Digital Deadstock: How Sneakers End Up in Basketball Video Games

Here's how NBA Live 16 and NBA 2K16 turn covetable kicks into playable grails.

When NBA Live first debuted in 1995, sneaker design was likely a secondary concern. "Secondary" would be generous, actually. On a designers' list of priorities, a good-looking, detailed sneaker couldn't have been too high up. After all, when one was working on a 16-bit system like the Super Nintendo, what more could sneakers be than a few, colored pixels?

By the time NBA 2K made its way to the Sega Dreamcast in 1999, design capabilities had improved considerably. The 128-bit hardware could run circles around earlier consoles. At the time, reviews of the game praised the innovative graphics, touting "the sweet goodness of motion captured honey," and saying it was "the most dazzling and realistic-looking basketball game ever." However, while 2K's "1,500 motion-captured animations and more than 400 individually modeled players" were a step in the right direction, the sneakers remained unremarkable. Aside from color, nearly every shoe was designed with a uniform-looking, unbranded approach.

If the game's cover athlete, Allen Iverson, was wearing Answers or Questions, then the resemblance was faint. Rather, his on-foot apparel looked something closer to the blocky, alien adidas Kobe Two. Up close, tongues and toe boxes could be seen, but there was a distinct limit to this nuance. And technical shortcoming not only prevented you from seeing, for example, the black speckles on the cool grey midsole of a Jordan Oreo IV. There also just weren't any Jordans to be seen.

In 2015, the game has changed. Licensing obstacles that previously prevented the inclusion of your favorite player's favorite sneaker have since been overcome, with the tipping point for the feature arriving in the early '10s. 2K's partnership with Nike paved the way for the franchise's Shoe Creator mode, as well as the inclusion of iconic, highly-detailed footwear. In NBA 2K16, sneakerheads can expect to see several hundred shoes from brands like Nike, adidas, Under Armour, Reebok, and more.

2K Games isn't alone in this market, either. Over the years, its chief competitor, EA Sports, has stepped up its game to cater to all aspects of basketball culture. In their latest game, NBA Live 16, they've utilized state-of-the-art scanning technology to capture every angle and crease in today's signature shoes. Whether it's the studded heel counter of the Nike Kyrie 1, or those speckled soles on the Jordan IV, sneaker connoisseurs won't come away disappointed when they glimpse the offerings in EA's latest release.

But don't take it from us. We spoke with NBA Live 16 designer Ryan Santos, and 2K Games senior producer Rob Jones, who both gave us the inside scoop on how these competing companies have been able to capture the essence of footwear's rich visual history.

"Baron" Jordan XIs in NBA Live. Image via EA Sports.

What’s your experience with sneaker culture and how did it influence your design process with the sneakers in the game?

Santos: I was a sneakerhead from way back in the day. A lot of kids grew up idolizing MJ, so my first pair of Jordans were the Black Cement 4. I remember getting those in grade 7, so that kinda dates me. For me, finally being able to own a pair of J’s back then, cause you know it was expensive, it was like over a hundred dollars, it was funny cause I had to share those shoes with my dad, cause he played in a men’s league and we were the same size at the time, and so he wore them on the weekends, and I wore them during the week.

When I outgrew them, we sent them to the Philippines to my relatives. It started at an early age and I grew up around the NBA; I grew up watching basketball. I saw my uncle wearing Jordans, wearing Converse, wearing Reeboks, all kinds of shoes. As I became older and got into working in the game industry and actually having some money, I saw that they retroed the Jordan 4 back in ‘99. When I saw that I was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know they re-released them.” From then, I was hooked and I’ve been collecting since then. I worked on bringing the shoes into the game for the first time back in Live 2001, when we got Reeboks, then we put Adidas, then we put Nike, then we put Jordan all the way to 2004—that’s when you saw all the shoes in the game and all the brands represented authentically. That was one of the things I wanted to bring to the game was that level of culture and authenticity.

Fast forward all the way to NBA Live 16, we have the technology now to scan the shoes, you know we work with the footwear companies, they send us footwear we get samples, retail copies. We end up scanning that and putting it in the game. I also worked at it from a curation process thinking, “Okay, what’s gonna be hitting with our fan base?” It’s not just the on-court footwear but it’s the stuff that you wear off-the-court. When you’re rocking retro J’s, some people might not ball in them but they want to look good in them. But in our game it doesn’t matter, you’re not gonna get them dirty, you’re not gonna get them greased. You missed out on those on Saturday? Well, guess what you could get them in the game. I think it gives our fans an opportunity to really interact with content that they’re gonna wanna get in the real life anyways, so it’s a fun thing for me every year—looking at footwear, working with the brands. We got friends at all the brands and I love working with those guys every single year on getting the authenticity of the footwear in the game.

