When it was released, Live 14 was basically a disaster. In the game’s defense, upgrades to graphics and AI behavior reportedly improved the experience months later, but by then, my copy was likely languishing on the shelves of a local GameStop. I’m not saying anything EA Sports doesn’t already know – this is their challenge in reviving the once-admired NBA Live brand: The level of advantage that NBA 2K holds on them means they have to start hitting on all cylinders, and that includes the soundtrack.
The NBA Live series was actually an innovator in this regard, sporting licensed tracks as far back as NBA Live 2000 – although the “soundtrack” such as it was featured a couple Rahzel tracks, a George Clinton jam and Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray.” As basketball titles have gone from presenting the game on the court to immersing the audience in the culture off of it, so too has the importance of the music grown, with Jay Z garnering an “executive producer” credit for curating the music for 2K Sports’ NBA 2K13, and the league’s last two MVPs, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, taking over duties in subsequent years.
And thus, we have the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard on the cover of NBA Live 15 – the game drops on October 28 – and, at the moment, on the phone, ready to talk about what went into curating the game’s soundtrack with producer (and former Cleveland Cavaliers’ house DJ) Mick.
“I shared what type of music I like,” Lillard says, “and what music I thought would be fitting for a video game, but that’s about as far as it went. I wasn’t like the final decision-maker or nothing like that. They knew what type of music I liked.”
Lillard agrees that selecting the music for a video game is not unlike putting together a good mixtape – something he knows a thing or two about as a fledgling emcee himself and the creator #4BarFriday, which encourages everyone from NBA players like Paul George and Iman Shumpert to any schmo with flow to drop four bars of hotness into one of Instagram’s 15-second videos.
“I don’t think [the music] has to be related to basketball,” Lillard says, “I think change of pace from track-to-track is important. I even notice myself. If I’m playing a video game and the song changes, it brings a different feeling or a different experience. I think change of pace is really important so it’s not just hip-hop, hip-hop, hip-hop. You know, switching it up a little bit.”
Which is not to say that NBA Live 15 wants for hip-hop. Compared to Pharrell’s competing soundtrack for NBA 2K15, which leans heavily on rock like vintage Red Hot Chili Peppers, Depeche Mode and No Doubt, NBA Live 15′s track listing skews heavily toward rap.
When it works, the soundtrack feels like a delirious throwback. Chuck Inglish’s “Gametime” and Bishop Nehru’s “Stressin'” are heavily reminiscent of late ’90s Rawkus tracks, while Flatbush Zombies edge closer to the horrorcore heyday of Gravediggaz or the ominous orchestral overtones of Rubberroom.
J. Sands’ “Five to Get Live” and Raz Fresco’s “Freshest Ever” – which has a Clipse-esque minimalism – are also highlights, but man: at 85 minutes, there’s still a lot of filler, mostly in the form of sparkling-yet-empty club bangers and forgettable electro-rock. Cramming in a drop that repeats variations on “NBA Live 15…Mick!” between every song is either endearingly old school or just kind of a handwank. I can’t decide which.
But it’s not as if this year’s Live is going to rise and fall based solely on the soundtrack – like a profile of Mick on EA Sports’ site says, you can create custom mixes, allowing the player to pick and choose which tracks to play. It’s a nice move (by the time NBA 2K14 dropped I was so sick of Imagine Dragons and Drake that I went directly into the options and turned their tracks off), yet it places the soundtrack in a weird state of limbo: it’s pumped-up as integral to the enjoyment of the final product, but you can also completely upend the track selection or cut it out completely.
As important as it is for EA to present a full-featured game with all the bells and whistles, it’s the action on the court that will make or break the game. Last year’s edition was a frustrating mess in that regard, but it was also important for it to come out, warts and all, so that the company could improve and move forward.
“Live went away for a little while,” says Lillard. “I was playing it when they had Tony Parker on the cover.” This was NBA Live 09, and even NBA Live 10 holds an 81 rating on Metacritic. It can be easy to forget that as recently as four years ago, Live presented a legitimate alternative to 2K.
“Everybody else was playing something different,” Lillard continues, “but I was playing Live for a long time. It’s crazy that I’m on the cover of it, so I can’t wait to get that game and start playing it.”
It would be great for Live to live up to those expectations, to bring back the halcyon days of Michael Jordan in NBA Live 2000, or point the way forward to something new and different. But if this year’s Live can at least begin to present an alternative vision of video-game basketball to 2K, it will be a step in the right direction.