Tag Archive: basketball


Getting Drafted in NBA Live 18

I had a chance to play “The Rise”, the new prologue in EA Sports’ The One mode in NBA Live 18. NBA Live 18 will drop on September 15th for Xbox One and PS4.

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It’s not easy being an annual franchise in video games, and sometimes even sports franchises need to take some time off to reevaluate and regroup to deliver the kind of game players are looking for. So, when it came time to take a long hard look at the NBA Live franchise, EA Sports decided that it’d be better to spend a little extra time trying to retool and rebuild than keep throwing the same product out on the court every year that would only disappoint its fanbase. (You know, like the New York Knicks do.) From what we saw at EA Play this past weekend, I can confidently say that it at least appears the franchise is moving in the right direction.

One of the hardest things to get right in basketball games is defense, and the new systems that NBA Live 18 is incorporating as part of a completely revamped control scheme will finally make players just as excited to play the game when the ball isn’t in their hands, as when it is. With a simple trigger press and use of the right stick, you can easily follow and block the path of any offensive player who has squared up to the basket. Doing so will impede their path, break up their dribble potentially, and possibly force an errant pass or poor shot. It doesn’t always guarantee a turnover, but this simple roll of your thumb adds a sense of realism to the game that more accurately mimics how basketball is played in real life (unless you’re either of the teams in this year’s NBA Finals).

The more realistic defense also translates to the animation for NBA Live 18. Players like LeBron James tout new signature animations, like when they block balls against the backboard, or emphatically snatch loose balls from the air and cover them up before starting to force pressure back the other way.

All these new defensive features don’t just favor the defenders, though. Players who used to love spamming the steal button will be punished more frequently with reach-in foul calls if they’re not careful. If they can block a player’s path, however, like mentioned before, they can expose the dribble of an opponent more. This in turn increases the chances of successfully pulling off a steal, making players reach in only when it realistically makes sense for them to do so, and thus delivers a more realistic and authentic NBA experience.

Defense may not be the sexiest part of basketball. But when done well, the game is a more enjoyable experience and can ramp up the tension. Especially late in a close game when you never know what will happen next instead of the game devolving into a shootout. EA Sports delivering these new defensive mechanics to NBA Live 18 similarly may not seem like an integral part to the game, but is helping to provide a deeper, more entertaining and thrilling experience that NBA fans can be proud to play.

Last night, on the eve of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, 2K Sports brought their own basketball finals to a close, naming the first Road to the Finals Champion in NBA 2K16.

Over the past two months, ranked matches in NBA 2K16’s Pro-Am mode saw over 2.3 million games played by over 100,000 different qualifying teams. Looking at the rankings, 2K took the top 16 of those teams and held a single-elimination tournament that culminated in last night’s festivities, which not only crowned a champion, but awarded the winners $250,000. The two teams competing in last night’s final were GFG, a crew of friends who had been playing NBA 2K together since NBA 2K11, and the Drewkerbockers HLZDB, a group that had been together since NBA 2K8, but who had only actually met each other in person for the first time just before the event.

On hand to witness 2K Sports’ first esports championship event in downtown Los Angeles were Lakers greats Kobe Bryant and Rick Fox, former NBA champion Scot Pollard, WWE Tag Team Champion Xavier Woods, and Indiana Pacers all-star and NBA 2K17 cover athlete Paul George.

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GFG came out fast, playing their game by showing power in the paint and slamming a couple of buckets down for a quick 4-2 lead. This would be their only lead of the night, however. Each team showed some jitters early, and it wouldn’t be until a late run in the first that put Drewkerbockers up 17-10 that the offense would really start to click. GFG would answer with a pair of threes, but a bucket at the buzzer gave Drewkerbockers a 19-16 lead at the end of the first quarter, and momentum that they would ride the entire night.

The second quarter was when the themes of the night would really start to show. GFG got away from their gameplay and often tried to make one too many passes, which led to turnovers or ill-advised shots. Meanwhile, Drewkerbockers took advantage of almost every one of those turnovers by converting them into points. Part of this was because they dominated the offensive glass, which led to crucial second-chance points. In a shocking turn of events, GFG, who were favored by many experts, only scored six points in the entire second quarter. This was in large part because they were so badly out-rebounded, finding themselves down 39-23 at the half.

GFG would regroup in the second half, but the damage had been done. Each team scored 20 in the third, playing evenly and trading buckets back and forth, before both teams came out playing fast and loose in the fourth. With the game set at five-minute quarters, there simply wasn’t enough time for GFG to stage a rally. So, even when Drewkerbockers stopped trying to run up the score and tried instead to just kill the clock—leading to some sloppy turnovers on their end—they were already too far gone. If there were a mercy rule in basketball, it would’ve been used here, as the Drewkerbockers cruised in the fourth to a 73-62 win, becoming the first ever NBA 2K16 Road to the Finals Champions.

