The same day Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers would repeat as NBA champions just a block away from E3, 2K Sports made its case for why NBA 2K will continue its dominance of pro basketball on consoles.
At E3, we were given an eyes-only demonstration of NBA 2K11 that was long on visuals and short on gameplay specifics. The return of Michael Jordan to video games; the second season of its singleplayer career mode; new controls, questions that touched those areas weren't answered. 2K has been pressed by hype for NBA Elite's name change and new control set, but EA Sports, as the long running challenger, is somewhat obligated to get its message out now. 2K isn't about to dump everything it has just because it's a big week for new games, when such news could get lost in traffic.
Presentationally, NBA 2K11 is still a very beautiful game. The player models were redone and the broadcast angle adjusted, so that players are more identifiable on first sight. The arena interiors were redone for deeper authenticity. Players on the bench react dynamically to the game, and the coaches seemed to show their real-world tendencies - Phil Jackson walking, Doc Rivers sitting. The crowd was more animated - last year, games could drag through unnatural dead spots in the reaction - but we didn't see a full game or hear much of it in different situations.
2K Sports also brought in a producer from TNT's well regarded NBA broadcast team to advise on new broadcast quality transitions and pregame sequences. Pregame, you'll see players arriving on the team bus and walking to the clubhouse in their streetclothes. Animations pre-tipoff featured more transitions and closeups - and the closeups showed an even greater attention to photorealistic detail. Jersey textures really pop out and lighting is more dynamic.
How the game will handles is a different story, and one nearly unknown as of now. Player dribbling and shooting will be redone to deliver a 1:1 control that's also visually authentic. It's just 2K Sports said nothing about how that will work in the 20 minute eyes-on they gave.
"When you see it and you do it, it just feels natural," said producer Rob Jones. "There's more gesturing, and less of straight commands."
Jones was pretty direct that the game had not "scrapped" iso-motion, but did acknowledge that player control was going to behave in a different way. They just didn't say how. Jones did say the right analog will remain the game's Shot Stick, a control introduced way back in NBA 2K6. That does not necessarily exclude putting dribble controls on the right analog, as we see in NBA Elite. 2K will be very sensitive to insinuations it's mimicking that control set, especially considering the return of Mike Wang, who spent a year up in Canada working on NBA Live.
Aspirationally, they want to go for a total-body-control system that NBA Elite also is implementing. Jones explained it to me with an example: Moving across the lane on the run, parallel to the baseline, if you push up a shot, what would you expect to see in real life? A runner, with the shooter's arm out 90 degrees from his body. In NBA 2K10, he'd stop on a dime and pop the shot or, if he was close enough, move into an unnatural layup animation.
So the key to execution will not be solely with the control set - they need scads of new player animations to pull this off, and multiple points where the player may enter and exit them. The running shot example is just one. Jones said he watched the new dribbling model and asked a bystander in the studio how many different animations he thought he saw in a pretty basic move to the basket. The bystander thought he saw three, when there were actually nine involved.
"It's all redone, very smoothly, there's no cutting, no popping," Jones said, "No herky-jerky motions or popping up, especially in the defensive postures."
We haven't begun to see the totality of what NBA 2K11 will have to offer, that is for certain. 2K Sports still showed off a beautiful game without getting into the new controls, or even how Michael Jordan will appear in this game - someone for whom the Visual Concepts team has had a long-running plan should that longshot ever come through, and it did.
The team is confident they've got the best entry in a series that has won every year on the current console generation. Of course, every studio speaks confidently at E3. From what we saw, I can't yet say that they do. But I also can't say they don't.