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 revisiting NBA Live 2003 yet again, albeit with a slightly different perspective.
I’ve profiled NBA Live 2003 in a number of articles now. In addition to the in-depth retrospectives for the 20th and 25th anniversaries of the NBA Live series, I’ve also taken a look back at Freestyle Control. I’ve reminisced about the Courtside Comedy Cutscenes, a myth about the gameplay style settings, the soundtrack, and even my attempts to replicate a move seen in the game’s intro. In short, not only did I spend hours playing and modding NBA Live 2003 when it was new, but I’ve often gone back and revisited it years later. As such, this may seem like a well-trodden path.
However, I do believe that I have some new things to say after revisiting NBA Live 2003 more recently. We’ve also reached the game’s own 20th anniversary, and with my twenty year high school reunion right around the corner, it’s another game that I’ve been reflecting upon. This won’t be an in-depth review along the lines of my previous retrospectives, and I do still stand by observations I’ve made in the past. Nevertheless, even though I played it frequently upon release compared to games like NBA 2K14, NBA Live 06 for Xbox 360, and NBA Live 10, I appreciate NBA Live 2003 far more after revisiting it in 2022. Let’s take a look back…way back…
Not long after we made the switch to our current Forum from the original black and blue Discus boards in late 2002, we started a “get to know you” topic in the general discussion section. One of the things we invited everyone to share about themselves was their favourite game in the NBA Live series. I listed NBA Live 2003 as mine, and I must admit it wasn’t an entirely honest answer. I was playing the game and creating roster updates for it, and I certainly didn’t hate it. However, I also had my criticisms of NBA Live 2003, and if I were being completely honest at that time, I’d probably have named NBA Live 2000 or even NBA Live 96 PC as my favourite game in the series.
So, why did I list 2003 as my favourite NBA Live game in that community-oriented questionnaire? Looking back, as the person running one of the most prominent NBA Live fansites, it felt like the right thing to say. I’d also suggest that I wanted it to be true! Moreover, I was eighteen. I had the capacity to be critical and recognise aspects of a video game or other work that I didn’t like, but was still developing the ability to readily critique something that I was a fan of. Because it was the newest game, listing NBA Live 2003 as my favourite also seemed like the trendy thing to do. Ironically, I’d say this rationale actually detracted from the credibility of my critique of the game!
Eventually, I did express a more critical view of NBA Live 2003. With that in mind though, I’ve perhaps overcorrected my stance upon revisiting it for retrospectives and the like. As I said, I do stand by my opinions for the most part. It leaned too far in an arcade direction, when many of us wanted to see the series continue to become more realistic. Freestyle Control was revolutionary, but also overpowering. The comedic cutscenes were not to everyone’s tastes, and even if you didn’t mind them, most of us can agree that they’re a poor fit for a sim-oriented series. However, despite some key shortcomings, it’s not the low point or blunder that I’ve sometimes recalled it as being.
That’s the biggest change of heart I’ve had upon revisiting NBA Live 2003. All those years ago, I quit my Franchise game with the Minnesota Timberwolves because the gameplay simply wasn’t realistic enough for my tastes. Again, that’s a fair assessment of NBA Live 2003, but revisiting it all these years later and accepting it for what it is has allowed me to really enjoy playing it. It undoubtedly helps that later NBA Live and NBA 2K titles have delivered the more satisfying sim experience that I desired but didn’t get from NBA Live 2003. Now that there are no expectations for it to provide that style of gameplay, I can find the fun in the approach that it opted for.
This isn’t to say that I no longer think it was a misstep, or that in hindsight I believe it’s the direction that NBA Live should’ve gone in. I still maintain that NBA Live 2004 corrected course, and the series produced some better games after NBA Live 2003. It’s not a terrible game though, and even at the time, I’m not sure I’d rank it last behind all of its predecessors. It revolutionised player controls, introducing concepts that sim games are still utilising today. It also happened to try something different with the pace and style of its gameplay, and while it wasn’t what hardcore simheads preferred, it’s actually capable of being extremely fun if you’re able to get past that.
Despite my preference for sim games to strive for realism, when I’m revisiting NBA Live 2003 today, that’s something that I can put aside. Obviously there are still sim elements there, giving it kind of a hybrid style of gameplay. The dunks are loud and exciting, and while the crashing sound effects don’t suit an NBA rim, they add to the atmosphere given the more casual and up-tempo style. That goes for the massive swats on blocked shots, too. The big boom is entertaining, especially when rejecting a shot with a player who wasn’t a dominant paint defender. There’s enough realism to invite a somewhat strategic approach, while also running and gunning like crazy.
There’s no denying that revisiting NBA Live 2003 with Dee over Parsec has played a role in being able to appreciate the game for what it is. Playing it solo against the CPU in Franchise mode back in the day, it was impossible not to dwell on how it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. Conversely, when playing head-to-head against a friend or teaming up to produce spectacular highlights and crush the CPU in a cooperative effort, none of that matters. That doesn’t mean that I believe NBA Live 2003 should be the template for sim games, or that I was wrong to prefer a different direction. I can appreciate the novelty of its design choices now though, and have fun with them.
