Coming in a close second is NBA Live, a game that hasn't been on shelves since 2009. There is only one person who worked on both NBA Elite 11 and NBA Live 13, both canceled at the last minute, in 2010 when the game was being made in Canada and in 2012 where it was developed in Florida. That is two years of work with nothing to show for it.
The EA Sports publicist who called me Thursday to say their NBA product had, again, been scrapped also picked up his life and family and moved from the Pacific Northwest to be a part of this project. His marketing manager did, too. They at least have other titles to work on.
But Andres Rivela moved an entire continent just to find the same ignominy at the end of the road, thanks to EA Sports' inability, for a second straight time, to set reasonable expectations for its NBA game or fully understand what remaking a console sports simulation involves.
There are others on the team who may have covered shorter distances to be a part of this, but are no less stranded. Florida is a geographic backwater in console games development compared to British Columbia, Seattle, or Texas. NBA Live 13 reached full strength in its development team about a year ago, and though there are some longtime EA developers in the creative leadership, a lot of guys around Rivela's rank had to move to be a part of this. I played basketball with them back in April.
And what I am about to write here, I would say in their presence: EA Sports should junk its NBA simulation. Just get out of it and this license altogether. There is no upside to kicking the NBA Live can another year down the road, for either management or labor. Two straight efforts at publishing an NBA simulation have failed, which didn't even happen in the days when games were sold on cartridges. It only gets worse from here.
This is a publicly traded company that has eaten three years' worth of development costs on a multimillion-dollar license while publishing no game. Meanwhile its competitor, 2K Sports, at a fraction of the size, under corporate leadership that would jettison a licensed project at the first sign of trouble, has run out three consecutive white-hot excellent, year-round sales leaders, because anything less would mean the end of all their jobs.
You become known for that kind of killer instinct only one way: delivering the goods. And EA Sports will have to bag a lot more groceries in NBA Live 14 or whatever it's called, than it planned to in 13.
It is an open secret that NBA Live 13 was going to be a stripped-down, digital-only title to be sold for $20 on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live. You were going to get online multiplayer, play-now exhibition, and a basic franchise mode. And they couldn't even pull that off over one, two or three years' development time, depending on what the story was when you talked to EA Sports.
Meanwhile, NBA 2K13 has a shoe editor. That will even mail you the shoes you created.
Maybe NBA Live 14 could release in South Korea, or some country where its overall brand isn't irrevocably tarnished. (China's probably out.) There is no way sports video gamers in North America are going to tolerate a barebones $20 digital title that took two years to make. Not as a serious alternative to something that is as intellectual as NBA 2K. Maybe that strategy could have worked for EA this year, coming back from the Elite disaster, as a kind of promise ring for going all the way next year.
Maybe people were willing to believe NBA Live 13 was really a one-year project, considering the year lost to NBA Elite in 2010, and the autopsy needed in 2011 when the game was sent to a new studio. Fine. But now? You better believe NBA Live is now officially a multi-year project. Consumers will expect multi-year quality. And EA Sports is asking for two years, if not more, to complete basic features that 2K Sports can deliver in one.
So if it really wants to open the ball on these people, EA Sports has to sign up for a lot more development than it originally bargained for in its comeback year, despite not collecting a dime on an NBA title at launch since 2009. I don't see how it makes money without an on-the-shelves retail game. (I also don't see how it makes money with one.) But if they're going to do this, instead of just the three pillars of online multiplayer, presentation and core gameplay, you're now talking about adding a singleplayer career mode like "My Player," which is almost an entire video game unto itself, and which is now a basic expectation in every team sports simulation published in North America.
If NBA Live is not going to go with street-ball minigames or celebrity teams, EA Sports could fall back on international teams and FIBA rules, but that still requires licensing and development adjustments for modes that telemetry would suggest are novelties at most. So maybe you're talking about porting over some kind of Ultimate Team setup—again, now a basic expectation of every sports simulation—which requires a dedicated staff to manage the card collection.
Fine, let's say EA Sports is willing to do all of this. Guess what. They get to do it all over again for NBA Live 15 on the Xbox 1066 or PlayStation 4our or whatever the next generation is going to be called— while maintaining support for NBA Live 14.
The average gamer might have thought EA would just jump back into the Major League Baseball business once 2K vacated it, but they're not. Not when they'd have to build a game from the ground up, only to remake everything a year later to take advantage of new hardware and fulfill gamer expectations.
Yet we're supposed to believe that is what NBA Live is now going to do, when it failed against lesser conditions. And that's not even considering the Sisyphean marketing job EA Sports will be up against next year, when every mention of NBA Live coming up to its release will carry the stench of two canceled titles.
Since those two cancellations, NBA 2K has brought in the greatest basketball player ever to walk the earth, then his friends, then the team they all played on, and, OK, how about Jay-Z as executive producer of the whole thing. Visual Concepts will not stand pat. They are singularly consumed with eradicating EA Sports from basketball. Next year, who knows what we get. I keep expecting Earl Manigault in blacktop mode, with Roundball Rock in the soundtrack.
Though an EA Sports spokesman insisted the entire NBA Live series has not been canceled, only this year's game, I think there's another reckoning to come in the form of the company's next quarterly earnings call. Last time they got on the phone with investors, the stock price was at a five-year low. It's not much better now.
Peter Moore, the current Electronic Arts chief operating officer, and former president of EA Sports, often spoke of the tight relationship the label had with the NBA, and of the personal one he had with the league's commissioner, David Stern. At E3 he told Gamasutra that, after 17 years as a licensee of the NBA, he could not "imagine a future of EA Sports without an NBA game."
Well, I don't have to imagine a future without an EA Sports NBA title. The present is enough. We're in the third year without one. EA Sports is holding a terrible hand in a poker game to which it has put the most in the pot. If it wants to match that to see another card, alright. I think it's going to fold. I think it should fold.