SBJ/June 18-24, 2012/In Depth

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  • Getting back on the court

    There are embarrassments in the video game world, and then there is what EA Sports is trying to overcome with the forthcoming release of “NBA Live 13.”

    In September 2010, EA Sports released an online demo version of “NBA Elite 11,” its last attempt at a basketball simulation video game. Within hours, the Internet was aflame with stories of massive glitches in the game. In particular, a fan-made gameplay video went viral showing Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum stuck at midcourt with his arms stretched out horizontally while the other nine players on the virtual court moved around him.

    The fallout from the so-called “Jesus Bynum” video was swift and severe. EA Sports within a week announced a delay to the planned retail release of “NBA Elite 11.” And six weeks later, EA Sports formally announced there would be no release at all for the title and moved its basketball game development work into extended hiatus.

    EA’s new attempt at an NBA title, “NBA Live 13,” is set for distribution in October.
    Photo by: EA Sports
    Such moves often signal the end of a gaming franchise altogether, similar to how rival publisher 2K Sports stopped producing new versions of its “NHL 2K” hockey game and then quietly discontinued the entire series after an 11-year run.

    But EA Sports, a 21-year licensee of the NBA, is instead seeking a marketplace rebirth virtually unheard of in video games, and even sports licensing at large.

    Since the decision to eliminate “NBA Elite 11,” EA Sports has shifted production of its basketball game from its EA Canada studios outside Vancouver to its Tiburon facility in Orlando; took a second year off from releasing an NBA simulation title to the public; built an entirely new basketball development team; signed a new multiyear license with the NBA; and reverted back to its previous “NBA Live” name for the title. A cover announcement for “NBA Live 13” will arrive early this summer, perhaps around the June 28 NBA draft.

    The moves, collectively, have cost the company an undisclosed sum well into eight figures. More substantively, EA Sports will be testing the good will of a notoriously fickle and demanding video gaming audience that obsessively rates and debates the smallest details of every game, and certainly has not forgotten the problems of 2010.

    And once “NBA Live 13” hits retail shelves in October, it will again be competing against 2K Sports’ “NBA 2K” series. During the EA Sports basketball hiatus, “NBA 2K” effectively used a strong core product and an exclusive relationship with Michael Jordan to sell more than 5 million copies per year and become the second most popular sports video game in the U.S., trailing only EA Sports’ “Madden NFL.”

    “[2K Sports] has a really good game, but there are things we can do better,” said Dale Jackson, EA Sports vice president and general manager for “NBA Live 13,” with a mix of humility and bravado. “We know this isn’t going to be the biggest thing right out of the box, but this is a big, important franchise for us.”

    Break it down, build it back up

    Following the decision to kill “NBA Elite 11,” EA Sports spent the next six months on a sort of forensic search. Specific lines of code and animation sequences were re-examined. Development processes were re-evaluated. And a new executive and development team was assembled as production of the game moved from Canada to Florida, where EA Sports creates its football games and “Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf,” among other titles.

    Over the course of 2011, a small team of six employees dedicated to EA Sports’ next simulation basketball title grew to
    EA pulled the plug on “NBA Elite 11” after a series of embarrassing glitches were found, including one highlighted in a viral video that shows Andrew Bynum stuck at midcourt with his arms stretched out as others play around him. Gamers quickly dubbed the video “Jesus Bynum.”
    15 and ultimately a full team of 75 by the end of last year. Only one employee from the “NBA Elite 11” team, software engineer Andres Rivela, is working on the new effort.

    “The big thing was building a new culture around this,” said Nick Wlodyka, “NBA Live 13” executive producer. “We needed people who ate, slept and breathed basketball.”

    That reconstructed culture includes developer huddles breaking out in the hallways of the Tiburon offices at least once per day, and often more frequently than that. While developers on other EA Sports titles are often left on their own to work for days or weeks at a time, the almost hour-by-hour confabbing by the “NBA Live 13” team is designed to provide a heightened accountability for each person involved in the rebuild.

