We take a look back at the origins of basketball video games and see how far the genre has come.
In the beginning, slam dunks and behind-the-back dribbles were the exclusive domain of professional athletes. But with the 1974 arcade debut of Midway’s TV Basketball, the basketball-video-game genre was born, allowing youngsters everywhere to indulge in fantasies of becoming the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and helping sports to eventually become interactive entertainment’s third-best-selling category. (It now makes up 14.1 percent of a $57 billion market.) For game developers, though, the journey to living-room ubiquity has been a long and arduous one.
Three distinct epochs have defined the field’s evolution. First came one-on-one showdowns and simple button-mashers, like 1977’s stick-figure-fueled Basketball for Atari 2600 and Mattel’s 1978 Basketball handheld (the latter of which represented players as crimson blips on a chunky bricklike plastic device). Later offerings Basketball Manager and International Basketball, both for Commodore 64, brought text and full-court graphics, respectively, to early PCs. But the era’s shining star was the multiplatform hit Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One, which was among the first titles to feature superstar athletes.
“Dr. J was the first celebrity to join me in caring about bringing authenticity to video games,” recalls Trip Hawkins, founder of modern-day publishing juggernaut Electronic Arts.
A new era dawned with the advent of set-top consoles like 1985’s Nintendo Entertainment System, which boasted the more graphically sophisticated multiplayer classic Double Dribble; 1989’s Sega Genesis; and 1991’s Super Nintendo. But arcade outings still ruled over these home machines’ chintzy pop-culture castoffs (RapJam Vol. 1), best-forgotten exclusives (Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball), and shameless cash-ins (Shaq-Fu). That is, until 1993’s no-holds-barred NBA Jam — which introduced gravity-defying dunks, superpowers, and secret codes — migrated into dorm rooms across America, decimating undergraduates’ academic productivity.
“You can’t think about classic basketball titles without including [NBA Jam],” says Greg Thomas, senior vice president of sports development at 2K Games. “While the game wasn’t very realistic, it pushed the boundaries of player animation.”
But such fantasy-inspired games didn’t withstand the test of time, which taught developers an important lesson. Mike Philbrick, an editor for ESPN.com’s Page 2, says, “These games faded pretty fast. We learned that what sports gamers really want is as authentic an experience as they can get.”
Enter the gaming world’s modern 3-D incantation, which began on systems like the PlayStation and Xbox and reinvented seminal franchises such as NBA Live with incredibly lifelike updates. The genre has become hugely profitable with the success of next-generation machines such as the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii, which allow for high-definition, Internet-connected offerings that eclipse anything early hobbyists could have envisioned. Among this year’s all-star crop of games are NBA 2K9, which offers
intense broadband-ready multiplayer thrills and extensive player customization; NBA 09: The Inside, which lets players live the life of a rising rim-rocking sensation; and NBA Live 09, which introduces daily downloadable player and team updates that reflect real-life trades, hot streaks, and injuries in the at-home game.
So where will the industry go from here? Experts agree that the future lays in interconnected online experiences, which would allow gamers to trade players, teams, and smack-talking jibes with friends. But even as the genre evolves, Philbrick says he doesn’t see it dwindling in popularity anytime soon. “Everyone has played basketball,” he explains. “It’s the cheapest game to enjoy in real life, so more people have a connection to it.”