"We update the game post-launch. Christmas Day we release a 'Christmas Day' pack. Any hot sneakers dropping, we’ll be able to do that on the fly."
—Ryan Santos, nba live 16 designer

Jones: I was a guy who grew up playing ball all the time. Access to sneakers was always a big thing, especially in college. As I started working here and had more and more access to the available sneakers, I’ve been collecting and my son collects as well. We’re kind of entranced, let’s put it that way. My son gets to know what the new sneakers are just a little bit before me because he’s all over Instagram all day everyday, but in terms of really knowing what is out and what’s hot, I always stay on top of it, just because I have my own interest in it. I have a pretty extensive collection, even though every once a while my wife asks me to prune it.

Rob, do you have a particular favorite pair in your rotation?

Jones: Well…no. Last year, I was really, really happy with the Kobe 8 in terms of comfort and as an everyday shoe, so I had a bunch of the versions that came out. This year, I never really settled in on a shoe that had to be the one that I really wanted. So I’ve just been kind of rotating between the KD 7 and the Kobe 10, but mostly Jordan and retro Jordan are the staples at my house.

Jordan Super.Fly 4 in NBA 2K16. Image via 2K Games

Do you work closely with the brands while you're designing these shoes? Are they getting final approval on how it looks? What’s that process like?

Jones: Shoe companies send us their shoes, and they have a final look at the in-game asset, which I send out once I build everything into the game and make sure they’re okay with it. Some care more than others, but once they see how good they look in the first place, a lot of the times, they’re not so worried that the next one won’t look so good. But, in general, we take a snapshot of what it’s going to look like in the game. As Converse was releasing their Chuck Taylor II, they sent me a whole bunch of stuff and then once we rendered it out and sent it back in, they were like, 'Whoa, it looks absolutely phenomenal.' We started scanning shoes this year by 3-D scanning them. That has really helped us up the authenticity of every pair that goes into the game.

Santos: We’ll build the game and then we’ll send them screenshots and video of their product for sign off. We wanna make sure we’re not missing a detail or misrepresenting their brand. A brand like a Jordan, you gotta make sure the Jumpman looks tight and you’re not messing with it. We really work really closely with them on all the integrations. We get the illustrator files, we get everything down to a T to augment our scans to make sure it all looks good. We work with them really closely because we wanna make sure everything is authentic.

"Bred" Jordan XIs in NBA Live 16. Image via EA Sports.

Can you tell me a bit more about the 3-D scanning? How does that work? How does it differ from motion-capture?

Santos: Sneakers is a different tech. Motion capture is with the suits and the reflectors, but what we do is we have a shoe scanner. It’s basically an array of cameras that takes multiple angles of the shoe and the shoe rotates on a motor and then we take that data and basically turn that data into a 3-D mesh. We also take that data and re-project the photographs onto the shoe. It gets the exact dimensions of the shoe and the textures. Same thing we do with player faces, same thing we do with the environments.

Jones: We have a room where we’re set up with multiple cameras that allow us to put a shoe in and take shots all over and then a proprietary system that allows us to reconstruct the geometry of each individual shoe to be exactly the way it is. Imagine that, in years prior, we used to map a shoe to a kind of generic body, if I can say that. We had a low-top shoe, we had a mid-frame shoe, and then we had a high-top shoe. And what we would do is we’d take every shoe and kind of shoehorn it based on what we saw it to appear like. When you played it, yes, they looked good, but they weren’t built to the exact specification that the original shoe was. This year, every shoe has its own geometry because the 3-D scanning system allows us to capture every single minor detail that a particular shoe has.

Nike Peak TP9 in NBA 2K16. Image via 2K Games.

How many different sneakers are available in the latest game?

Santos: I don’t know the exact count but it’s hundreds—like hundreds and hundreds.

Jones: I can’t even tell you the number. I know it’s over 276 because as we were finishing the game, I was trying to figure out how many shoes we had and I was like, 'Wait a minute, some shoes aren’t showing up.' And the number that we showed in the game was 270, but there’s more than those in there. I would say we’re somewhere around 300 pairs of shoes in the game and then we’re always adding new shoes as shoe companies release shoes. We’ll continuously update that as the year goes by.

"Christmas Green" Nike LeBron XI High in NBA Live. Image via EA Sports

Any room for easter eggs?

Santos: There is. We have a live service to our game where we update the game post-launch. We did this last year, the year before. Christmas Day we release a "Christmas Day" pack. Any hot sneakers dropping certain times of the month, we’ll be able to do that on the fly. So we’ll work with Jordan or Nike or Adidas, or those brands, and be like, ‘Hey, what’s some footwear you want us to put in the game?’ and we’ll work together to launch it post-launch.