Honestly, I can even enjoy the Courtside Comedy Cutscenes! I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with them; they weren’t the right fit tonally for a sim title, but they were definitely funny and memorable. They make NBA Live 2003 unique, and that always counts for something when revisiting an old game. There’s a cheesy charm to them that’s enjoyable when you’re not taking things too seriously, and once you know how the players are selected, you can have some fun manipulating the participants in the various cutscenes. Also, it may sound like I’m damning them with faint praise, but I’ll take that Courtside Comedy over the story in NBA 2K23’s MyCAREER any day!
I also believe that I’ve discovered how to perform the same move and layup as Karl Malone in the intro reel. While messing around in practice one day, I found that by backing down until I was just outside the restricted area, letting go of the button and allowing the left stick to go neutral, tapping shoot to fake and then quickly pressing it again, I was able to trigger that finger roll. The timing takes a little practice as it’s easy to simply trigger a dunk or layup when you’re close to the hoop, and you need to use a player with the appropriate animation package. It won’t work every time as it requires the game to pick that specific animation, but it is indeed feasible to pull off that move.
Twenty years later, it’s interesting to reflect on how my views on NBA Live 2003 have changed. When it was new, I was a teenager who’d grown up with the NBA Live series; while I recognised its flaws, I was still reluctant to admit a preference for older games. As I continued to cover basketball games into my twenties, my views of NBA Live 2003 became much harsher, to the point where I arguably overcorrected on my previous stance and downplayed its stronger points. These days I’m able to give it its due, and also enjoy it as a retro basketball gaming experience. There’s a novelty to it, and I can also see why some gamers call it their all-time favourite NBA Live title.
As I’ve discussed in multiple articles and on the NLSC Podcast over the past month, as my twenty year high school reunion draws closer, I’ve been reminiscing about that time. Obviously, that includes the basketball video games that I was playing. NBA Live 2003 actually came out after I’d finished all my exams and was done with high school, but for me it was part of that transitional stage between the end of high school and starting university; or in my case, entering the workforce. I remember coming home from Schoolies – a traditional trip away upon finishing high school in Australia – and being excited to discover that my copy of NBA Live 2003 PC had arrived.
In a way, NBA Live 2003 is a fitting metaphor for that time in my life. It marked a big change in the series, introducing right stick controls and facilitating even more modding possibilities with CustomArt. It certainly felt very different to the games that came before it. Needless to say, life was changing for me as I left high school behind, but there were changes in the community, too. I’d attempted the first overhaul of the NLSC’s design since taking over, leading to a rift with others in the community when they were harshly critical, and I overreacted in hurt. The resulting bad blood did mar those early years running the site, just as NBA Live 2003 was tainted by a few flaws.
At the same time, it was the beginning of an exciting era in our modding community. I’m always reminded of that upon revisiting NBA Live 2003, especially when I mess around with the rosters. Not to get too philosophical about a basketball video game, but accepting the game’s flaws, learning how to be more openly critical of something I enjoy, and dealing with some of the controversies in the community, does feel like a metaphor for entering adulthood and then continuing to learn and mature. Revisiting the game periodically has impressed upon me the importance of not being so stubborn as to refuse to change my mind; in giving games a second chance, and in general.
And of course, there’s the interactive almanac aspect that all old basketball video games share. NBA Live 2003 is memorable for me in that regard, as I do think of that time in the NBA as a transitional era, too. Many of the players I watched growing up were settling into lesser roles or retiring, including Michael Jordan hanging it up for the final time. That certainly goes hand in hand with the idea of school and childhood being left behind, a stage of life that I was experiencing as the 2002-2003 season was tipping off, and NBA Live 2003 was the new game that I was playing. That emotional connection has always been there, even if I haven’t always appreciated the game itself.
Some might argue that my new appreciation for NBA Live 2003 after revisiting it recently is a prime example of the nostalgia filter. Nostalgia undoubtedly has a way of smoothing over the rough edges of the past, especially if it’s combined with the timely sentimentality of an anniversary or reunion. However, while nostalgia can and does blur our vision when it comes to quality, it can also provide clarity. We’re able to appreciate and accept things for what they are and were, recognising the positives and not getting bogged down by the negatives while still acknowledging them. To that end, it’s a sentiment that could definitely apply to high school and our teens, too!
While I still enjoy and have an interest in newer games – and future releases to come – aging into the upper end of the demographic has encouraged me to look to past titles for my basketball gaming fix far more often these past couple of years. There are still many games I’m eager to cover here in Wayback Wednesday as well, so I don’t want to keep talking about the same ones. With that being said, there’s something that’s very satisfying about reconciling my changing views of NBA Live 2003 over the years, and having it become another old favourite that I enjoy revisiting. It wasn’t everything I wanted in 2002, but it’s something I’m glad and grateful to have in 2022.