Wayback Wednesday: No Portrait Available

Wayback Wednesday: No Portrait Available

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 the “No Portrait Available” placeholders that are a staple of old basketball video games.

Beyond obvious examples such as dated graphics, fewer modes, and less bonus content, there are some hallmarks that immediately identify basketball video games as old school. They are the approaches and design choices that modern games eschew, either because they’re no longer necessary, or newer technology facilitates preferable solutions. These days, you’d never see a Free Agents Pool that’s limited to the same number of players as a regular team. No active players will be represented by Roster Players, since the entire league is covered by the current licensing agreement.

That brings us to another staple of old games that we no longer see: a generic portrait for players who are missing a proper one. If you’ve been playing basketball games for a long time, these players with no available portrait will be part of the nostalgia that you feel for old favourites, whether it’s the approach in general or some more specific examples. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look back…way back…

As always, we must remember that basketball gaming nostalgia encompasses a host of minute details. Sure, we remember the fun we had playing the game: the players that were OP to play with and against, great triumphs and crushing defeats, and how hooked we were on modes. However, we also remember the presentation, from the music and sound effects to menu design and overall art direction. We remember all the little exploits and glitches that we learned from hours on the virtual hardwood, as well as weird ratings and other mistakes with player data. Naturally, we recall the rosters in our favourite games, underscoring the whole “interactive almanac” aspect.

No Portrait Available in NBA Live 95 PC

Familiarity with the rosters also extends to player appearances, particularly if there’s something amiss or otherwise noteworthy. It may be an incorrect skintone, outdated hairstyle or facial hair, or conversely, a surprisingly accurate face and model for the era. And of course, there are the players who don’t have a portrait, necessitating the use of a placeholder. This practice goes right back to the earliest titles that featured digitised player portraits. Benchwarmers and late additions to the game’s roster may not have had a portrait available to use. Similarly, when games were released or re-released with Roster Players replacing stars, they used generic placeholder portraits.

Some games avoided this through limited use of portraits, or none at all. The 16-bit versions of NBA Live 95 only featured portraits for the starting lineups, which could never be changed pre-game. If a bench player was selected as a Player of the Half or the Player of the Game, their jersey and number were displayed instead; if a starter and bench player were their teams’ respective Players of the Half, they’d both display a jersey for consistency. When it comes to the old games that did feature individual portraits for starters and bench players alike however, we do tend to remember who ended up with the “No Portrait Available” placeholders instead of a real headshot.

For example, having spent countless hours working on the rosters of NBA Live 96 PC, I recall that rookies Jason Caffey and Fred Hoiberg didn’t have portraits. On the subject of rookie portraits, the absence of real headshots for the Class of 2007 and 2008 freshmen in the prior gen versions of NBA Live 08 and 09 emphasise how it was a low priority release on the verge of discontinuation. A couple of veterans in NBA Live 2001 PC, notably Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Grant Long, have proper faces but no portraits. Long in particular is an interesting example, as unlike Abdul-Rauf, he hadn’t been out of the league and thus wouldn’t have been a late addition.

Grant Long Player Card in NBA Live 2001

Most games used the same approach for the style of their placeholder portraits: a generic silhouette that was usually black, though sometimes grey/silver or another colour. Some games used a darkened headshot of an anonymous person – possibly a member of the dev team – to achieve a similar effect. Other games got more creative, such as the “No” symbol in NBA Live 95 PC, or the golden outline in NBA Live 96 PC. Incidentally, the “No Portrait Available” nomenclature comes from those games, where the words literally appeared on the placeholder texture. Whatever style they opted for, basketball games had a generic portrait ready for any player missing one.

This obviously also applied to any created players, as well as the generated rookies in franchise modes. Of course, this demonstrates the drawback of placeholder portraits, even though they were a necessary solution at the time. Created and generated players stood out from original players, increasing the number of placeholder portraits when browsing the rosters. In a heavily customised roster, or a few years into a franchise game, the increased number of “No Portrait Available” players made the presentation noticeably inconsistent and generic. To that point though, even real portraits were an issue once rosters were customised, and players moved around in a franchise game.

