The most fateful day for NBA Elite 11 was not Monday, Sept. 27, the day it was postponed indefinitely. It's Sept. 21, the day it was crucified.
As a metaphor for withering criticism, the kind hardcore gamers dispense every day, "crucified" is an especially apt word covering both the substance of and response to a fan-made video the day after the game's demo arrived. Instead of showcasing the revolutionary, fluid movement and controls EA Sports strove for, the film devolved into blunder-filled sports vaudeville.
Boston's computer-controlled Jermaine O'Neal, standing all alone at the high post, takes one step and clangs a back-to-the-basket finger roll, a shot completely out of place for the situation. The Lakers' Pau Gasol then fails to inbounds the ball, to the frustrated sounds of buttons clacking - possibly because the pass command was moved to the trigger this year. It's never been used there before. The Celtics then quickly score on the Lakers - who have only four players in this end of the court.
That's because of The Glitch: L.A.'s Andrew Bynum at the jump circle in a T-pose, arms spread wide, standing there, says the narrator, "like Jesus in the middle of the court."
It is impossible to know exactly what role this video had in EA Sports' decision on Monday to postpone NBA Elite 11 indefinitely. The publisher declined or didn't respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. But this video wasn't the only one, just the most visible. And the 500,000 views it garnered on YouTube in less than a week, plus the mocking, barbed comments underneath, helped to write NBA Elite 11's obituary as a game renamed, remade and rejected.
The official language is that Elite has been delayed. With no new release date - or even quarter - specified it's still an open question whether NBA Elite 11 will actually be released.
This is almost an unprecedented situation. Though fully licensed sports titles - notably NHL 2K11 on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 - have been canceled or put on hiatus in the past, the decision to do so has never come after the release of a demo and seven days before the main title was due.
"I think it's fair to conclude that there is lasting damage to the EA Sports brand," said Michael Pachter, the Wedbush Securities analyst familiar to gamers and industry watchers. "Those fans interested in a basketball simulation game will have only one to choose from for the first few months, likely, and possibly for the next 12 months."
That only other option is now NBA 2K11, the leading professional basketball simulation, in both sales and quality, on this console generation. NBA 2K's triumph is shocking on a couple of levels; the first is that it scored a clear TKO on sports gaming's leading publisher, in a fully licensed, major sports simulation - before either game released. The second is, a year ago, NBA 2K and NBA Live, as it was then known, were the closest they've been in critical reception, although not sales, in years.
EA Sports made two huge gambles in the intervening time. The first was to completely overhaul its NBA Live franchise, rebranding it as NBA Elite and promising a new skill-based shot control and intuitive dribbling and juke commands that captured the open-ended artistry of pro basketball.
For this, EA Sports president Peter Moore assigned David Littman, the producer on the NHL series - a game dominant not just in its genre but across sports games - to revamp their flagging NBA property.
"Guys like Litty know how to get in, look at things in a different way, get after the issues, and fix them," Moore told me at E3. "He still has that hockey oversight, if you will, but we've still got a core team there that is focused on [it]. Hockey needs less love than basketball, if you will."
Elite's new emphasis on the twin analog sticks marks it as a game inspired by NHL, which uses a similar control concept (the left stick is your legs, right stick is your hands). But evidently, Mike Wang wasn't really buying it.
Wang was the guy EA Sports Vancouver spirited away from NBA 2K9 to work on NBA Live 10. That coup and Wang's prestige made him development's chief representative in the marketing run-up to NBA Live 10, and deservedly or not he's the face of NBA Live getting back on course.
Wang, though, defected back to 2K Sports and Visual Concepts in February. "Talking about Live 11, and what [EA Sports] wants to do with the game, it was clear we wanted different things creatively," he told Kotaku at the time.
EA Sports pressed ahead, signaling its overhaul with the game's name change announced on June 2. The same day, NBA 2K revealed that Michael Jordan, basketball's greatest ever superstar, would appear exclusively on its cover and in a special game mode dedicated to his career. It would be the first time he appeared in a game since 2003. The palpable enthusiasm for Jordan dwarfed anything for Elite.
Then came the second big gamble: Stoking demand for a PS3 and Xbox 360 version of NBA Jam, believed to be a Wii-only title for six months, announcing it for those two consoles, and then coupling it to NBA Elite 11 in the form of a free download code included with the retail game. Theoretically, enthusiasm for the arcade favorite's reboot should have buttressed any lack of it for NBA Elite.
