EA Sports announced Thursday that its forthcoming NBA simulation, NBA Live 13, was being canceled and the company would be regrouping and focusing its efforts on a title for next year. For anyone that watched the launch trailer (above) or was aware of the conspicuous lack of a demo or even a solid release date, this wasn't a huge surprise. But it's still amazing that one of the largest game publishers has been unable, for three years now, to put out a game that was once the dominant force in its field. So how did we get here?
EA put out it's first basketball game, "Lakers vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs", in 1989. The game was released on PC (and two years later on Genesis) and featured just eight teams from the previous season's NBA playoffs. But it was a huge hit. It doesn't look like much now, but graphically it was a solid step up from "Double Dribble" (probably the most popular NBA game to that point) and had the built-in advantage of featuring real teams and NBA players.
That game spawned two "NBA Playoffs" follow-ups: "Bulls vs. Lakers" in 1992 and "Bulls vs. Blazers" in 1992-93, the latter of which marked the first of EA's basketball games to appear on the SNES. In 1994, EA changed the name of the game to "NBA Showdown", dropping the "Playoffs" moniker because it was the first time the game featured every team in the league. The only other basketball simulation game on the market that did so at the time was Tecmo Super NBA, and NBA Showdown had it beat on every level.
The next year the game became "NBA Live '95", and a star was truly born. The game was named the best SNES sports game of the year, and introduced features that have become a staple of nearly every basketball game released since, including the free-throw meter and the turbo button (seriously, in basketball games released before 1994, you ran at one speed at all times).
During the SNES/Genesis era, EA had very little competition in the NBA simulation market, but that changed with the transition to the N64/Saturn/PlayStation generation. Konami, which had debuted an awful edition of "NBA Run 'N' Gun" on SNES, came to market with the "NBA In The Zone" series on the 32-bit consoles. Sony's 989 Sports came out with "NBA Shootout", which was only available on PlayStation (and obviously later PS2). N64 had the "NBA Courtside" series. Depending on what system you had, you might've had three or four options for an NBA sim, but for most gamers it was "NBA Live" and "everything else". Then in 1999, everything changed.
For most serious gamers, the date 9/9/99 will always be remembered for the release of the Sega Dreamcast. Console gamers STILL mourn its demise, and justifiably so. Along with the new system came a new series of sports games from Sega Sports: the 2K series. The first set featured NFL 2K (with Randy Moss on the cover), NHL 2K (Brendan Shanahan) and, of course, NBA 2K. The newest NBA series made an immediate splash by signing Allen Iverson to appear on the cover. In the post-Michael Jordan era, Iverson was the most recognizable player in the league, and his appearance on the cover immediately signaled to gamers that this wasn't your older brother's NBA game (it didn't help that EA's cover choice that year was Tim Duncan, an NBA champion but perhaps the most diametrically opposite player of Iverson possible).
The release of NBA 2K didn't immediately impact NBA Live, because it was only available on Dreamcast, but it was clear to neutral observers that the 2K series was the superior product. After two years of Dreamcast-only releases, NBA 2K2 made the jump to Xbox, PS2 and GameCube. It was the lowest-rated version to date, but still had a Metacritic score six points higher than NBA Live '02.
NBA Live continued to improve throughout the "sixth-gen" era, thanks to consistent development as well as the push from competition. Meanwhile, 2K went through ups and downs, including a two-year period when it was released under the "ESPN NBA Basketball" brand. In 2005, 2K finally dropped Iverson as the cover athlete (in favor of Ben Wallace) and dropped into a tie as the best game, based on Metacritic score. IGN even rated Live significantly better than 2K5, giving it an 8.8 or 8.9 (depending on system) while Live scored an 8.0. At this point, it looked like Live had survived the challenge and emerged both stronger and as the victor.
Then the next generation happened.
Throughout the years, the one thing that has regularly tripped EA up has been the transition from one console generation to the next. The first version of "Madden" on N64 didn't even have an NFL license and the first version for Xbox 360 is credited with bringing the term "bullshot" into the video game lexicon.