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If you remove that abysmal second quarter, this was actually an extremely competitive game for the most part. It’s also in that spirit of competition that I was alerted to what some would see as a small controversy. As soon as the clock had expired in the fourth, the clearly frustrated team members of GFG began complaining about the controllers used in the match. I approached them once the cameras had stopped rolling and found out that the game had been played on PS4, but that GFG were used to playing on Xbox One—the system they rode to the championship. One member in particular, his handle being “DRAKE GRIFFLN”, said that his team was “blindsided” by the system choice and that he and his team “…didn’t find out until we got here about the controllers.”

The controllers he spoke of are third-party HORI “Horipad FPS Plus” controllers (see below), given to GFG as alternates to Xbox One controllers. The Horipad provides a PS4 layout, except the joysticks are situated like an Xbox One controller. After handling the controllers myself, though, I can attest they feel nothing like an Xbox One controller—and if this was indeed a surprise to GFG, it could have factored into their defeat.

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When I asked tournament organizer 2K Sports for comment, Senior PR Manager Ryan Peters gave the following statement on the possibility of GFG not being properly informed about the controllers, or those controllers being of a lesser quality:

“A single platform had to be used in order to make the competition work,” says Peters. “We gave the contestants ample practice time and notice (a week) of what controllers and system would be used. I can also confirm the controllers were in no way sub-standard.”

So, maybe it was simply frustration from GFG over the fact that they were outperformed in a game many expected them to win, or maybe the information was lost in translation between the team and 2K. If it was a controller situation, it does seem odd that GFG’s collapse came in the second quarter and not the first, and that they then bounced back to actually outscore the Drewkerbockers in the second half. If 2K didn’t reach out about the controller/system info, GFG also could’ve reached out on their own to confirm the equipment that would be used in the championship game. At that point, though, it’s still odd GFG was given the Horipads instead of just regular PS4 controllers like Drewkerbockers to make the playing field—at least from a technical standpoint—as even as possible.

If 2K wants to remain in the esports space, maybe this could be a lesson to double-check ahead of time with teams that they know the parameters, and make sure the playing field is completely even from a tech point of view. Either way, congrats to the Drewkerbockers, and hopefully 2K will take what they learned from this experience and build up a bigger and better tournament for next year.

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Semi-pro

As a New York Knicks fan, I am extremely familiar with the concept of rebuilding a franchise. After a three-year absence from the gaming scene, NBA Live has been furiously trying to make up lost ground and get back to a point where it could stand toe-to-toe with its most direct competition. It’s first two years back, however, barely moved the needle with all those virtual ballers out there. The hope was that, like with many annual sports franchises, the third year on new-gen consoles could be the one that would announce NBA Live’s triumphant return to glory. Looking more like my Knicks, though, NBA Live 16 continues moving the franchise in the right direction, but only in baby-steps—and not to a point where it can actually compete just yet.

The most impressive addition to this year’s game comes in the form of the new Live Pro-Am mode. Here you can get ten human players together for some classic five-on-five action in venues that channel your local gymnasium or playground blacktop. Further illustrating that pick-up game feel, the first team to 21 points wins—which, for me, triggered flashbacks to games I played after school or during recess with my friends as a kid. If you can’t find human opponents, there’s also the option to take your five-man squad up against a series of computer teams of varying difficulty.

Playing with other people is really where NBA Live 16 shines. While my time online was seamless, it does need to be mentioned this was before the game’s wide release. Communicating via headset, setting up screens, calling out plays, and learning how to work with one another made me want to lace up my favorite pair of sneakers before playing again.

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One note, though. If you plan on playing with friends, you might want to talk before you group up because in Pro-Am you play as the created player you make when you first start the game and it wouldn’t be wise to take the court with five point guards. This means that Pro-Am mode doubles as a nice way to earn experience points before you take that created player into the single player Rising Star mode—NBA Live’s version of Be a Pro.

Besides Pro-Am, the usual suite of online versus modes return, including EA Sports’ card-based Ultimate Team. Live Ultimate Team adds a new feature where you can earn some of the NBA’s elite from early on in the mode, but can only keep them on your team for a small number of games before you lose them—adding a new strategic element to when and where you play certain players. There are also 160 offline challenges in LUT this year, allowing you to earn tons of coins and players for your squad before heading online.

My only gripe with this is that each challenge I saw is a full-length game. I think LUT needs to take a page out of Madden NFL 16’s MUT playbook and focus on shorter challenges like hitting buzzer beaters or making last minute defensive stops. It’s kind of exhausting to put in an entire game’s worth of time just to get a single card, especially if you fail.