The solution came as games began featuring real player faces. Rather than a still portrait, games could now display animated player models wearing their team’s jersey, and have everyone be recognisable (at least if they had a proper face). This didn’t put an immediate end to real or placeholder portraits, though. In fact, the PC versions of NBA Live 99, 2000, and 2001 included 2D and 3D portrait options, which allowed us to switch between a static portrait (real or otherwise) and rendered models. It was a handy option if you had weaker hardware, but even if your PC could handle the 3D portraits, you had that choice if you still preferred the more traditional presentation.

Created Michael Jordan in NBA Live 96 PC

Over the next few years however, using the in-game faces as animated portraits came into vogue, and some games avoided the use of real headshots altogether. Needless to say, this yielded mixed results. While NBA Live 2002’s faces made for good animated headshots, ESPN NBA 2Night 2002’s attempts to render still portraits from its faces were generally lacklustre. Interestingly, NBA Live would bring back 2D portraits on overlays in NBA Live 2004, and then throughout the frontend in NBA Live 2005-09 for PC/prior gen. As such, placeholder portraits for created, generated, and a handful of original players – as well as outdated real headshots – became an issue once again.

However, in the later PC and PS2 versions of NBA Live, attempts were made to avoid a lack of portraits for generated rookies in Dynasty mode. By that point, the game had switched from generating randomised faces using Create-a-Player parts to randomly selecting from an array of pre-existing fictional faces. This allowed for the inclusion of pre-rendered portraits for each of those faces, avoiding a league filled with blank portraits the further one progressed into a Dynasty game. They could still end up looking rather generic, but it meant that generated rookies blended in slightly better with original players. Unfortunately, created players still used a placeholder portrait.

Fortunately, games became better at rendering still portraits from player faces; both original models and textures, and those assembled in Create-a-Player. There were still inconsistencies of course, with a mixture of real portraits and rendered headshots, as well as the use of placeholders in certain lineup screens. As of NBA 2K23, the use of a “No Portrait Available” texture has basically been retired, though the inconsistency with real and rendered portraits remains, even among original players. While rendered portraits of some kind have been around since the late 90s, I’d suggest MyCAREER has played a role in ousting static placeholders, as they’d be quite boring to look at.

Derrick Rose in NBA Live 09 PS2

Although portrait updates have become very common mods over the years – whether it’s updating a player with a new headshot, or adding a portrait for a player who was missing one – I don’t recall too many attempts to change the “No Portrait Available” placeholder. Like the logo and jersey of the Free Agents Pool, there’s never been a great demand for such mods, but they’re a novelty that freshens up the aesthetics of a game. It’s why I decided to take a shot at creating such a mod earlier this month! Your mileage may vary as to whether the placeholder portraits from older games fit the presentation of NBA Live 2005-08, but I enjoyed doing something a little different.

The “No Portrait Available” placeholders – no matter what their style and which game they’re from – are another one of those nostalgic aspects of basketball gaming that we don’t need to see again, if at all possible. They’re a part of our fond memories of older titles where they were a necessity, as they remind us of all the time we spent browsing and customising rosters. Whether it was creating Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley in the mid 90s, our favourite generated rookies in memorable franchise games, games that released too early to feature portraits for the new rookies, or players at the end of the bench, we were once very accustomed to those silhouettes and similar stand-ins.

Cleary, rendering portraits from in-game faces and models is the preferable solution these days. Even if it does result in some inconsistencies with players that do have real headshots, the discrepancy doesn’t stand out as much as using blank placeholders, especially once the league begins to be populated by generated players in the career and franchise modes. I don’t want to see “No Portrait Available” placeholders in new games, and yet there’s a part of me that misses them all the same. It’s ultimately the titles that they appear in that I’m truly nostalgic for of course, but seeing them does remind me of fun times on the virtual hardwood, and customising the rosters off it.

Support The NLSC on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Verified by MonsterInsights