Sports at E3: A Viewer's Guide

Covering E3 always felt like going to a midlevel bowl game for me. It's a salad of over-produced photo opportunities with big props, costumed actors and nonplussed celebrities, and when you do get one-on-one time with the real players, they're on heavy guard to say nothing but the right things before the big game.

Every time I left Los Angeles, I felt like right as I figured out how to cover the show, the thing was over. The first two days are a track meet of nonstop showcase events from publishers and console makers. The next two days are a marathon of booth tours that, if plotted on a map, your path would look like Billy walking home from school in the Family Circus. A lot of the breaking news of the event ends up being written away from the show floor, anyway. That's for previews and impressions.

I won't be going to E3 this year but I can still keep an eye on it, the same as any other sports fan. We can even watch it together. This is what I'll be looking for from the comfort of my home.

EA Sports

Sports' biggest publishing label usually gets about a 10-minute segment to itself on stage at the Orpheum Theater. (It will be tomorrow from 4 to 5 p.m. You can watch it here.) EA Sports already has sent the message that this E3 will be about Madden, FIFA, NBA Live and its new UFC game. I'm sure NCAA Football and NHL will be playable in the Electronic Arts booth, but as neither will have any presence at the launch of the next-generation consoles, I don't expect to hear much from them. NCAA is basically done, anyway; it ships 32 days after E3 is over.

UFC and NBA Live have the potential to show the most of the new hardware's capabilities. As neither will release before November, they're also the most likely to show little more than pre-rendered footage. A news release said E3 attendees will "experience next generation sports titles in the EA Sports Ignite Lab," referencing the name of the new game engine. That sounds, at best, like a behind-closed-doors hands-off demo to me.

Even hands-on it is hard to form solid impressions of a sports video game under the nonstop din of E3. You almost never see the career mode, something that a supermajority of players—and nearly all of the returning ones—flock to. Granted, we just don't know what next-generation consoles will offer beyond ultra-refined gameplay and more lifelike visuals—no small consideration for those who hate 2D crowds, but is that why you really buy the game?

The bottom line is whatever looks good coming out of EA's news conference, or off the South Hall floor, it's probably going to be shouted down by commenter distrust of the label. Except for FIFA, which is on a four-year stretch of doing no wrong and, in mainstream gamer opinion, seems to live outside the realm of most sports video games.

NBA Live, weirdly enough, could be the surprise of the show. It is, smartly, a next generation-only title and will get some bounce from impressive visuals—and EA Sports, even up to NBA Elite's collapse, could be counted on for solid facial modeling. Nothing could cover up the kind of bird-brained AI seen behind closed doors last year, but if the brand carries baggage, at least it comes to Los Angeles with a totally new version. And, more importantly, critics have no real frame of reference for it, being a next generation release that hasn't appeared on current consoles in three years.

Bigger picture, we still have heard very little about digital distribution on these consoles—other than how they will or won't restrict used game sales or trades. If it's going to be with us the next 10 years, then Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 will have to usher in the era of people buying games from their living room, rather than going to the store.

As I've written, this has huge ramifications for annual sports releases and a publisher that has long viewed its software as a service. Some sort of announcement, about subscribing to your favorite EA Sports title, if not more than one, is not out of the question, though it may be too early in either the promotional plan or the consoles' life cycle to start discussing such things.

Finally, EA Sports' deal with the NFL expires at the end of this season. While it seems like the perfect time to announce an extension, doing so on stage is not the NFL's style, and it's nothing you can really hype to a consumer, either. They'd all flock to message boards to say NFL 2K5 is better, anyway. But don't rule it out.

Baseball

Baseball titles, which hit shelves the first Tuesday in March, have never had much of a presence at E3. Even though people take it for granted that EA Sports has the money and the interest to redeploy MVP Baseball on the next console generation, don't get your hopes up. Despite my cheerleading and others, which I'm told is very much appreciated, I've been advised EA Sports has nothing to announce about baseball, this console generation or next, at E3.

Xbox One could be in the same situation its older sibling was this time last year—no baseball title for the machine come opening day. It's a question of who loses face more under such a situation—Major League Baseball (with only the PlayStation 3 and, presumably, PS4, as a dancing partner), or Microsoft, whose May 21 showcase had sports tied for first with TV as a console use (with games coming in somewhere around third).

I can't fathom that 2K Sports is actually sinking any secret investment into a next-generation version of the game that made it so unhappy for the past five years. Not after MLB 2K13, which they were happy to self-plagiarize to deliver the first real payday the license had ever shown. Barring something really off-the-wall, like Microsoft building a first-party sports title all along, baseball's absence will linger into the winter, serving as a cautionary tale, if not an embarrassment, to leagues that cut exclusive deals with publishers.

2K Sports

2K Games will have no booth on the E3 show floor this year. Typically it had a low-key presence, giving just a behind-closed-doors, hands-off, unguided preview of NBA 2K that always left me trying to guess what subtle differences they were showcasing. I was real proud of myself for spotting an aiming arc for free throws in NBA 2K12; then they went and scrapped it before the game released.

But a curious choice of words from 2K's director of sports operations indicates that NBA 2K14 will have some kind of presence at the event. "We will have some more to see and hear next week at E3," Jason Argent said during a conference call announcing LeBron James as the game's cover star. To me that sounds like a stage appearance with Sony.

Remember these two got together on stage for E3 2011 (during which Kobe Bryant repeatedly ran out of bounds trying to control himself with the PlayStation Move.) With EA Sports getting in bed with Microsoft two weeks ago for the Xbox One reveal, Sony could have gone to NBA 2K to shore up the PlayStation 4's sports cred. They'd be smart to, it's a top-10 seller and a day-and-date launch title for the next generation.

Pro Evolution Soccer

Though Konami already had a pre-E3 event, Pro Evolution Soccer got a gameplay trailer and little else to expand on the new feature set it announced earlier in the week. PES closes out this console generation with the Fluidity engine, based on the Fox engine driving games like Metal Gear Solid. The game is in the curious position of being a publisher's centerpiece without having any next-generation version. Even if its once-dominant series has been a runner-up for much of this console generation, Konami's looking to close out strong.

Everything Else

MLB The Show will be part of Sony's vanity reel and not much else. If we hear anything about WWE 2K14, it will be in videos, screenshots and social media that 2K Sports releases independent of E3. Drive Club, Forza 5 and Gran Turismo 6 should all pump out high definition car porn and promises of realism that are utterly impossible to judge from the show floor or a demonstration event.

It feels like the sports landscape coming out of E3 2013 will be largely the same as the one we saw going into it. Sports aren't looked to as disruptive products within video games publishing and, anyway, the best they can do is take something we see every day and make it look more like what we see every day.

But if there was ever the potential for a big surprise, this would seem to be the year to deliver it.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.