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There have also been some tweaks to the offline components of NBA Live 16. The aforementioned Rising Star mode is accompanied again by Dynasty mode, which allows players to be the GM of their favorite NBA franchise and try to take them to glory. Dynasty still allows you to micro-manage every decision about your team, from making trades and re-signing free agents, to setting your starting lineup each night. If you decide to start with Rising Star, you’ll try to take your personal created player and turn them into NBA royalty.

Rising Star sees a major change for that custom player this year, and it comes in the form of the new progression system. Instead of upgrading a single point at a time, NBA Live 16 now sets threshold marks, so a skill may jump as much as five attribute points if you have enough XP to spend. Also, when you pick a position for your player, you now also have to pick a specialty. Point guards, for example, can be Shooters, Passers, or Slashers, each having their own boosts in particular categories when you start out, requiring less upgrading early on in your career.

Besides the skill aspects of your character, you can also customize their look down to the slightest detail. Tattoos, shoes, warm-up gear, and more are available to be earned. There’s also the Gameface HD companion app that even lets you put your own face on your player. I personally had a fair amount of issues linking the app with my PSN ID, and my odd-shaped head seemed to make the app go haywire on my first several attempts—but it’s an interesting idea if you can get it to work. Until then, I’ll stick with one of the pre-rendered faces.

Customization

There are also some welcome changes to gameplay when you actually take the court. New additions like clearer feedback on shots fix what used to be a confusing element from previous years. Now, a very clear shot meter comes up when shooting a jumper, and depending on skill level and how open the individual is, you receive a definitive percentage letting you know your chances of that shot going in when it leaves your hand. The hope is, over time, you’ll start to learn which are high-percentage shots and which aren’t. There’s also new feedback on called plays that tell you where to go and who you should be passing to in the hopes of getting an open look at the basket.

Unfortunately, things start to fall apart beyond the feedback. When controlling your player at a normal tempo, or if you try to slow things down to eat up some clock, it feels like you’re constantly fighting the controller. There’s almost no finesse when moving your player, unless you’re on the fast break sprinting towards the basket for an easy layup or dunk. And the more complex moves to break away from players guarding you are a series of semi- and half-circles on the right stick that remind you more of a fighting game than a sports title.

The worst gameplay offender, though, is your friendly AI. Whether in Dynasty or Rising Star, your teammates are nearly worthless. When I knock a ball loose on defense, I want my teammates to react to it like in a real game and scramble after it. When I’m boxing out on one side with my power forward, I want my center doing the same thing instead of letting small forwards run by him for easy putbacks. And while it’s great that I can call plays now, when I’m seeing the actual diagram on the court of where I need to be and where my teammates are supposed to go, I want them to actually go to those spots so I can pass or shoot like the play intended. I lead my team every night in points as a passing oriented point guard in Rising Star—not because I want to, but because if I pass the ball to one of my dunderhead teammates, they’re going to turn the ball over. It happens with too much regularity.

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Of course, the friendly AI isn’t the only disappointment, as the opponent AI isn’t very good either. Playing as my New York Knicks in Dynasty last night, I gave up one three-pointer. A stellar defensive feat? No. The AI, even with several open looks, never took a three-pointer unless it absolutely positively had to, which in the case of the one three I gave up, it did because it was at the buzzer to force overtime. If it were a three-point shooter, they’d look instead to try to drive to the basket. If it were a big man, they’d look to pass the ball. I can only control one guy at a time, and as alluded to earlier, the AI defense isn’t that good.

And really, that’s the disappointing thing about NBA Live 16. New modes along with additional bells and whistles for existing ones are perfectly fine, but there is still a roughness to the core gameplay that keeps it from being great. The reason why Pro-Am mode was so good when I played it was because it was humans versus humans, reacting and playing basketball the way you’d expect people should and would. Until that level of gameplay quality translates better into the offline modes, NBA Live 16 is a D-league title at best.

Developer: EA Tiburon • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 09.29.15
6.5
NBA Live 16 takes a small baby step forward with the franchise, but there are still core gameplay elements that need to be smoothed out before it can be a championship caliber game.
The Good Pro-Am mode is a welcome addition to the online suite; better feedback on shot taking.
The Bad AI on both sides of the ball is still abysmal and gameplay remains stiff.
The Ugly My odd-shaped head drives Gameface HD insane.
NBA Live 16 is available on PS4 and Xbox One. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.

2K announced this morning that NBA 2K16 would release on September 29 this year to the masses, but fans who pre-order the game can get it four days early.

Dubbed the “Early Tip-Off Weekend” by 2K, fans that pre-order the game from participating retailers will receive the game on September 25 instead of on the street date.

Along with the game, folks who pre-order NBA 2K16 will receive 10,000 virtual currency and a MyTEAM VIP package. This includes a Gold Booster Pack for last-gen players, and three Emerald Packs for new-gen and PC players.

