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 generated rookie names in NBA Live.
Now that the 2017 NBA Finals are in the books, everyone’s attention has turned to free agency and this year’s Draft. In a couple of days we’ll find out where all the top prospects will end up, but with custom Draft Classes, basketball gamers have already been creating their own scenarios in NBA 2K17. Of course, without a custom Draft Class in place, the new rookie crop will be completely fictional, with generated names, ratings, and attributes. In the early days of franchise modes, fictional rookies with generated names were the only option, barring any editing of the DBF files for NBA Live on PC.
As a result, there were some very weird and wonderful results with the randomly generated rookie names in NBA Live, as well as a few Easter Eggs here and there. Let’s take a look back…way back…
When NBA Live 2000 introduced Franchise Mode, it was a dream come true for those of us who had grown up with basketball video games in the 90s. NBA Live 99 had teased us with multi-season play, but players didn’t retire, and there was no free agency or rookie draft. Franchise Mode changed all of that. Although it now looks very primitive compared to what the NBA 2K series has done with MyLEAGUE and MyGM, or even some of the best incarnations of Dynasty Mode in NBA Live, that first Franchise Mode in 2000 was still something special. Since EA Sports obviously couldn’t include any real future Draftees, fictional players were generated instead.
Although we could edit rookie names and attributes on the PC version through the use of external tools, and even insert new players into a Draft Class, there was a certain charm in sticking with the rookies that had been generated. Along with having complete control over your team’s moves in free agency and trades, the fictional prospects added to the fantasy aspect of Franchise and Dynasty Mode. They became an integral part of the story of your franchise experience, and memorable in their own right. Of course, sometimes even more than their performance on the virtual hardwood, it was a generated rookie’s name that made them stand out.
Rookie names were generated from a bank of first names and surnames. The database included the names of current and former NBA players, as well as some other common names. More than a couple of the developers’ names could also be found in the database. In later games, the bank of rookie names was stored in a DBF file that could be edited. In addition to the list of names, there were also attributes determining whether a name was a first name, surname, or both, as well as how likely it was to be used when generating a rookie of a certain ethnicity or background. This also determined the likelihood of certain first names and surnames being paired up.
This was a rather important development in terms of adding more realism to generated rookie names, as earlier games would produce some strange combinations. It wasn’t unusual to see a white European player named “Hakeem Jones”, “Ricardo Mutombo”, or something similar. While such combinations are not necessarily unfeasible or inappropriate, they were generally unlikely for the background of the generated players that received them. In all fairness, the wackier combinations of first names and surnames could be very amusing, which in turn added to the fun of having a fictional rookie. At the same time, it could be a bit too silly for some gamers’ tastes.
I’m also convinced that in at least a couple of NBA Live titles, the developers rigged the odds of certain combinations for the rookie names. I remember seeing a “Bill Cosby” generated in an NBA Live 2001 Franchise, though the face he’d been given didn’t really resemble his namesake. The bank of rookie names has also included “Tupac” and “Shakur”, which quite a few franchise gamers have seen put together for a generated rookie over the years. Personally, I always found those occurrences amusing. After all, many people do name their kids after celebrities and athletes, and coincidences do occur, so I’d say that it was some harmless fun.
Even though the quality and realism of rookie name generation did improve over the years, there were still some strange results from time to time. Antiquated first names like “Ignatius” arguably showed up a little too often, there were still the occasional mismatched names, and occasionally an unrealistic number of international players would be among the top prospects. Most of us also encountered the same combinations of names at some point, leaving us to wonder just how random the name generation algorithms truly were. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter too much. We still enjoyed having the generated rookies in Franchise and Dynasty.
Although generated rookie classes are still the only option in NBA Live, and the default option in NBA 2K, the ability to create custom rookie classes in NBA 2K is obviously a very welcome feature. With the games aiming to be as realistic as possible, and customisation being very important to us basketball gamers, the idea of having fictional Draft prospects probably seems somewhat antiquated and less desirable now. Back in the day however, it was certainly preferable to having no new rookies at all, and creating history on the virtual hardwood with a generated rookie undoubtedly became a memorable part of the franchise experience in NBA Live.