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 discussing an achievement that I’m sure is very nostalgic for many basketball gamers: our first virtual championship.
Achieving closure in basketball video games, and most sports titles for that matter, is different to other genres. After all, they can be played in many ways, not all of which have a predefined completion condition. In contrast, games with a storyline or final level/mission/quest can be played through and clearly beaten. Whether they’re linear or non-linear, there’s an end point where the story is over and the final main objective has been completed. There’s less ambiguity as to whether or not you’ve finished such a game, and to that point, gained a sense of completion and closure with it.
NBA games, especially the sim titles, technically do have an ultimate goal of winning a championship in season, franchise, and career modes. However, they can also be enjoyed without ever completing a campaign. You may just play with and against friends in exhibition games, or tournaments that you organise. There are the online team play modes, with no schedule or structure. You can have countless hours of fun on the virtual hardwood without ever vying for an NBA championship. There is something special about getting a ring in video games though, especially hoisting the virtual Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time. Let’s take a look back…way back…
For me, that magical moment came in NBA Live 95. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, the Super Nintendo version of NBA Live 95 was a game that I didn’t actually own until years later. It was a frequent video store rental, which means I had limited time to play the game whenever it was in my possession. There was no guarantee that my save file would be intact the next time I rented it, so the prospect of finishing a season required some shortcuts: simulating, shorter quarters, a 26-game season, or some combination thereof. Alternatively, I could set up and play through a Playoff game, but I’ve always had a fascination with playing a season from start to finish.
Eventually, I made it happen. I rented the game for a week, and began a Season with the Chicago Bulls: 26 games, 1-3-3-3 Playoffs format, three minute quarters. This was before I really became interested in the sim style of play. Sure, I played with all of the rules in effect, but it didn’t bother me that Scottie Pippen led the league with over 40 ppg and around 8 spg. I just wanted to win games with my favourite team, led by one of my then-favourite players, and get through an entire season. Even with only a week to achieve that goal before returning the game, it was doable. I’d estimate that it took me at least ten hours over a few days to play through the regular season and Playoffs.
It’s been a long time, and I regret to say that I forget who I ended up facing in the NBA Finals. I do recall the feeling of satisfaction and triumph, however. I believe I’d seen the championship celebration once before after simulating, but this was earned. The celebration cutscene itself wasn’t anything special; in fact, watching it today, you might call it downright underwhelming! However, it was about the journey and the sense of completion, not some elaborate cutscene. One might argue that it’s not that different today as it still feels like it’s over in a blink, though at least you get to see the players celebrating, and the presentation of the MVP and Larry O’Brien trophies.
That would’ve been nice in NBA Live 95, and certainly, we dreamed of seeing such cutscenes in future games. However, the simplicity of the championship celebration didn’t detract from the feeling of accomplishment at the time. Back then, you didn’t necessarily finish all of the video games that you played – basketball or otherwise – and especially not the ones you rented. Hilariously anti-climactic endings weren’t uncommon either, but in NBA Live 95, seeing something a little different after the championship-clinching game was sufficient. Taking the longer path by playing through the season – albeit with some shortcuts – made it all the more worthwhile.
I wish I could remember more details about my first virtual NBA championship. I wish I’d written down some stats, or tried taking some photos of the TV for posterity. It’d be fun to look back on them now, and share them. Still, what ultimately matters is that I made that memory on the virtual hardwood. If you’re a keen basketball gamer, you’ll probably win a virtual championship at some point. In that respect, it’s not a unique accomplishment such as owning a world record high score, or winning a professional gaming tournament. It’s something that’s personally significant, and it no doubt solidifies your love of basketball gaming. I can confidently say it did for me.
In the years following my first virtual championship, I developed an interest in a more realistic style of play. I also had a new goal of playing through an 82-game season on 12-minute quarters. To that end, I played a significant number of Season games in a variety of NBA Live titles, but so often fell short of my goal. There was school, and other games that I wanted to play. I was sharing a PC and TV with my parents, so I couldn’t always play games whenever I wanted. An 82-game season is long, and it’s easy to get bored and impatient halfway through. I still enjoyed my time with the games, but I wasn’t filling a virtual trophy case with a slew of NBA championships.