It was recently announced that NBA 2K16 would boast three different covers, each with a different athlete this year. The cover athletes chosen were reigning MVP Stephen Curry, MVP runner-up James Harden, and last year’s cover athlete Kevin Durant. Whether or not players will get a particular athlete on the cover should they pre-order is unknown at this time.

NBA 2K16 will be available on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.

Hitting the hardwood

Trailers and behind-the-scenes looks at NBA Live 15 have continued to show steps forward since last year’s abysmal return after the franchise’s self-imposed three-year absence from the gaming scene. The next hurdle the NBA Live franchise needed to clear in order to continue its battle back to relevancy, though, was finally letting the press go hands-on with this year’s iteration.

After playing a pair of games as my New York Knicks, and getting about an hour’s worth of hands-on time with NBA Live 15, I can say there’s been a clear step forward in how the game handles itself on the court (I just wish I could say the same about the Knicks!). Starting off with a brief tutorial where I played as cover athlete Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, I was taken through the ins and outs of basics of offense: passing, shooting, dribbling, and alley-oops. The HUD showed each player’s stamina bar, and a meter let me know my chances of making a shot from a particular range and how open I was. I then got the chance to move to a 5-on-5 scrimmage to try out everything I just learned.

On offense, I was immediately able to make significant strides as I stepped confidently down the lane for a powerful dunk with Amar’e Stoudemire or kicked it out to Carmelo Anthony in the corner for a clutch three once we moved to real game action. Ball movement felt swift and, for the most part, accurate. There were some moments in my haste, however, whether trying to beat the shot clock or the end of a quarter, where I wanted to pass to one player and instead passed to another, which led to an ill-timed turnover—and led to my questioning the intuitiveness of the system. Maybe I just needed more time with it, but there were several moments where the ball just didn’t seem to go where I wanted.

Another thing I noticed on offense was the new rag-doll physics. Though they weren’t prevalent throughout the court, everything near the basket seemed to have improved physics, with players naturally adjusting in mid-air to work around a steadfast defender in the paint or taking a hard foul and contorting in ways that would accurately depict contact. Considering the amount of action that usually takes place around the basket, it was impressive to see when players would fight for rebounds or try to draw a foul on a layup for a potential three-point play.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to the game of basketball than what the tutorial showed me, like the entire defensive side of the game. For as competent as I felt on offense, the only thing I felt when transitioning to defense was dread. At least in the demo, NBA Live 15 didn’t do nearly as good a job of teaching the defensive basics as it did the offensive elements. I ended up in foul trouble more often than not as I tried learning the best timing for steal attempts. Meanwhile, shot-blocking was an endeavor I’d rather forget about, and my players flew away from the shooter about often as they succeeded in getting a hand in the opponent’s face.

And in those few instances where I actually succeeded in making the shot attempts more difficult for my opponent, I had no idea how to command my players to box out, and my frustration only grew as I gave up offensive rebound after offensive rebound. These are basics that the game should’ve focused on just as much as passing and shooting.

At least the presentation for NBA Live 15 appears to be top-notch. Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy’s commentary, representing ESPN’s No. 1 broadcast team, provided a lot of authenticity to the presentation, and their commentary was hysterical—especially when talking about James Harden’s beard when facing the Houston Rockets. Meanwhile, Jalen Rose hosts the pre-, post-, and halftime shows that give game highlights and spotlight superstar players in a way that would make you feel like you’re actually watching an ESPN/ABC broadcast of the NBA.

I walked away from my NBA Live 15 time with more positives than negatives, and I definitely had fun while playing it. But I also think that if it’s going to successfully close the gap between itself and NBA 2K, it’s going to have to deliver a more complete package than what I saw in my brief hands-on time.

EA Sports has the reputation of an unstoppable giant when it comes to football, soccer, and hockey. With the juggernauts of Madden, FIFA, and NHL, you’d expect them to dominate every sport they touch. But as the tumultuous history of NBA Live has shown, it’s not a simple matter of EA simply showing up and expecting to be crowned champion.

After getting humbled by NBA 2K for several years, the folks behind NBA Live knew they had to go back to the drawing board in 2010. After handing development to EA Tiburon, taking a three-year hiatus from the franchise, and finally relaunching last year, the series might finally be headed for a turnaround. We had a chance to chat with executive producer Sean O’Brien and get an inside look at how EA Tiburon has gone about rebuilding the two-decade-old franchise from the ground up.

EGM: There was a three-year period there between NBA Live titles, so NBA 2K really got a monopoly on basketball video games in that time. Can you tell us about finally coming back to the market with NBA Live 14 and the difficulties you faced that first year back in trying to reclaim a piece of the market share?

