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EA Sports on Tuesday will end a four-year absence from the basketball simulation gaming market with the release of its “NBA Live 14,” capping what had been one of the most troubled episodes in sports licensing.
“NBA Live 14” still has a mountain of challenges ahead of it, most notably from rival 2K Sports’ series “NBA 2K,” which in recent years has risen to become one of the most popular licensed sports games in the world. But EA Sports executives are greeting its release with a mix of relief, anticipation and humility.
“The game is releasing. It is happening, and this is very gratifying,” said Andrew Wilson, Electronic Arts chief executive and former head of EA Sports. “We did ourselves absolutely no favors [with the scrapped releases in 2010 and 2012], but it was still the right decision in both instances. We’ve now built a great game, shifting focus entirely to the next-generation consoles, and are looking forward to getting back out there and competing in the marketplace. But we also know it will be a multiyear process.”
EA Sports is seeking to differentiate “NBA Live 14” by putting an unprecedented emphasis on the “live” portion of the game with features that continually update during the real-life NBA season using the Internet connection in the game consoles.
The company already holds a partnership with Synergy Sports Technology to update real-life statistics and player ratings daily based on real-life events, but that effort will be expanded to incorporate the sport’s growing embrace of advanced metrics and analytics. One of the game modes will be a challenge component in which gamers can seek to re-create real-world exploits from the prior night’s NBA games.
Art rendering also will be regularly updated to reflect changes in player hairstyles, tattoos and sneakers. ESPN’s existing involvement in the game is similarly growing to include studio commentary from real-life analyst Jalen Rose, who will record new dialogue on a regular basis to be incorporated into “NBA Live 14.” And the game’s soundtrack is also a dynamic element, with New York-based DJ Mick overseeing a continually updated selection of tracks.
“We’re trying to have this game stay relevant through the entire year,” said Sean O’Brien, “NBA Live 14” executive producer. “What we want is for this game to be a reflection of what is happening in the NBA each day. It’s been a long, hard road to get to this point. But we’re very proud with how far we’ve come.”
The rebirth of the “NBA Live” franchise happens as EA Sports in recent months retrenched in other areas, walking away from its partnership with Tiger Woods and shutting down production of its NCAA college football game for at least a year.
“We’ve had a long partnership with EA and have supported their ongoing commitment to create a game that would meet the expectations of our fans,” said Vicky Picca, NBA senior vice president of licensing and business affairs. “The results of those efforts are evident in ‘NBA Live 14.’ We are pleased they are back.”
The league is suffering through what seems like an off-field scandal each week, its traditionally highest-rated teams are having off years and the continued popularity of NFL RedZone should be diluting TV ratings.
But just like the past several years, NFL ratings are up across the board. The shield is proving to be stronger than Teflon.
The past couple of weeks alone have been filled with stories that shed a bad light on the league and could have diminished interest in the games:
■ Hall of famer Tony Dorsett revealed that he has developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a result of playing football.
■ Dwayne Bowe, a wide receiver for the undefeated Chiefs — one of the league’s feel-good stories this year — was charged with possession of marijuana, and Vikings wide receiver Jerome Simpson was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.
■ Allegations of racism and bullying in NFL locker rooms were a main topic on national news shows.
John Ourand & Austin Karp
on the strength of the NFL on television
The amount of bad PR surrounding the NFL gives the feeling that football is a sport in decline. But that feeling is just that — a feeling. It is not supported by facts, at least not when it comes to television.
NFL TV ratings continue to climb in the face of these off-field problems. Through the first nine weeks this season, the league has averaged an astounding 18.4 million viewers a game on CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC. That figure is up 5 percent through the same period last year.
None of the league’s network partners has seen NFL ratings drop through the first nine weeks this season. NFL Network (up 8 percent) and Fox (up 7 percent) have posted the biggest gains.
By all appearances, the public can’t get enough of the NFL. Even the networks’ pregame shows are showing a healthy bump from last year. Through nine weeks, only CBS’s “NFL Today” was down, and its drop was only 5 percent. The league’s TV ratings performance has been more impressive this season than any other one that I’ve covered.
I wouldn’t have been surprised to see viewership drop this season — and not just because of the league’s off-field issues. The league’s most reliable TV juggernaut — the NFC East — is awful this season. At our deadline, no team was over .500 and it looks like the first team to eight victories will have a good chance to win the division.
Other teams that deliver traditionally high ratings are having less-than-stellar seasons, including the Pittsburgh Steelers and the two teams representing the country’s biggest media market, the Giants and Jets.
You could make the argument that sports fans are suffering from scandal fatigue and simply don’t care about off-field shenanigans. After all, MLB has emerged from its steroid era with relatively flat TV viewership.
You also could make the argument that all these off-field problems are increasing interest in the sport.
As I ate dinner with a friend on Monday night, a TV showed NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross on ESPN discussing the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation. I’m not sure that’s the ideal way to lead into a game, but it certainly helped create interest around a relatively weak contest.
How strong is the NFL today, in the midst of all these controversies? Networks already are jockeying to bid on an eight-game package that may (or may not) be available next year.
Sources say that Fox, NBC and Turner, in particular, are interested in such a package and that the NFL should bring in upward of $700 million a year from such a package.
And DirecTV is negotiating to keep its exclusivity on its Sunday Ticket package, demonstrating how strong an association with the NFL is.
“Being linked with the NFL helps us from a marketing standpoint differentiate ourselves from the competition,” said DirecTV’s chairman, president and CEO, Michael White, at SportsBusiness Journal’s media conference in New York last week. “It’s been really positive for us.”
John Ourand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.