For a brief moment Tuesday, I wasn't sure we'd be seeing any basketball video game this year, even though I'd taken for granted that NBA 2K12 would release, a death-and-taxes sure thing in October for more than 10 years.
When EA Sports decided to pass on publishing an NBA simulation this year, its well known troubles with NBA Elite (above) last year first came to mind. And indeed they play a role. Unsaid yet plainly apparent is the fact that an almost-certain NBA lockout helped make that decision. So it occurred to me to check in with 2K Sports to make sure they were still going with their flagship title no matter what - strike, lockout, nuclear war.
I spent a good 45 minutes outsmarting myself - no wonder they went all in with Michael Jordan last year! They knew there wouldn't be an NBA season this year! - forgetting that, without NBA 2K, 2K Sports might as well close, especially if it can't put out a game against zero competition. A rep got back to me by email: "There will be an NBA 2K12."
Lockouts and strikes are often portrayed in terms of the damage they do to associated, joe-lunchbucket type industries, such as concessions, parking, stadium staff and bars near the arena. Video game publishers have more financial insulation against these shocks, of course. That doesn't mean they're immune to the real world doings of the sports they simulate.
Since August, EA Sports has had to make repeated statements vowing that Madden NFL 12 will publish on time, whether or not a new labor deal between owners and players is in place. With an exclusive league license - reportedly second only to what networks pay for broadcast rights - it seems ridiculous that EA Sports would take a pass, lockout or no.
That doesn't mean it's business as usual: the publisher renegotiated its terms with the NFL, getting a one-year extension to the terms of its exclusive in exchange for lower payments in this year. EA Sports has braced its investors for worst-case scenarios, and analysts have said the loss of a full season could halve expected sales.
The looming NBA lockout, blotted out by the news of the actual one going on in the NFL, seems more intractable in its own way. The NBA union's chief, Billy Hunter, has been telling players since November a lockout is inevitable, and in February gave a private address at the All-Star game, with league ownership present, that galvanized players against management.
Michael Pachter, the best-known analyst watching the games industry, figures NBA 2K12 could also lose half its sales if the season there is canceled, though the damage is reduced if the regular season is underway by Christmas. Pachter's guess is both the NFL and NBA will suffer lockouts, but still start within one to two months of their scheduled opening "once the players realize what they are risking," he said.
But among video game publishers, 2K Sports is in a more precarious position, Pachter said.
"Take-Two really has to release on time," he said of 2K Sports' parent company. "They need to keep on a cycle and get the next version of the game under development, and holding back on the release wouldn't really do much to drive sales higher."
And as a product released during a lockout, "I think that the NBA game is more vulnerable, as there is far more high profile player movement in the NBA than in the NFL, so there is a greater incentive to play the current version of the game.," he said. "Nobody wants to play an old version with LeBron James on the Cavaliers."
He's right. Compared with My Player and Association, NBA 2K's "NBA Today" is an unsung feature. In it, gamers can pick from the league's current real-life matchups and replay them. NBA Today, like MLB Today in MLB 2K11, showcases a real strength of 2K Sports - broadcast quality commentary that goes deeper into the contexts surrounding a game than any of its competitors.
With no NBA season, or for however long it is delayed, NBA Today is a decimated feature. Dynamic player progression for multiplayer and play-now purposes is likewise irrelevant. Online rosters will remain the same as what's on the disc until the league starts playing again. Madden 12 will face the same sort of thing, too.
Cynics have suggested that, with a lockout essentially representing a lost season, neither 2K Sports nor EA Sports have any incentive to put much effort into improving their titles this year, especially if they're running uncontested. Both games will face pre-release and review scrutiny based on that customer question. And for fence-sitters among the informed sports crowd, this attitude could hurt sales before the games even release.
So while work stoppages in the modern era of professional sports, even in the video game era, are nothing new. But where the two intersect today, it feels new, because as games have grown closer in the current-year simulation they offer, they've become more vulnerable to the spasms of the real-world businesses they represent.
The last work stoppage in a major North American league was the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, which wiped out an entire season. Even then, NHL 2K and EA Sports' NHL 2005 published on time, for the Xbox and PlayStation 2. At the time, post-release support - including dynamic rosters - was nothing like it is today. So EA Sports and 2K Sports could release, in September of 2004, a hockey game that for the entire year would be as authentic as gamers would expect even with an ongoing current season. The economy was also much stronger and development costs were lower for these platforms.
Other major sports' work stoppages occured at times when sports video gaming was even less dependent on the doings of the current season. NBA Live 99 released on schedule even though the 1998-1999 season was shortened to 50 games and did not begin until that January. Again, at that time, no one was expecting publisher-adjusted depth charts, trades and retirements, statistical progression or real-world injuries.
The infamous 1994 Major League Baseball strike came during the infancy of fully-licensed sports titles on consoles. Unlike a lockout, which precedes a season, this was a mid-year strike beginning after the game released. There was also a general sentiment that owners and players wouldn't scrap the entire season, as the 1981 mid-season strike, painful though it was, ultimately was resolved after two months.
The NFL's 1987 strike did precede the season but it lasted all of one month, canceled just one week of the regular season and, most importantly, predated Tecmo Bowl, the first NFL game to use real-world rosters, by two years.
So, we are absolutely in virgin territory as far as the impact a professional sports league's work stoppage could have on a video game, and on a publisher's decisions regarding them. And we could potentially see two of them in the same year.
And the players' deal with Major League Baseball is set to expire in December.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.