EA Sports had an outsize presence at the Xbox One's debut today in Washington, peeling the tape off something called the Ignite Engine and teasing a "very special relationship," with the console, while offering few specifics of that beyond some exclusive DLC for the FIFA franchise.
All four sports titles discussed today—FIFA, Madden, the newly acquired UFC license and a rehabilitated NBA Live—will also release for PlayStation 4. Still, it's meaningful that EA Sports chose the Xbox One's event to showcase its next-generation promises. It was silent for the PS4's debut.
That means this series of four videos are sports gamers' first understanding of what the extra processing power of the next console generation will mean to their experience. Andrew Wilson, the executive vice president in charge of EA Sports, said the Ignite Engine will offer "ten times more animation detail" and processing power that translates to better, faster decisionmaking for both player and AI alike.
While yes, the visual fidelity in these clips is tons better than anything you're playing now, it'll be some time before that claim can be fairly judged. The pre-rendered scenes, particularly those of Lionel Messi and Robert Griffin III, are blood-pumping and dynamic. But some of the animations in the wireframes and technical demonstrations—particularly RG3 getting rid of the ball to his halfback as the blitz bears down on him—look very familiar to longtime players of each series.
NBA Live's showpiece scenes make that work look more sophisticated than you'd expect for a title that abruptly canceled its past two editions. That said, EA Sports' failure to execute with current-generation hardware for that franchise makes it a legitimate question what they're able to do with next-generation technology, even if they put all of their effort into that platform. Realize that while NBA Live 14 is a definite for PS4 and Xbox One, no announcement has been made about a PS3 or Xbox 360 version.
There also needs to be some reading between the lines. EA Sports has never done console-exclusive downloadable content. The publisher's willingness to scrap Online Passes is assuredly because the Xbox One will feature across-the-board used-game restrictions. We can assume some form of this will be present on the PlayStation 4, whose used-games support still has not been fully addressed.
Sports video games have long been among the games you'd take over to a friend's home to play on his machine there. If you want to do that on the Xbox One, you'll have to install the title to that machine and pay a fee to do so. Now he gets to keep it. We're unclear on what the fee is, or what that means for the original owner, but offhand the viral-sales nature of such a system certainly plays to EA Sports' favor.
I still think we are due for major announcements regarding EA Sports' next-generation offerings as numberless subscriptions rather than annual releases. (All four games appeared on stage under their upcoming numbered titles.) For now, this is the clearest vision available of what the future of video gaming will mean for sports, one of its oldest and largest-selling genres, worldwide.