The last time EA dared to lace 'em up for the virtual hardcourt was with the disappointing "NBA Live 10" in 2009. With no EA Sports hoops presence the past three years, it's been easy for competitor 2K Sports to take a market chokehold that would impress even Latrell Sprewell. The "NBA 2K" series sells more than 4 million copies each year and is considered the best sports game around -- yes, some would say even better than "Madden" and "FIFA."
This October, EA attempts a grand return with a re-imagined and rebooted "NBA Live 13." Chipping away at 2K's dominant foothold won't be easy, even for a sports game juggernaut like EA. But every dynasty comes to an end; even Bill Russell's Celtics lost eventually. Here are five crucial steps EA must take for a successful "NBA Live" comeback.
1. Establish an Identity
For years, EA tried to convince gamers that the "NBA Live" series was a realistic simulation. It was not. It was a fun but loose-playing dunkfest. As EA pushed and pulled to be both the classic "NBA Live" and a prefect simulation of basketball, the games became more and more disjointed. For a relaunch of the franchise to succeed, EA needs to decide what type of game it's going to make and stick to it without apologizing.
It's a mistake to take on the same identity as "NBA 2K," which is as pure (and challenging) a sports sim as you're likely to find. The pure sim hoops game already exists. No one needs an alternative to that, because "2K" has just about perfected things. Instead, "Live" needs to embrace a different philosophy: A hoops game must be fun, first and foremost. The gameplay, AI and features are about showing the beauty and passion of NBA players without feeling like a grind.
2. Not Every Hoops Player is Treated Equally
The NBA is all about its superstars, more so than any other professional sports league. While team elements are important to winning a championship, nothing matters more for a hoops game than allowing the Association's best to shine brightest. In the past, basketball games have accomplished this by giving star players higher stat ratings and signature moves. That's a start, but EA can take it further by establishing rules and roles for superstars, starters and role players.
Stars are treated differently by other players, by the refs and sometimes by their coaches. Stars have plays drawn up for them, have to take the pressure of the final shot and are leaders for their respective teams. When Kobe goes to the bench, the Lakers don't play differently just because the Lake Show player with the highest video game rating is sitting. Kobe gets calls others don't, takes and makes shots others shouldn't and couldn't, and requires special attention on the defensive end from the opposing team.
There's no question that playing as a team is vital to winning a championship. If a player doesn't like practice or passing the ball, an NBA ring probably won't end up in his trophy case. Your teammates matter to winning and always should, but "NBA Live" must be developed with a focus on allowing gamers to feel like the thrill and the difference when in control of one of the NBA's elite.
3. "NBA Street" Tie-In
"NBA Live" isn't the only EA basketball franchise that's defunct. EA's high-flying, smack-talking blacktop hoops series last pleased gamers in 2007. It's time for the best arcade-style sports series of all time to make a comeback. More importantly, "NBA Street" can serve as a conduit to "Live." The two should connect in ways similar to EA's "Madden" and "NCAA Football" franchises, where college players can be imported from the college game into the pros.
If you're creating a unique player to work his way from gym rat to king of the blacktop in "Street," players should be able to import that character into the NBA draft for "Live." At the same time, completing certain tasks in "NBA Live" (hitting a game-winning free throw with LeBron, for example) unlocks players and unique items for use in "NBA Street."
As a hoops fanatic, I want the joys of both street ball and the Association. So give me both games, but tie them together in a significant way to create two unbeatable hoops franchises.
4. Take it to the "Madden" Level
No video game is as deeply embedded with a league as "Madden" and the NFL. What's the biggest event in football? The Super Bowl, of course. What's the second biggest event that week? Madden Bowl. It's almost impossible to separate "Madden" from real-life professional football. Despite having the lone hoops title the past few years, "2K" has not managed to build equally strong integration with the NBA.
It's time to take basketball to the "Madden" level of marketing, league tie-ins and athlete endorsements. This is one area where EA has long proved itself a master. If EA wants to own the hoops gaming landscape, it's time to become BFFs with David Stern and build the same deep bonds that "Madden" has with the NFL.
5. Practice Patience
Face it, "NBA Live 13" will be like an expansion team. These are rebuilding years. Dominance won't come right away. It's going to take a couple of years to surpass "NBA 2K," if EA can even pull off such a feat. If EA's game plan only goes through 2013, then the "Live" rebirth will be stillborn. Sure, getting the series back in stores in the first place is priority No. 1, but if there isn't an overall plan for the next five years, one focused on building a championship-caliber franchise, then EA's at risk of always being one step behind its rival.
Game publishers panic too easily. Have faith in the game plan and measure the success by how well each step along the way brings "Live" toward the ultimate goal of owning the basketball gaming landscape. Know what's needed to win and don't do anything stupid and rash just because victory doesn't come right away.
Hilary Goldstein is a lifelong sports gamer and the former editor-in-chief of IGN.com. His work has appeared in The Escapist, OXM, GamesRadar and GameSpot, among others. "Even Swamp Creatures Get the Blues" collects his short fiction work and is available on Amazon.com. Follow Hilary on Twitter at @hilgoldstein.