    “Other teams do meet more infrequently, more on a milestone basis,” said Wlodyka, who transferred to the project from “Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf.” “For ‘Live,’ this is something that developed organically and something everybody on the team got behind. We’ll keep doing it post-release as we make [‘NBA Live] 14’.”

    Not everything from the aborted “NBA Elite 11” was scrapped. Among the saved and subsequently enhanced elements was a deep integration with ESPN announcers, including the network’s lead NBA team of Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy, and graphics to provide a more realistic feel to the game.

    From there, developers created a new animation engine for the game, installed a new artificial intelligence system, and are in the midst of an extensive process to compile highly precise laser scans of the interior of every NBA arena. EA Sports conducted a similar effort for “Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf,” allowing it to render every azalea from Augusta National in minute detail. Even the level and brightness of lighting will vary in “NBA Live 13” from arena to arena, just as it does in real life.

    In EA Sports’ pre-release communications on “NBA Live 13” to date, the company repeatedly has pushed a three-pronged message of gameplay, online functionality and presentation — all basic, foundational elements seeking to convey a combined message of substance over flash. Buttressing that is an eight-person advisory team made up of fans and active gamers who have received access to early-stage builds of the game to provide feedback.

    “We have to do more proving with this game. We know that,” said Josh Goldberg, EA Sports director of marketing for “NBA Live.” “It’s all about re-establishing the credibility of this franchise, and everything we’re doing pre-release, and post-release for that matter, maps back to that core message.”

    The NBA, meanwhile, has been an active participant in the redevelopment process, frequently taking part in meetings both in New York and Orlando to receive regular updates on EA Sports’ development progress. The league, in rather typical loyalty to a long-tenured, top-tier business partner, showed nothing but overt patience and respect for EA Sports when “NBA Elite 11” was shut down. Little has changed since.

    “There’s no secret we were all disappointed by what happened,” said Vicky Picca, NBA senior vice president of licensing and business affairs. “But what would have been much worse is the release of a subpar game.

    “Frankly, this is a somewhat uncharted territory for all of us. But they’ve approached the situation in a very patient, methodical and humble way. They’ve been as engaged as ever — and then some. And I think that focus on authenticity and gameplay is going to be beneficial.”



    Long-term play

    Though not on the same scale as what’s now occurring with “NBA Live 13,” EA Sports does have some history with significant game rebuilds in the face of stiff competition. Its dominant “FIFA” franchise, now the top-selling sports video game on a global basis, once trailed behind rival title “Pro Evolution Soccer” from Konami. A similar, hotly contested battle previously occurred between EA Sports’ “NHL” series and the “NHL 2K” entries from 2K Sports before the latter games ultimately ceased to exist.

    In both of those situations, as well as with “NBA Live” now, EA Sports executives viewed the reconstruction as at least a three-year effort before reaching full potential both critically and with regard to sales.

    “We must have a long-term vision. You don’t solve these types of things in a year or even two years,” said Andrew Wilson, head of EA Sports. “It’s going to take time for consumers to adjust, just like it took time for them to adjust to what we did with ‘FIFA’ and ‘NHL.’ So the plan is to be patient and be very attuned to consumer feedback.”

    The feedback garnered this month at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, the video game industry’s largest annual gathering, provided a mixed message for EA Sports. Though the publisher showed only a pre-alpha-level version of the game still a long way from what will appear on store shelves in October, “NBA Live 13” was alternately described as the biggest disappointment of the show or a significant step forward, depending on which media outlet one read. As is often the case with such early-stage game builds, EA Sports at the E3 show grappled with a few technical glitches, leaving it in an awkward position of trying to convince some reviewers the troubled days of “NBA Elite 11” are indeed gone.

