Let's be candid. As a licensed sports video game, when your series hasn't been on shelves in three years—a gap not seen since the days games were played on cartridges—you really face just one expectation and it's a pretty low bar: Just come out. Launch. Release on time. Somehow, over the past week, NBA Live has left the dreadful message it could suffer the same embarassing fate as its NBA Elite ancestor, canceled in 2010 a week before it was due in stores.
Maybe NBA Live is put under a different lens by gamers because of what happened two years ago, or because it's published by Electronic Arts. But considering the legacy left by Elite, letting any doubt about the game's viability go unanswered, even in the enthusiast press, would seem to be the one pile of dog doo this game's handlers should have avoided at all costs. And now, they've stepped in it.
Two weeks ago, Operation Sports—the Sporting News of sports video gaming—noted the total silence from EA Sports about its NBA product since a disastrous E3 appearance. Tuesday, in a conference call with investors, no mention was made of NBA Live releasing in the final three months of 2012. Wednesday, word spread this game might have a fully digital release suggesting a lower price point, and feature set, than a traditional $59.99 retail sports video game. The response from NBA Live spokespersons was that the game "continues to drive toward beta."
EA Sports has aggressively pushed the talking point that NBA Live 13 isn't coming off a three-year development cycle, and that's reasonable. Elite represented an entire year of wasted development. The project was reassigned to a different studio, and the new team had to tear it down and understand what it was working with. That accounted for a lot of 2011.
But this isn't Duke Nukem Forever or Half-Life 3. The release date of a simulation sports video game is predictable years in advance. If NBA Live 13 misses that date, for any reason, the reaction will be swift and merciless. It'll be as good as failing to launch.
When I inquired about Live's omission from the publishing calendar, I was told it was a technical decision made by the company's investor relations division. There's still no formal release date assigned to this product, even though the NBA usually sets it for the first Tuesday of October. Following up, I asked if "at this stage," could EA Sports say whether its NBA simulation game would release on that date, or on any date before the season tipped off Oct. 30.
"At this stage, yes," was the reply.
EA Sports was plenty happy to announce the return of NBA Live back in February, and through a pre-alpha phase when hard questions really weren't being asked of it. But the honeymoon ended at E3, and so did EA Sports' communication.
If this game doesn't hit an Oct. 2 release date, predictable years in advance, it's as good as failing to launch.
What I saw in a guided, hands-on preview in Portland, Ore. at the end of May isn't what people saw in a closed-door demonstration at Los Angeles, or what a handpicked group of NBA Live community members played at a private event that week, either. The game at E3 showed startling deficiencies. Some had an excuse—a bug in the rebounding logic required them to turn off some collisions in that build. OK, but other gaffes had no explanation. For example, I saw an AI-controlled Dwyane Wade running back-and-forth, repeatedly, from the perimeter to the high post while the opposing guard held the ball.
It was enough to make me ask if I was looking at a different build. I was, EA Sports said, but it was a later build than the one shown to me at Portland. Whether that spawned new glitches, who knows. They chalked it up to bad demonstrations—spontaneous manifestations of bugs when the spotlight was on. Demos with celebrities in the room went much better, I was told. At the time, there was talk of showing a build of this game to press-myself included—in late July.
"You guys need to show this to your community before you show it to me again," I said.
Give credit where it's due. Roundly disparaged as a PR stunt and a rubber stamp, NBA Live's advisory council, a group of gamers convened in multiple expenses-paid trips, has honestly held this game's feet to the fire. After the hands-on in June, they flatly told EA Sports they shouldn't even have brought it to L.A. It's my understanding they're no happier with it today. Rumor, reported by ESPN, is that NBA Live was pulled back from EA's Summer Showcase this past week; the Advisory Council's disapproval likely figured in, though I can't say for sure. A no-show in British Columbia two weeks before may also be because the council wasn't giving a thumbs-up.
Granted, the council isn't made up of ordinary video gamers, or even ordinary sports video gamers. They understand both sport and game on an extremely technical level. One of them played overseas professionally. I heard him counsel an animator on the differences between Derrick Rose's and Kendrick Perkins' jab-step. In my preview, I might have been looking just for signs of life, or examples that the game could deliver on conceptual promises. They were looking for something that behaves like the league they watch every day. They didn't see that, and the fact this was a pre-alpha work in progress was no excuse.
Regular sports video gamers may not care so deeply but their suspicion that NBA Live is in trouble is just as founded, given the silence from EA Sports once things started going badly. These are the paying customers who really need a definitive statement that the game is on schedule—if that statement can be made.
I was told back in early June that NBA Live had major announcements coming—yes, plural. But considering it has not named any cover star, nor formally declared a release date, nor shot down rumors it won't have a retail version, I'd be surprised what kind of reveal could take precedence over the basic messaging expected of a sports video game two months before its presumed release.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears weekends.