixed of course, especially when it came to LeBron and the Class of 2003 rookies, but the “incorrect” Overall Ratings don’t completely ruin gameplay. Indeed, it’s a good example of how we can place too much stock in Overall Ratings, rather than individual attributes.
At the same time, appearances do matter, as does properly representing player skill and value. The formula for calculating Overall Ratings was tweaked in subsequent years, which allowed for more reasonable figures. In NBA Live 2004, too many of the starters and key role players were rated below 70, or for that matter, 60. Starters rated below 50 were also unusually common in NBA Live 2004, and although it didn’t necessarily hurt gameplay, it wasn’t a good look. It could be argued that today’s games don’t take full advantage of the scale, pumping up Overalls to stroke egos just as the old 50-99 scale did. However, NBA Live 2004 is an example of the other extreme.
Generated rookie ratings also demonstrated that the switch to the 0-99 scale didn’t go as smoothly as hoped. Rookies tended to be very underrated, not just in terms of their Overall, but in their key skills. For example, point guards tended to have very low dribbling and passing ratings, often in the 40s and 50s. Under the old scale, this would’ve translated into ratings in the 70s, which would be a solid skill level for a rookie with plenty of potential for improvement. Under the 0-99 scale, where the ratings in the database were 1:1 with in-game attributes, they were at a severe disadvantage. Fortunately, this was also corrected in NBA Live 2005 and beyond.
Those rookies did have Overall Ratings that were in line with original players though, so once again, it demonstrates that the individual attributes have a much bigger impact on gameplay than the Overall. The gameplay was generally only affected when there were issues with unusual ratings in a specific category, or with the rookie generation logic. To that end however, there were problems in those areas that unfortunately weren’t fixed by the official patch. The default rosters played fine for the most part, but more problems arose with generated players in a Dynasty game. As I said though, the issues lay with outdated and ill-fitting individual ratings, not the Overalls.
At the end of the day, the switch to the 0-99 scale was more than a cosmetic change. Between outdated player generation logic, overlooked attributes, and a formula for calculating Overall Ratings that was no longer appropriate, we ended up with some very unusual ratings in NBA Live 2004. As with most oddities, it’s become a trivia note; that quirky aspect that those of us who played the game tend to remember. Of course, we can look back on it now and see where the change in the scale went awry. NBA Live 2004’s unusual ratings stand as a good example of how even good ideas can have teething problems, and that care must be taken when making major changes.