Sean O’Brien: It’s definitely hard, and I think that, even outside of the brand, probably the biggest challenge was building NBA Live 14 on what we had. The game didn’t ship in those previous years for a reason, and that was because it simply wasn’t good enough. That, on its own, is challenging, but to complicate matters, our base wasn’t what Madden or FIFA or NBA 2K was, so we were trying to build up the quality while also bringing it onto the next generation of hardware at the same time.

I think part of that, too, was building the team that could actually do that. We had a bit of a broken, fractured team beforehand that I inherited, so we had to ask ourselves if we even had the right people to pull this off. Then came the decisions regarding what our direction was, what our identity was, and where we were going to go—and all that’s a work in progress.

I think, after those 11 months where we built the game and we launched with next-gen, it allowed us to come together as a team. Then we got reviewed, and it was so bad, and our scores were so low, and that could’ve been a point where the team just turtled and said, “Why are we doing this?” and given up. And, for a couple of days, there were definitely some doubters. What was really cool for me, though, was come that next Monday, almost a full week after we launched, I saw a lot of people start to rally. Asking what we could do to make this better, shouting that we weren’t done yet, wanting to prove to people that this wasn’t our best. To see the team rally, I understood then that the make-up of this team—sure, we had some holes to fill talent-wise—but the core team had the gumption to make it happen.

That’s part of it. You need the right people, the right talent to make a good product in anything—not just games—and I think we’re showing with NBA Live 15 that this is more in line with what people expect from the NBA Live brand. We’re ready to take on the fight. We have a different identity and are not creating a “me too” basketball game that copies 2K, not creating the same feature set or mechanics. We’re creating an identity around our own connected feature set that focuses more on control when you’re playing the game itself, the simplicity of the game itself so that you’re always feeling like the game is responsive when you play.

So, it’s just a question of bringing people in on a journey that’s steadily improving. Our goal is to prove that we’re constantly making the game better. And given that we’re shipping NBA Live 15 ten and a half months after we shipped Live 14, after we put out numerous updates to make 14 better, being able to put out something like 15 is going to reinforce the fact that everyone at EA is taking this very seriously. There’s a big investment around it. NBA Live 14 was not our best effort and was just a small step forward in the direction we’re going.

EGM: You mentioned how low the review scores were and that NBA Live 14 wasn’t your best effort. What advantages were there in releasing a product that might not have been your best foot forward and not nixing it like NBA Live 13 in the hopes of coming back stronger this year?

O’Brien: From a development standpoint, as you finalize a game—especially an annual title—you learn something about your team, and you also establish guidelines on what “good” looks like, how to achieve that, and then how to finish. In any game development, you have your pre-production, which is your ideas and early design. Then you have your production, which is how good are you at actually implementing those things. Then you have your finalizing process, which is how you pull it all together.

How you pull it all together and have it compliant by Microsoft and Sony standards and actually ship a game under the rigid and strict timelines in sports games is a huge learning opportunity for a team, and it can bring them together. So, for better or for worse, we set a bar for where we were, both inside and outside the company. But also, with all the stuff we did after launch, it allowed us to come together as a team and engage our fans. It helped us key players in on what we’re doing here.

We have different strategies across the board, and one of those is talking with the people managing our social channels and having them engage people 1-on-1 and making sure that, even if it was just some guy saying “this game sucks,” we made sure they got a response. Asking them about their experience with the game, having them explain their issues to us, seeing if they had any questions—and it’s really interesting to see the surprise from people when someone actually responds to them and shows that we’re paying attention to them. This helps build a bit of a transparency and an honest, listening relationship with players that I think they really want.

We see it a lot in a variety of games. You see it in the indie-game scene a lot more, where you ask people to get on this journey with you and pick their brains about what they want to see from it. And that’s what we’re trying to do, whether it’s with old Live fans and you miss things about the series, or you play 2K and you’re frustrated about some things with their series. We want to know the game players want made.

We put that out there—establish a baseline with what we did with NBA Live 14 and then show and build confidence in people based on what we do and deliver against it. As we learned this past year, we learned it in a good way, that we promised a bunch of things. We said that this wasn’t our best effort and asked people to bear with us and that we’re going to prove to them on this journey that we’ll make the game better. It easy to say that, of course, and it’s harder to do it, but I’d put up what we did post-launch with 14 against what any other sports game has ever done post-launch in the history of sports gaming.

That’s how much of an investment we put into showing players just where we’re going and then with our next release, NBA Live 15, having the game look and play as it does now is a huge transformation. And so, having people along on that journey to experience that, I think, is advantageous as well. And it gets the feeling some people might have when they contribute to a Kickstarter. You want to get in early or help shape something, or hop on board as it goes because it’s cool and you want to be a part of what’s next. It’s not about what’s there right now, and that’s sort of the philosophy we’re taking with the athletes we work with, the musicians we work with. It’s not about what’s cool right now, but if you want to be a part of something that will be cool, then that’s where we are.