So, say you’re playing NBA Live on All-Star Weekend, you’re gonna get some All-Star Jordan right at that time or the retros dropping at that time. Expect to see some cool things there as a player, where the game is fresh and is really representing real life.

Jones: Right now, that I know of, all of the ones are available through the game and will be coming through updates. There’s one that was available as part of our pre-order, Jordan XIV lows, that are releasing in October, I think. But those were released as part of our pre-order incentive with the Jordan special edition.

Nike Kobe XI Low in NBA Live. Image via EA Sports.

Do these sneakers add any benefits to the players or is purely cosmetic?

Santos: It’s purely cosmetic. We wanna make sure that how you play it is your stick skills. We’re not giving you any additional boost for an armband or a pair of shoes. There is in our progression system certain shoes, like say the Bred 1, that you have to beat some hard objective to get them. So when you see another player online rockin’ the Bred 1 you’re like, ‘Damn, that guy leveled 99 his finishing-in-contact skill.’ Or we have rewards for beating Terminal 23 with three stars in each game, all five games, and you can only get that shoe if you do that objective. We’re making the rewards tell the story of how you play, so when you go to play people online, it’s like, ‘Wow, man, he’s got those? He’s good. We better guard him, he’s a killer shooter, or he’s a great defender.’ So we were really thoughtful about how people can use this gear and how they can attain it.

Jones: At this point in time, in the regular game, they’re cosmetic only. But they are part of our MyTEAM game now, so you can actually get shoe cards that will actually give you a boost within the MyTEAM mode within the game.

So you’re buying it for your play in the part is just a cosmetic aspect, just to differentiate yourself from everybody else. If you’re playing on my team and you get one of the cards that have the shoes on it, it actually have a boost attached to it.

Nike Kobe IX High in NBA 2K. Image via 2K Games

Are there any shoes exclusive to NBA 2K16 that we wouldn't see in NBA Live 16, and vice-versa?

Jones: Not this year, specifically. Well, let me rephrase that: We have brands that our competitors don't have in their game, I believe. Just because they just chose not to. But we don’t have anything that’s exclusive, so if [EA] went out and got a deal with a different company, they’re not exclusive to us.

Santos: I wouldn’t know. I don’t know 2K’s game plan, but all I know is that, from a quality perspective, you look at our game, the shoe laces are scanned, even the lace tips are the same. You look at Kyrie’s shoe, even that spiky heel cup is modeled right into the shoe; it’s not just some flat silhouette. You’ll see the level of detail that we go to because we know that’s something that’s so big with our fans. I mean, there’s collectors that don’t even play the sport, so footwear kind of transcends the sport in a way because it kind of hit that mainstream peak.

Is there any shoe whose design you take particular pride in?

Santos: It’s tough, man, so many of them look so dope. I love the way the Kobe looks just cause you see the Flyknit detail. The Kyrie, just with all the crazy different materials and the hard and soft materials and the fuse patterns—I think that stuff looks really dope. It really depends, but I think it’s some of those shoes that really are unique that stick out in my mind.

Jones: My favorite shoes in general are the Jordan XIII and the XI. One of things that we offer that no one else offers is not only do we have the shoe, but you can also edit them. I spent, like, a day recreating every version of those shoes that I ever liked within the game. So, the ability to essentially make shoes that I was never able to purchase because they were either only given to certain people or were just impossible to get at retail. To have that ability to sit here and recreate those and put them on my characters are a major, major thing for me.

Under Armour Curry One in NBA 2K16. Image via 2K Games.

Who are all the brands that are represented in the game?

Jones: We represent Nike, Jordan, Adidas, Reebok, Converse, Anta, Peak, And 1, Brandblack, which is Jamal Crawford’s sneaker, Under Armour with Curry. We do have Li-Ning. Essentially, the philosophy here is this: If the player is wearing the shoe, then we want that shoe in the game.

Santos: We have Jordan, Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Converse, Under Armour. Then there’s some of the Chinese brands for the players, but you can’t actually put that on your Create-A-Player because they’re only for those players sponsored.

Nike Zoom Soldier 9 in NBA 2K16. Image via 2K Games.

Can Nike athletes wear Adidas shoes, or no?

Santos: No. We make sure that every athlete is wearing the shoes that they’re sponsored by and we can’t actually put brands in the game that the NBA isn’t a partner with. If I wanted to put some skate brand or something like that, I couldn’t do that because it’s actually not authentic to the NBA. We’re still trying to create a simulation basketball game but we’ve got modes like Pro-Am where you can play at the Rucker and then we allow to you really customize your play. You get tattoos, you get sneakers, so you can really express yourself with the culture of the game which is equally as important as the sport itself. We always try to make sure we’re authentic on both sides.

Jones: No, every player that’s locked to a particular brand is only allowed to put that brand on when they’re in the game.

Various Retro Jordans in NBA Live. Image via EA Sports.
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