Wayback Wednesday: Shaquille O’Neal & NBA Live

Shaquille O'Neal in NBA Live 09

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 Shaquille O’Neal’s history with NBA Live.

Before the 2019 NBA Finals tipped off, it was noted that the series marked the 35th year in a row that the league’s championship round featured a player who was at one time a teammate of Shaquille O’Neal. It’s not the first time that Shaq’s connections to a Finals participant has come up, but with LeBron James’ offseason move to the Los Angeles Lakers after eight consecutive Finals appearances with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers, there was speculation that the streak may finally come to an end. Thanks to Danny Green and the champion Toronto Raptors, it remains intact.

With a nineteen year career that began in 1992 and ended in 2011, and saw six stops along the way, the streak is arguably less surprising than it seems. Given the number of journeyman he played with, and his own nomadic nature later on in his career, it’s no surprise that there are connections stretching out in both directions. On the virtual hardwood, Shaquille O’Neal has a similar streak of longevity, particularly when it comes to the NBA Live series. Let’s take a look back…way back…

The longevity with NBA Live that I’m referring to is Shaquille O’Neal’s appearances in the game. As NBA Live marks its 25th Anniversary this year – and yes, we’ll be celebrating that milestone here at the NLSC – Shaq remains the only player to appear in every single game in the series. That streak obviously begins with the first game in the series, NBA Live 95. Not surprisingly, The Diesel had one of the highest dunking ratings in the game, and along with Anfernee Hardaway, made for a deadly duo. One of the dunk animations even resembled his signature Shaq Attack slam. Even though he wasn’t the only player who performed it, back then, it felt special whenever he did.

Shaquille O'Neal in NBA Live 97

Shaquille O’Neal was the cover player of NBA Live 96, a fact that is somehow often overlooked. Most gamers recall that he was on the cover of NBA 2K6 and NBA 2K7, but not NBA Live 96. This can likely be attributed to the fact that there were actually two covers for the game. Shaq appeared on the covers of the PC and PlayStation 1 versions, but the Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis versions featured a still from the 1995 NBA Finals. Shaq’s cover is important as it marks the first time a single player was featured on NBA Live’s box art, establishing a trend for EA Sports’ basketball series. The approach of featuring an action shot had now become outdated.

Of course, for NBA Live, it was probably less about bucking a trend and more about promoting what they had. At that time, Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t appearing in a lot of NBA video games. He was in the arcade version of NBA Jam (and a big fan of the game; Tim Kitzrow went into more detail in our interview back in April), but he did not appear in the home versions. He was also absent from NBA ShootOut and NBA ShootOut ’97 (released as Total NBA ’96 and Total NBA ’97 in PAL regions), as well as NBA Hangtime and NBA Full Court Press to name but a few. His appearances in NBA Live 96 and NBA Live 97 therefore made him an EA Sports exclusive.

This was something that EA bragged more openly about on the back cover of NBA Live 97, proclaiming “NBA Live has SHAQ!” In fact, he was prominently featured in the previews on the back of the box; far more so than the player on the front, Mitch Richmond. Being much younger and unfamiliar with the situation behind likeness rights, I remember thinking it was a strange thing to brag about, as Shaquille O’Neal’s exclusivity with EA wasn’t widely discussed then. We knew that Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley had to be left out, and that Shaq wasn’t in the home versions of NBA Jam, but NBA Live’s popularity made it seem like he was always in the sim games.

Shaquille O'Neal dunks in NBA Live 06

We didn’t realise it at the time, but it was this exclusive deal that allowed NBA Live to feature Shaquille O’Neal for almost the entire length of his active career. If not for the cancellation of NBA Elite 11, and with the inclusion of NBA Showdown (which featured 1993 season rosters), Shaq’s NBA career would’ve spanned the entirety of EA’s basketball franchise from the mid 90s through to 2011. When the series finally returned in 2013 with NBA Live 14, Shaq was featured as one of the Legends who could be collected in Ultimate Team. He’s appeared in this capacity in every game since, and is featured in the demo when firing up NBA Live 19 for the first time.

While NBA Live has suffered a couple of interruptions and hiatuses in the past decade, if we include other basketball video game series, Shaq’s streak is perhaps the longest of any player. If we begin with the arcade version of the original NBA Jam, along with all of the NBA 2K games in which he appeared as an active player or a Legend, Shaquille O’Neal has appeared in at least one basketball game every year since 1993. Most other stars from his era have gone missing for a year or two after they’ve retired and their likeness rights haven’t been secured for historical content. He’s even outlasted players that came after him, such as Chris Bosh.

In a way, Shaq’s streak of appearances on the virtual hardwood provides us with a reference point for how far video games have come. The visual improvements are obvious at a glance, but something you’ll quickly notice if you go back and play an early NBA Live title is that it’s hard to dominate with Shaq as you should, since he doesn’t have a truly imposing presence on the court. It wouldn’t be until the games began to introduce a real sense of weight and physics along with noticeable player differentiation that the virtual Shaq began to feel like his real life counterpart. Out of all the early games, NBA Live 2002 was the closest as far as making him a beast.

Shaq in NBA Live 18's Ultimate Team

It’s also interesting that he’s the one player that NBA Live has always been able to get. For much of his career he’s been available to all developers through the NBA license, but when he was exclusive early on his career, it was to NBA Live. NBA Live didn’t get Jordan or Barkley until much later, and even David Robinson was absent in NBA Live 95 PC, but Shaquille O’Neal was always there. Even once he retired, even when he was the cover player for the Legend Edition of NBA 2K18 and featured as part of the studio crew in 2K’s pre-game, halftime, and post-game shows, EA has had Shaq. MJ is now synonymous with 2K, but Shaq is arguably the historical face of Live.

After all, it was his card that was available early on as one of the rewards in NBA Live 19’s Ultimate Team, and several subsequent challenges require gamers to have it in their lineup to participate. As I mentioned, he’s one of the featured players, along with Allen Iverson and Vince Carter, spotlighting the new Icon Path system in the playable demo upon installing NBA Live 19. Even after he was announced as the cover player for the Legend Edition of NBA 2K18, he was photographed wearing a barber’s smock bearing the NBA Live logo. Shaq wasn’t listed as a member of the NBA Live Squad, but it feels like he was unofficially part of the lineup.

As Shaq’s former teammates hang it up in the years to come, the streak of Final series featuring at least one of them will eventually come to an end. Eight years after his retirement, the number of players he shared a locker room with is starting to dwindle, so this year or next may turn out to be the last Finals to feature the Shaq Connection. As long as NBA Live is around, however, Shaq’s streak of appearances in EA Sports’ game is likely to continue for some time yet. They may not be able to license His Airness again anytime soon, but as long as NBA Live has Shaq, they still have an enduring legacy with one of the all-time greats.

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