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 Academy.
I’ve discussed my desire to see NBA Live’s Franchise mode get better and deeper on more than one occasion, and it’s something that I still hope will happen in the future. Something that we really need to see with the mode is the return of several useful and innovative features that flesh out the experience and make it more engaging. I’ve mentioned a few of these features in previous articles, but one that deserves a more in-depth look is the NBA Live Academy. Having recently gone back and taken a few screenshots, it feels like a good time for a retrospective!
Also known simply as the Academy, it was both an aesthetic enhancement, and an improvement in the way that player development was handled. It was only featured in a couple of NBA Live games, but that was enough to make its mark, and establish it as a concept that I for one would love to see reintroduced in Franchise mode in the not too distant future. Let’s take a look back…way back…
After the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of NBA Live 06 and NBA Live 07 featured The Temple, and NBA Live 08 introduced a generic practice court with a floor that changed according to your choice of favourite team, the development team shook things up once again in NBA Live 09. When NBA Live 09 booted up, gamers found themselves shooting around in a practice facility with the players and branding of the team they had chosen. Big screens on the sidelines looped highlights, including ones that were user-created. This new setting was called the NBA Live Academy, and it provided an immersive atmosphere that emphasised the goal of being an NBA sim.
The NBA Live Academy was much more than a fancy new practice court, however. It also served as a place to learn the basics of virtual basketball. In addition to being able to freely shoot around and switch between players, gamers could also run through a number of drills similar to the ones that real NBA teams might partake in. These drills included shooting, dribbling, fast breaks, offensive and defensive rebounding, on-ball defense, and pick and roll scenarios. Drills could be selected from the menu, or by approaching one of the coaches that could be found wandering the sidelines of the two practice courts. The latter approach added to the overall feeling of immersion.
It wasn’t just a means of sharpening stick skills, though. In Dynasty mode, the NBA Live Academy served as a means of developing players during the season. Here, the drills became challenges, each with three levels. By achieving the target score in a challenge through successful repetitions of the drill, the next level was unlocked. The higher the level, the greater chance your players had of seeing an increase in ratings that were related to the drill. Each pre-season Training Camp and monthly training session included ten workouts that could be used to run the drills of your choice. In this way, you were able to focus on the areas that were crucial to your roster.
Rookie workouts were also conducted in the NBA Live Academy, in the lead up to the Draft during the offseason. This replaced the basic one-on-one sessions that had been utilised as pre-Draft workouts in previous games. There was also a five-on-five scrimmage option where gamers could select the five players on each side, and run through an untimed pick-up game. The shot clock and most rules were still in effect, though shooting fouls resulted in possession rather than free throws. While they didn’t contribute to player development, scrimmages allowed gamers to get a feel for their players, and practice in-game scenarios without any pressure or time limits.
Although the NBA Live Academy was replaced by The Hangar as the shootaround arena in NBA Live 10, it remained a core part of Dynasty mode, with all of its drills and functionality intact. The drills were no longer accessible outside Dynasty mode however, with The Hangar only providing basic shootaround functionality. As it was no longer a standalone mode, it was simply referred to as the Academy in the Dynasty mode menus and dialogue boxes. There were still a total of ten workouts per session though, and as in NBA Live 09, the free shootaround and team scrimmages were still available with neither counting as a workout, nor impacting the players’ development.
Despite being a great idea – and one that I’d like to see return in future iterations of NBA Live’s Franchise mode – the NBA Live Academy wasn’t without its drawbacks. First of all, it could only be accessed once a month in Dynasty mode. While this was reasonable in terms of preventing cheesy grinding of player ratings during a season, it also meant that the very useful team scrimmage option was only available monthly as well. If you’d made a trade and wanted to practice with your new lineup before your next game, you were out of luck unless there happened to be an Academy session scheduled beforehand. This was feasible, but generally not likely or convenient.
There were also issues with the drills themselves. In NBA Live 10, certain shooting ratings weren’t affected by any of the available drills, making it impossible to develop players in those areas during the course of the season. It was frustrating to take part in drills, only for them to have absolutely no effect on player development. These were among the issues that we were hoping to see fixed with NBA Live 11 – which then became NBA Elite 11 – but of course, the game was ultimately cancelled. When the series returned with NBA Live 14, the NBA Live Academy was nowhere to be found, and Dynasty mode on the whole was nowhere near as deep as it had once been.
One of the reasons that I really like the concept of the NBA Live Academy, and the similar practice and development modes that have been featured in NBA 2K over the years, is that they allow us to be more involved with the process of developing our players. Not only can we choose specific drills, but we’re in control of the action, maximising the potential to see improvement. It also means that we have some extra gameplay to partake in. It’s not just a matter of selecting options in a menu and then watching a progress bar or cutscene. I realise not everyone is a fan of playing through drills, but to me it’s a welcome experience, and produces results that feel less random.
As I said in my introduction, I’d like to see the development team at EA Tiburon look to past games and bring back features that were innovative and popular. The NBA Live Academy represents one of the last big efforts to expand the game’s franchise mode, a mode that EA pioneered back in 1999 with NBA Live 2000. Although it had its shortcomings and flaws, the NBA Live Academy was a great feature, providing an immersive setting where basketball gamers could not only hone their skills on the sticks, but also take a more active role in developing players and scouting rookies. It’s the kind of innovation that we need to see in NBA Live moving forward.