EGM: You said there were some holes on the team. Can you specify where those holes were and how you’ve filled them since then?

O’Brien: Without getting into names or anything, I think we lacked a bit of creative leadership. We did fill those holes, though, as I brought down some guys that I used to work with previously, which made me feel better. I brought in some guys from EA Canada that I worked with on [the series] before. Connor Dougan runs our gameplay team, which is a very big team; he worked with me on NBA and NCAA basketball and was a line producer on SSX and was doing some work on UFC before we moved him down to [EA Tiburon]. Same with [senior designer] Ryan Santos, I worked with him on NBA Live and NBA Street. He’s a real lifestyle basketball guy, so we wanted him to insert some of the lifestyle of the sport that is so important, fusing the culture of the sport through music and footwear and apparel into the backbone of what NBA Live is, similar to what we did with NBA Live 10. We’re trying to reinvent it again on new-gen hardware. And a few other guys, too, to just really round out the experience level on making a basketball game, as well as to bolster what I felt was not enough creative leadership.

So, the designers and producers making the game, we really just needed more of them. And since then we’ve hired a number of engineers, a number of artists and animators, but what I was most happy with was the team that was there was actually a lot better than I thought. And what we produced was better than 13, because I played 13, it was better than what that looked and played like. And what we’re doing now is better than what 14 was. There are some really talented guys there, and I felt they just needed better direction, better leadership, and a better understanding of how to come together.

The coolest thing is that there’s some really strong talent there, so that’s why I feel even better about this year. For example, Paul Kashuk, our art director, who’s been at EA Tiburon for maybe eight years in a central role, worked on PGA Tour a few years back and is a former Disney guy. Giving him the opportunity to do this, he’ll be the first to tell you that his overall plan was a three-year plan. I believe we’ve achieved the vast majority of it in two years, but because of the way the art was built for 13, we couldn’t do as much as we wanted in that short timeframe for 14. But this was his plan all along. We built a scanner that was mobile and portable enough to go scan the athletes, and he had this strategy that we had to pick certain things we could in 14, knowing we could do more in 15 and even have the creative direction set already for 16, knowing where we could then take the franchise in the future as well.

EGM: Does the yearly iteration and near-constant work cycle due to the franchise’s annual nature make it easier then to implement long-term plans and follow through on them? Does the unending cycle become daunting at times, even with plans in place?

O’Brien: That’s one of the most challenging things. Knowing that we have a list of work can, at times, be overwhelming. But you got to stick to the plan, because I’d love to just snap my fingers and hand you the game I’ve got in my head. Obviously, I can’t do that, so it’s both the frustrating and challenging thing about being in sports-game development.

From the team’s standpoint, what we’re trying to figure out now is take what we proved internally with our post-launch support and expand on it. We’ve helped streamline this with new technology. Like for example, when LeBron James broke his nose last year, we have this live content update system now. Normally, when we want to update something, we’ll have to go through a submission process with Microsoft and Sony, and it becomes a patch, and they update your kit. So, we do the work, send it to them, they take about two weeks to review it, approve it, send it through the proper logistics channels of making it happen, and it finally gets to the player’s game. So, it takes a good chunk of time.

And so, when we’re living in a time when LeBron breaks his nose, you read about it, write about it, or see it on SportsCenter, and then you see him bring out that black mask/nose guard that the NBA didn’t want him to wear, and there was all this conversation about it. But when I went and played Live or 2K, he’s not wearing it. So, there’s a disconnect from reality. We could turn that around in three days now, though, with our new tech, so on the third day, LeBron in our game was wearing the black mask.

It’s a little thing, but maintaining relevancy is extremely important and one of the things that we’re going to hang our hat on. So, it’s the ability to support our games post-release and create this experience that doesn’t die. And at the same time of doing that, also executing for the next year’s game. That’s just the challenge of bringing our resources together and making sure we use them appropriately to ensure that the player who has the game now gets what they’re expecting and that we really fulfill the promise of that live service. Then, it’s making sure we have enough people and enough time to really innovate and build the new features that same player wants in next year’s game as well.

So, in regards to visuals, we made the game look better through one of our updates to 14, so if visuals were at a five out of 10 before, maybe the update bumped them up to a six. It was better, but it wasn’t what we’re doing for 15, because we took our new tech and went out and rescanned every player in the game, had to build a pipeline, and we had to actually re-author with new lighting to make the game take the step forward we needed to take.