That also meant when NBA Elite failed to gain traction, and was done in by manifold, conspicuous flaws in the game's demo, that not one title but two were caught in the blast. EA Sports has since uncoupled the more popular NBA Jam on the PS3 and 360 from NBA Elite, and says it will be offered separately in time for the holiday buying season, though it's unclear if that will be as a retail disc or a digital download.
Pachter doesn't think the separate availability of NBA Jam on other consoles will seriously harm its overall sales - though it could do damage to the Wii-only figures for those keeping score there. "We expected Jam to do only 500,000 units on the Wii, and the impact from release on other platforms will impact only those households who have multiple consoles, and then only to the extent that they weren't going to buy NBA Elite for PS3 or 360, but intended to buy Jam on the Wii." Pachter told Kotaku, "In short, maybe 100,000 units on the Wii, but more than offset by sales on the other consoles."
If real product cannibalism exists, it's between Elite 11 and Elite 12, if both are still forthcoming. Pushing back a full title's release to the middle of the NBA's season might assist game quality, but only for the current product. Its sales will suffer, and the shortened time available to make its successor means the next iteration will too.
"Every day we see the game delayed, we're one day closer to next year's release, and they will ultimately begin to cannibalize sales," Pachter said. "Also, the longer the delay drags on into the NBA season, the lower the interest level in a new game. This is just a gut call, but I'd say if they can't get a game out by January, they'll cancel, since NBA interest tends to peak when the NFL season ends."
Even for what promised all year to be sports gaming's most entertaining head-to-head competition, this is staggering news for gamers and the industry alike. Rarely does the win-loss relationship of competing products manifest itself in this kind of definitive result.
2K Sports, very cautious not to gloat, wouldn't comment specifically on EA Sports for this article. They've still had a keen rivalry, and the basis of any competition is to beat the other guy. But Jason Argent, 2K Sports' vice president for marketing, said that competition has been valuable for their product, and they never expected to see it vaporize before both games hit the shelves.
"We've counted on market pressure and competition when we make our game," Argent said. "It never dawned on us that we'd be in this position."
That said, NBA 2K entered 2010 in an undeniable position of strength, in both product sales and quality. The forces that necessitated NBA Live/Elite's overhaul simply weren't a reality for Visual Concepts. Every game must make a new-and-improved pitch, but for NBA 2K, it already had the guts of a well received game in place over several years, and could make subtler refinements to that that while adding more conspicuous, back-of-the-box sales features such as Michael Jordan's playable career and a more immersive singleplayer career mode.
"The biggest asset for us was all those years before, having the No. 1 rated basketball game," Argent said. "It was obvious early on to us that this would be a very different year. We came off a ton of momentum last year, and we saw a great leap in product quality coming. Everything sort of lined up well, and with Michael Jordan coming through, that put us over the top."
It's likely that NBA 2K11 will get nothing but uncontested shots through the end of the year, if not for the next 12 months. EA Sports canceled its college basketball title earlier this year, in part blaming the November release date required by the NCAA as a sales killer. If a college game coming out a month after the professional edition is fundamentally impaired, how can a pro game trailing by a month or more be in any better position?
Further, NCAA Basketball 10 had no direct competitor, unlike NBA Elite. "Once somebody switches over to NBA 2K, they are less likely to switch back, and EA risks losing them forever," Pachter noted. Wedbush Securities predicted sales of 1.1 million units for NBA Elite between now and the end of December, and another 550,000 between January and March 31. All of that could be wiped out by a delay or cancellation.
A release during the NBA playoffs may capture interest, but it still leaves EA Sports Vancouver with fewer than six months to produce a game notably different from its predecessor, against market-leading competition. MLB 2K9, a critical failure, was produced on a nine-month cycle when 2K Sports took development from Kush Games at the last minute and gave it to Visual Concepts in-house. But 2K Sports has the exclusive third-party video game license from Major League Baseball; it has no competition on the Xbox 360, which almost necessitated publication.
Add to all this Moore's declaration that NBA Live 10 will have full roster update support, for free, through the coming NBA season, and nearly all signs point to the death of NBA Elite 11. Monday's announcement means we could see the first failure to launch a fully licensed sports title in 14 years.
The last time that happened was EA Sports' Madden NFL ‘96, which was supposed to be the first football title for the PlayStation. Its release was progressively delayed until it was aborted, a late switch from rendering sprites to three-dimensional objects often blamed. EA Sports then handed the project to Tiburon, a studio it later acquired, and which has handled Madden ever since.
And the studio that lost Madden after that fateful year? It was, proving that what goes around comes around, Visual Concepts.