Indeed, the next virtual championship I won in a season played from start to finish came in NBA Live 2000 PC, when my cousin and I began a Franchise game with the Portland Trail Blazers. We made a few moves to stack the team, including trading for Shaquille O’Neal. Mindful of how long it was taking us to replay the 1995 campaign in NBA Live 95 PC, we opted for a 28-game season and 1-1-1-1 Playoff format, but did play on 12-minute quarters. We had two weeks of school holidays to get through the season, and we achieved it. I remember microwaving the celebratory popcorn early in the morning, after we stayed up to clinch a championship for Rip City!
Since then, I’ve completed a handful of seasons on full length quarters, playing every single game on route to the championship. In my NBA Live 2004 Dynasty, I finally completed an 82-game season and full Playoffs – though none of the series actually went the distance – while guiding the virtual Bulls to title number seven. I’ve also won two titles in my NBA Live 06 Dynasty with the Bulls, a feat that I repeated in NBA 2K19’s MyCAREER. I’ve likewise played entire seasons of MyCAREER in NBA 2K13, NBA 2K14, NBA 2K17, and NBA 2K20, capping off each of them with a virtual championship. Every time it’s felt rewarding, creating many fond memories.
Still, my very first virtual championship in NBA Live 95 on SNES stands out, even if I don’t recall all the details. Of course, the titles that followed were more impressive examples of persistence and patience, and the presentation in those games has made the celebration cutscenes more exciting to watch. There’s also been the satisfaction in taking a low-rated MyPLAYER avatar, and turning them into a superstar. I’m a fan of franchise and career modes, and the ability to experience a virtual representation of the NBA season. Those titles were fitting finales following hundreds of hours of fun playing virtual hoops, but that first championship holds a special place in my heart.
As far as arcade basketball games are concerned, I certainly did feel a similar sense of accomplishment upon defeating every NBA team in NBA Jam Tournament Edition and NBA Hangtime. At the same time, it’s a different feeling of completion. Games on NBA Jam’s ladder aren’t as connected as they lack the structure of a proper season mode, especially when you can choose a different team to control each time (and indeed, changing up your team is an effective strategy). It’s also not a virtual NBA championship as such. It’s still fun and satisfying to finish those games, but winning it all in NBA Live 95 tapped into a different area of basketball fantasy and fanaticism.
I’m sure that other sim basketball gamers share that feeling when it comes to their first virtual championship, no matter which game it came in. If it was an older game, then you can no doubt relate to watching what could be described as an underwhelming celebration cutscene, but nevertheless being pumped to see it. It was, as I noted, more about the journey than the destination. Basketball games aren’t a genre that you can feasibly speedrun, outside of simulating and selecting the shortest Season, Playoff, and quarter length settings. Even then, the clock moves at the same speed for us all, and simulating isn’t the same as using tricks and glitches to finish a game faster.
Speaking of simulating, I’m confident that many of us did simulate seasons in those old NBA Live games and other vintage titles, thus seeing the championship cutscene without stepping onto the virtual hardwood. Interestingly, I don’t think it spoiled the experience for us to have essentially seen the ending before finishing those games ourselves. If anything, it may have tempered our expectations, and more importantly, didn’t detract from the sense of accomplishment that came with taking the long road. I’d liken it to finishing a game with cheats, and then again legitimately. Not that simulating is cheating, but it’s a way to effectively beat the game without beating it.
Completion, closure, and fun take many forms on the virtual hardwood, and winning the championship in a season, franchise, or career mode is just one of them. It’s always been a goal of mine in games that I’ve been hooked on though, and I’m glad that some of my earliest sim basketball gaming memories include that Bulls title in NBA Live 95 on SNES. Looking back, I do believe that it bolstered my love of the genre, and my passion for the lengthy experience that comes with season play. I won’t say that I’ve never felt a similar level of joy and excitement since, but that first title is nevertheless a special basketball gaming moment, and a very fond memory for me.