It’s not something we could just update 14 with because we’re just getting to the point where we’re almost done now, and that’s something we were very honest about. I’ll tell you exactly what we can do; we’re not holding anything back. If we could’ve done this in 14, we would have. Sometimes, it’s just not possible, and I think that’s the challenge we’re taking on to make sure people can be a part of our journey and the trajectory to where we’ll be good—and, at the same time, understand why, have a stake in it, and give their feedback and have an opinion on where we’re going and then use our abilities to course correct as best we can along the way while supporting the live service of the current game and building toward the next one.

So, it’s challenging, but it’s also kind of fun, because sports games don’t traditionally do a good job of that. We’ll do roster updates and the little things, and Ultimate Team helps keep games a lot more relevant from a fantasy perspective, but in terms of giving you content and new things that you can engage with, it’s cool, but our challenge now is primarily to do everything we did with 14 for 15, and then with 16 and moving forward, people really buy into it and get what’s happening. That’s a differentiator to me.

EGM: When you guys invite the NBA players to have them scanned into the game, what’s their response? Are they excited just because it’s a videogame, or are they disappointed it’s not NBA 2K? What’s the feeling from the players around the league about NBA Live?

O’Brien: It’s interesting because, just to use a hypothetical here, a guy like [No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft] Andrew Wiggins, who’s only 19, doesn’t really remember Live unless he had an older brother or someone who played Live. But the older guys all know Live and grew up with it and love it and want to see it make a comeback. Most of the guys who play, though, now say they play 2K, or there’s a small minority of guys who played both last year. But they’re all very interested. I’ll exaggerate slightly and say they’re all interested, but most of the guys are more interested in what we’re doing. How we’re doing it, where Live is in its development, how we’re going to make it as good as 2K, and they talk about this as they sit down and scan with us.

Most of the environments we do in the scans in are a hotel ballroom or meeting room, and we’ll have the scanner set up, the game on the screen, and then the PR departments bring the players through, the coaches through, and most of the guys just sit around and play. They talk and make fun of each other because we get them to do screams and stuff to get different emotional performances from them. So, they talk and make fun of each other, and then they ask questions. And there’s usually three or four guys who are really interested in software development and what we’re doing, and they’ll ask these questions, and the other guys start listening.

It’s pretty cool, because it’s a different generation. Fifteen years ago, guys wouldn’t care about this, and now they all want to know what their ratings are, if their hair is right—like, we’ve had guys not want to get scanned and ask us if we could come back the next day because they’re getting a haircut. It’s all really important to them. So, the engagement on the players is extremely high, and then what we did throughout the course of the year, when we actually did some scans and ran them through the pipeline and showed them the graphical differences between last year and this year, we were getting the “Holy s***!” reactions to how good it looked, which is pretty rewarding. Anytime you can show players how good they look in a game, it’s kind of cool.

EGM: Have you made enough advancements between NBA Live 14 and 15 to completely narrow the gap with NBA 2K?

O’Brien: It’s hard to know for sure without knowing what 2K has done this year. Taking that into consideration, at the very least, visually, I can say yes. I think when we put our two games up side by side, we’ll absolutely be in the ballpark. I think there’s a different style between the two—like, if you look at a 2K game, I think there’s only two different body types. 2K tends to go for more of a heroic look, big feet and big shoes. They use their shaders a bit differently, so it’s a little more of a different artistic style, whereas we go for more of a photorealistic EA Sports style. So, that’ll be a plus or minus depending on your own personal preference.

I think that, from the gameplay side of things, we’re going to offer something different. Their animation is so strong and looks so good. That’s the one area where I’m curious to see how we stack up this year, but I do think that unless they’ve completely changed their approach, I think our game will be more responsive. What I mean by that is, I think you’ll feel more in control of what’s happening. The action, the input on your controller, what your expectation is, we feel that’s a point of differentiation that we can take advantage of.

What we’re trying to do is really give you the control that you expect. So, I think that’ll be an opportunity for us, and we’re going to hang our hat on responsiveness and control, so I’m curious to see if 2K has done anything to address that. That’s an unknown for me. They took a different approach last year with their virtual currency and how they’re doing online teamplay and online play in general. They had some server problems that everyone either experienced or read about, so I’m curious to see how much they’ve cleaned up there. It’s something we do extremely well at EA in general. Except for Battlefield. [Laughs]

But speaking for sports, the Ignite engine and our online experience is really buttoned up and really solid, and we rarely have server issues or challenges—if ever. The connected experience and what we provide, our relationship with [real-time stats company] Synergy Sports, it provides new data and tendencies on an ongoing basis based on what’s happening in the real world and changing your experience.