    Top video game sports titles
    Ranked by units sold in 2011

    Rank Title Platform Publisher Released
    1 Madden NFL 2012 Xbox 360 EA Sports Sept. 2011
    2 Madden NFL 2012 PS3 EA Sports Sept. 2011
    3 Zumba Fitness: Join the Party Wii Majesco Nov. 2010
    4 NBA 2K12 Xbox 360 Take-Two Interactive Oct. 2011
    5 Kinect Sports Xbox 360 Microsoft Nov. 2010
    6 NCAA Football 12 Xbox 360 EA Sports July 2011
    7 Kinect Sports Season Two Xbox 360 Microsoft Oct. 2011
    8 NBA 2K11 Xbox 360 Take-Two Interactive Oct. 2010
    9 NBA 2K12 PS3 Take-Two Interactive Oct. 2011
    10 FIFA 2012 Xbox 360 EA Sports Sept. 2011


    Source: The NPD Group / Retail Tracking Service

    2K Sports, for its part, thus far has essentially ignored the oncoming re-entry of its rival to the basketball gaming market in many of its public comments. At E3, 2K Sports hyped its own advances in gameplay, while at the same time seeking to make the title more approachable for less hard-core gamers.

    “[‘NBA Live 13’] doesn’t affect plans on our side,” said Jason Argent, 2K Sports vice president of marketing. “Our biggest competition is always ourselves, and we are focused solely on making huge leaps ahead in innovation and game quality year after year. This year is no different.”

    Even amid EA Sports’ long-term view for “NBA Live 13,” the publisher knows it cannot afford another misstep along the lines of “NBA Elite 11.” Ideally, what they’re seeking is a strong re-entry to the market this fall, followed by subsequent basketball releases improving upon that. That multiyear road map almost certainly will include a new generation of gaming consoles, where EA Sports expects future versions of “NBA Live” to be a prominent entrant.

    “It’s a journey we’re on, no doubt, but this first impression, we’ve got one shot to get it right,” Wlodyka said. “There’s no room for error.”

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  • Key video game companies

    EA Sports
    Headquarters: Redwood City, Calif.


    Key games: “Madden NFL,” “NCAA Football,” “FIFA,” “Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf,” “NBA Live,” “NHL,” “SSX,” “Fight Night Champion,” “NBA Jam,” “Grand Slam Tennis,” forthcoming MMA title in new partnership with UFC.
    User guide: EA Sports is still the most recognized and dominant player in sports video gaming. The company surprised everyone at the Electronic Entertainment Expo this month by announcing a new multiyear deal with UFC, with whom the publisher had famously and publicly battled. Baseball is now the only major pro sport not part of its suite of titles. More than any other sports video gaming operation, EA Sports is on the front lines of a historic conversion to both digital gaming and the ongoing next generation of console hardware.

    2K Sports
    Headquarters: New York

    Key games: “MLB 2K” (license expiring after this year), “NBA 2K.”
    User guide: 2K Sports’ parent, Take-Two Interactive, is seeking to focus more on its own intellectual property and is moving away from often expensive licenses from third parties. To that end, the company is not seeking a renewal of its MLB license expiring at the end of the current baseball season. After similar departures from college basketball and hockey, 2K Sports’ lone sports title now is the phenomenally successful “NBA 2K” series.

    THQ
    Headquarters: Agoura Hills, Calif.

    Key games: “UFC Undisputed 3” (license sold to EA)
    User guide: Previously the exclusive license holder for UFC, the publisher this month sold the license to EA Sports, failing to reach profitability with the games. The final version of the series from THQ, “UFC Undisputed 3,” was released in February. Similar to Take-Two, THQ is seeking to focus on its own core suite of games and lessen its reliance on outside intellectual property.

    Sony Computer Entertainment of America
    Headquarters: Foster City, Calif.

    Key games: “MLB: The Show”
    User guide: “MLB: The Show” is the direct rival to the now-ending “MLB 2K” series, and has enjoyed a clear advantage in terms of both sales and critical acclaim. This year’s version was also the first created for Sony’s next-generation hand-held gaming system, the PlayStation Vita.

    Activision Blizzard
    Headquarters: Santa Monica, Calif.

    Key games: “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD”
    User guide: A major player in shooter and entertainment gaming, Activision Blizzard also publishes the popular series of Tony Hawk skateboarding games.

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