The "Live" series wasn't exempt from these problems, but it usually went unnoticed because the dips in gameplay were offset by the huge graphical advances from one generation to the next and the general lack of competition in the basketball market. But with the Xbox 360 release, EA had a real threat with NBA 2K, and it dropped the ball. "NBA Live '06" scored a solid 9.0 from IGN on PS2 and Xbox, but a dismal 5.9 on Xbox 360. "NBA 2K6" was still seen as the inferior game on the "older" consoles, scoring just an 8.0, but it nailed a 7.8 on Xbox 360.
Most reviews of the two games harp on the same points. NBA 2K6 wasn't much of an improvement over 2K5, save for the character models that got a boost from the more powerful 360. Still, it was the same game. NBA Live '06 on the other hand had been gutted. It lacked a dynasty mode, it lacked a slam dunk contest and multiple other features that had been present in NBA Live 2005. Additionally, it played like more of a sim than the freewheeling NBA Live games of the past, which -- while making it more like the NBA 2K series -- didn't endear the game to its loyal fanbase.
While the features came back the next year, the game seemed to get worse. The signature freestyle superstar controls were glitchy, the A.I. was unreliable (often running plays that took players out of bounds) and the dunk contest -- one of the most popular features in the previous generations of NBA Live games -- was unplayably difficult. It was clear by this point that NBA Live was the second fiddle of NBA games, as NBA 2K7 was getting rave reviews for its polish and controls.
This trend continued for two more years, NBA Live getting bad reviews while NBA 2K improved ever so slightly. Then, with the "2010" versions of the games, something strange happened. NBA Live took a huge leap forward, revamping its core gameplay and making its best game since the previous console generation. "Dynamic DNA", which offered daily updates to gameplay styles, ratings and even player looks and accessories, was much improved over the version that had been in Live 09. Basically NBA Live 10 was a living, breathing game, that improved through the year. It's competition, NBA 2K10, wasn't bad. Hell, it was damn good actually. But for the first time in years, anyone who played both games would've been hard pressed to say which game was better. Just look at the year-by-year Metacritic scores. 2010 was the closest Live had been to 2K since they'd tied in 2005 (the last year of the previous generation of consoles).
But it didn't matter one bit.
NBA 2K10, even with online play that most gamers called "busted", outsold NBA Live 10 by more than a 2.5-to-1 margin. Despite the massive improvements in the game, the "Live" name had been so tarnished on the next generation consoles that EA knew it had to go back to the drawing board. And it came up with "NBA Elite".
"NBA Elite 11" was a completely rebuilt and rebranded version of EA's NBA basketball series. EA was facing a difficult challenge, since 2K Sports had already announced it had Michael Jordan on the cover and a series of games called the "Jordan Challenge." Still, people wanted to see what EA was bringing to the table, and on Sept. 20, 2010, a feature-filled demo hit the PlayStation Store and Xbox Live. Shortly after that, EA's hopes and dreams were destroyed by one simple YouTube video (embedded below, NSFW for language).
The game looked good enough but was filled with gameplay glitches, the most obvious of which was "The Passion of the Bynum" (at 2:25 of the video, though it goes unnoticed at first by the player). Soon YouTube was flooded with videos of "Elite" gameplay glitches and anyone who'd been considering buying the game -- either in conjunction with 2K11 or instead of it -- bailed on those plans. EA had previously announced that the new "NBA Jam" would be bundled with Elite, but in mid-October they changed Jam to a standalone downloadable title (it'd already been available as a release for Wii) and then canceled Elite later that month.
It didn't help that 2K11 turned out to be the best-reviewed version of the series. EA sat out the 2011-12 season, while 2K Sports put out its second consecutive "best-reviewed" version of the game. 2K had a stranglehold on the market, one that EA was going to be hard-pressed to break even with a perfect game.
But that "NBA Live 13" release trailer showed a game that was far from perfect, which confirmed the reports of people who'd seen the game at E3. It was suggested that EA consider releasing the game as a downloadable title for $19.99, to try and take some market away from 2K13 and take the sting out of what appeared to be an unfinished product, but EA never seemed interested in that option.
And so, here we are. NBA 2K13 appears to again be "the best game in the series" and EA is not putting out an NBA game for the third consecutive year. 2K Sports has a de facto NBA version of what EA pays for in the NFL: exclusive rights to the console simulation market. And unless something changes drastically on EA's side, it doesn't look like that's going to change any time soon.