Maintaining the relevancy is something else we’ll hang our hat on and continuing to invest in. I think that’s where we’re best in class in sports games. And I think once our game looks better and plays better, that’ll get a little more recognition—because now, who cares? If it doesn’t play good or look good, then the rest of the stuff doesn’t matter and isn’t really meaningful. And then, looking forward, seeing how we invest in online teamplay, what that experience looks like, as well as how Ultimate Team ends up looking like as well and evolving that, I think that’s where we’ll continue to form our identity and differentiate.

So, I’d say we’ve definitely caught up in a lot of areas. I think the gap last year was quite significant. I think we’ve done an incredible job within 10 and a half months of closing that gap significantly in a lot of different areas. Overall, they’re an 85-plus-rated game, so it’s still going to take us some time to actually really catch up, but I think we do offer something different, and I think that’s important.

EGM: It really seems there’s been a culture shift within EA’s halls. I don’t think a few years ago you guys would’ve been talking about three-year plans. Do you think this could’ve been done a few years ago, or have things changed?

O’Brien: Things are changing. A lot of it is around [EA CEO] Andrew Wilson and [executive vice president of EA Studios] Patrick Soderland’s approach to quality and the emphasis on quality, not around headcount or your business plan. It’s about having the right people to make a great game. We’ll figure out the logistics, but that’s the most important thing now, and it’s what Andrew wants to hang his hat on and all of our hats on as a company.

So, it’s a really cool thing for me, just as a side note, how Andrew is giving me build feedback. The CEO of our company is talking about animation blending and AI states, and it’s cool and empowering in a way, because I can go back to my team and be like, “This is what Andrew thinks of our game.” Patrick is the same exact way, where they’re honed in on making a great game, making sure we’re focused on quality.

And then, even the tough decisions—which Andrew says are tough but aren’t really tough, like [pushing the release date back for] games like Hardline out and Dragon Age: Inquisition. EA, as a company, would’ve never made those decisions before. We were so quarter-by-quarter focused, and he pushed Battlefield: Hardline out of a quarter, which is enormous revenue, but he knows it’s the right thing to do. The game’s not ready, and they want to make 9s. We’re done with making 7s and 8s, and sometimes, that’s what it takes. So, it’s pretty cool to have the support of all these guys who believe in what we’re trying to do, understand the challenge, are giving us the resources to make leaps and bounds, recognizing those leaps and bounds, and then continuing to push us to be even better. It’s a pretty cool—and I’d say new—take on what EA’s all about, and it’s a lot of fun.

EGM: From an outsider’s perspective, the announcement of NBA Live 15 signified a change to me, becausesorry to bring up the bad review scores againthe EA of old, I think, would’ve never moved forward with NBA Live 15 after how poorly 14 was received.

O’Brien: I agree with you completely. When I came back to EA—and Andrew’s the guy who actually wanted me to come back before he got promoted to his big-boy job—I was just grilling Andrew on what the expectations were, what the support would be like, and I told him if he expected us to turn this around instantly, it wasn’t going to happen. I wanted to make sure there was the support internally, as a company, that they believed in this category, and they did.

It’s a huge opportunity, globally, on a number of different platforms. The NBA is an amazing partner with us, and they support us still, even with all the crap we’ve gone through over the past five years. It’s really important to me to feel like a part of something that the company sees a value in. If you think about it, in terms of games, what other genre can you say there’s an established $350 million category annually that EA’s had a huge presence in before? We’re really good at all the other sports, so if we came back and can take half of that, we’re in a good place—aiming for more, of course.

When we talk about creating new IPs and opening up new markets and new genres, yeah, this is an established market with an established genre and an established competitor, which makes it admittedly really challenging, but it gives you a court to play on. And I think that’s where Andrew’s vision is. For us, for the studio team, it’s just about making sure we can show the progress that he’s expecting and the company’s expecting to honor that commitment and keep that commitment alive. If we were a complete bust and had no plan and no idea what we were doing, it’d probably be a different conversation right now, but I think that’s part of the story we’re trying to tell. There’s more to what you saw in the package that was NBA Live 14. There are reasons why it was what it was. And it’s not a question of making excuses or being defensive; it’s just that there’s reality, and we just want to share some reality for those who are interested. And when you look at last year versus this year, you can see the differences. There’s a lot of good things happening, and it’s just a matter that some of them take time, and we’ll share as much as we can along the way. But believe in us, because we’re going to do it.

Originally Published: November 30, 2010, on Youtube.com/CGRundertow

As a part of CGR Undertow, I reviewed NBA Jam for the Xbox 360 from EA Sports.

Originally Published: October 29, 2010, on ClassicGameRoom.com and NationalLampoon.com

As a part of CGR Undertow, I reviewed the new NBA Jam remake for the Nintendo Wii from EA Sports.

Originally Published: September 30, 2010, on ClassicGameRoom.com

As a part of CGR Undertow, I review Hoopworld for Wiiware.