What NBA 2K21 Could Learn From NBA Live 96: Or, How Dennis Rodman’s Hair Dye Made Me Love Basketball

When I first turned on this year’s NBA 2K21, I did the same thing I always do with a new NBA game; started up a match with the 1995 Chicago Bulls. This has been my tradition since the classic teams were added, to hit the court with Rodman, Jordan, and Pippen first. I use that order specifically, because while Jordan is clearly the star man, Rodman is the reason the Bulls are my team. I’m part of the Dream Team/Space Jam era of international NBA fans, but what actually got me into basketball was NBA Live 96.

Like most ’90s sport sim games, the player models were incredibly basic. They came in two varieties; Black or white. The only player who stood out was Dennis Rodman, who had his famous coloured hair. From then on, it was always the Bulls for me. Finding out later that they also had Michael Jordan – Mike was absent from NBA Live 96 because of licensing issues – was a bonus. They had Dennis Rodman, and that was all that mattered.

Obviously, NBA 2K21 is a better game than NBA Live 96. The mechanics are much smoother, play is faster, there’s more to do, and pretty much every player is photorealistic. And I know we never love things as much as we loved things when we were kids, this isn’t just pointless nostalgia complaining about the good old days; there are real lessons the restrictions of NBA Live 96 could teach the 2K series, and by extension, that all sports sims can learn from looking to the past.

When I reviewed NBA 2K21 for TechRadar, I compared it to The Flu Game, with Jordan the gameplay and VC the flu. The currency holds the game back, not only because it can lure fans into spending hundreds in a game they already paid a premium for, but the way the coins go both towards Junior in MyCareer and your MyTeam packs, forcing you to choose, the way it restricts the MyCareer difficulty, and generally seems like the main aim of the game. These days, MyTeam is what NBA 2K is all about. With FIFA and Madden, it’s the same story with Ultimate Team.

I understand that some people love MyTeam, and that there’s a real sense of excitement and anticipation in getting a great pull from a random pack. But the game’s absolute focus on MyTeam holds it back from building something creative, from really selling young fans on the sport. In NBA Live 96, all it took was ‘Dennis Rodman has coloured hair’, and I was on board. The fact he was a part of the greatest team of all time – that’s on god – and a brilliant rebounder to watch in real life certainly helped, but NBA Live 96 got me hooked. Players in MyTeam are inherently disposable. You might develop a bond with a player who unexpectedly delivers the goods a few times, but the fact you’re constantly changing lineups and managing contracts makes it hard to really connect with them. I don’t care about any of my MyTeam players.

It’s not just that I’m too old to care about basketball players in a video game either. I care about the story of the rookies I sign in MyGM, or about the random transfers I pick up my FIFA’s career mode. But MyTeam doesn’t feel like it’s built for any meaningful connection, it’s just a cheap thrill you have to keep putting money into over and over again to enjoy. An expensive cheap thrill at that.

NBA Live 96 was severely held back by technology, but one simple thing – Rodman’s hair – made it stand out. NBA 2K21 has no such technical restrictions, but it has no interest in taking advantage, because MyTeam makes money. As long as the sports sims continue to be wildly profitable, more and more attention will be funnelled away from the sport and the stories and the characters – for in a video game, that’s what they are – and will head towards the money. Even as MyCareer spins an good narrative, you can’t truly use the game mode as a storytelling device, because failure – a key cornerstone in any sports saga – is not permitted. You have to succeed all the time, otherwise you’re not generating coins for MyTeam, which as much as it’s dressed up with Idris Elba or Jesse Williams, is all MyCareer was ever designed for.

Maybe it’s me. Maybe everyone else does love MyTeam, Ultimate Team, Super Duper Spend All Your Money To Get Players You Can Use In Other Modes For Free Team. Maybe there are kids out there who got hooked on the sport because they pulled an amazing player in MyTeam and wanted to know more about him. I really hope there are, even if the games no longer feel designed to make you love basketball.

All I know for sure is, I’ll always be grateful to whoever it was at NBA Live 96 that said “why don’t we give Dennis Rodman coloured hair?”

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