Disappointment after disappointment caused EA Sports to re-think its yearly basketball series, but NBA Live 18 seems to be headed in the right direction. However, is it too little, too late for the franchise knowing that its competition is the almighty NBA 2K?
After a dismal string of performances, Electronic Arts returned to the world of basketball video games with its most stellar showing in almost a decade. NBA Live 18 might not be on the level of NBA 2K18 yet, but it was enough of an impression that the community seems to be clamoring for another title next year. However, poor sales numbers may ground NBA Live before it gets off the court floor.
A Song of Live and 2K
Before EA ran into trouble with microtransactions and shady business practices, they were simply a company who made videogames and were well known for their iconic sports titles. One of those legendary sports titles was NBA Live, which was, at the time, considered the top basketball game in terms of gameplay, graphics, and overall quality. However, towards the end of the 2000s and into the 2010s, Live was overtaken by 2K’s NBA series, and soon found itself struggling to keep up. In 2010, EA decided to switch the name of their franchise from Live to “Elite” and would brand their game for this upcoming season as such. After countless glitches and graphical errors, EA decided they could not compete with 2K’s brilliant basketball game and announced they were cancelling the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions of NBA Elite 11.
Former Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello said of the cancellation, “You can ship a product you're not proud of and compete for marginal share. You can delay the game to get a better product, but that's going to have a knock-on effect. And we made what I judged to be the best call given the circumstances." The company would instead release a mobile port of the game in order to save a bit of face.
Video proof of the infamous "Passion of the Bynum" glitch that ultimately doomed NBA Elite 11. (NSFW Language)
Live finally returned in 2013 with NBA Live ‘14. Unfortunately, Live 14 was not exactly the resurgence EA was hoping for when it released, especially when compared to the improving quality of the 2K series. The game sold poorly and was widely panned by critics and gamers alike. The releases of Live ‘15 and ‘16 went about the same, though the games showed slight improvements from previous years while still being tremendously inferior to 2K’s product. When EA Sports decided to skip NBA Live 17, Polygon's Owen Good said he "smirked" upon hearing the news.
EA released NBA Live 18 on September 15, 2017. In an effort to distance itself from its competition, EA Sports secured the rights to WNBA teams - the first time WNBA teams have ever been playable in a major NBA video game- as well as released a mode called “The One,” a single-player mode that allows players to create a character and progress through a career. The game also features ESPN personalities like Jeff Van Gundy, Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman throughout the various modes. Live also featured EA’s signature “Ultimate Team” mode, where players could purchase packs of characters and compete with other players for supremacy.
EA also took an interesting approach to the game’s launch that wasn’t seen since 2005 - they sold the game for $40 for those who reserved the game, similar to 2K’s plan of attack with NFL 2K5 when it was released at $20. The low price point of their competition coupled with its stellar gameplay made such an impact on EA they secured the exclusive rights to make NFL football games the very next year.
More? You Want More?
The community around NBA Live has been passionate about their desire for an NBA Live ‘19 after the impressive turnaround the series has seen with its 2018 iteration. Even the community around NBA 2K has taken notice to the upgrades and some have even considered picking up the game.
High-ranking NBA2k player KingToppo spoke the game's subreddit about getting both games, “I'll definitely be getting 2K but I'll also be checking out Live too since I'm a basketball fan first and foremost and two games is better than one. I'm hoping for the future for both games to be great so we have an increase in competition and for it to result in both franchises going above and beyond to try and top one another.”
Meanwhile, in a pro-Live 18 video released on his YouTube channel, Tillhouse said about the game, “Any time I’m playing with my boys online, or by myself, I’ve had fun playing it. The devs are constantly listening to the community...and they make you come back to the game.”
On top of this, there are NBA Live 19 wishlists popping up all over the place, including the Live forums, Reddit, and even Forbes. Here’s a quick sampling of some of the things fans of the series have been clamoring for:
- Better Utilization of the ESPN License - Forbes’ Brian Mazique makes this point. “EA Sports still owns an exclusivity right to use ESPN branding in their games,” Mazique said. “If I'm being honest, the license feels a little underutilized. Live did a better job with it this year by incorporating First Take with Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman, but it could stand to go even further.” Mazique also mentions commentators Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen updating their commentary throughout the year, similar to how Madden’s announcers Charles Smith and Brandon Gaudin have regular commentary updates throughout the season. Madden’s commentary updates are impressive and show the strides EA Sports has taken to improve the user experience, and if Live’s team can do the same, it would be a huge step above 2K in that regard.
- Frostbite 3 graphical upgrade - FIFA 18 and Madden 18 already utilize EA’s incredible Frostbite 3 engine, and it’s only logical for NBA Live to utilize it in the future. It was already revealed before the game’s launch that the game would not be using Frostbite, and it showed very early on. Animations were stiff and jerky, not befitting of a AAA title. YouTuber TheBroski has a video highlighting the graphical leap from the current slate of NBA games to how Houston Rockets guard James Harden looks while rendered using the Frostbite 3 engine based on his appearance in FIFA 18. See for yourself how awesome Harden looks in that Frostbite engine, and tell me you wouldn’t want that for Live 19.
- Improvements in animation and gameplay- This is a long-standing issue with the current crop of Live games that never seems to get fixed. Teams all play the same, superstars barely feel different, and anyone other than the top players feel no different from using anyone else! To quote one Live forum user, “It should look like James harden is dribbling even before I trigger a move. Basic handles should look like the player, and not just the stars, either..” NLSC writer Andrew Begely says, “Basically, we need to see greater differentiation between teams’ styles and strategies, with teams calling the plays they actually run, and playing like their real counterparts.”
- All-Star Weekend - One of the best parts of the older Live titles was the inclusion of a playable All-Star Weekend, featuring the Dunk Contest, Skills Competition, and the 3-point contest. For whatever reason, the former two modes have been removed from Live 18, leaving only the game itself.
Numbers Never Lie
If NBA Live 19 is going to happen, it’s going to take a lot of community support to make it worth EA Sports’ time and effort. These are sales numbers, collected from vidoe game stats aggregator VGChartz, and they’re not pretty.
To make matters worse, the Switch version of NBA 2K18 has sold more than the Playstation 4 version of NBA Live 18 - and the system was only available for 8 months when the game launched.
It will definitely be an uphill climb, and Live will be the underdog for the foreseeable future, but the race isn't over until it's over (just look at my story about Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite), We’ll be watching out for NBA Live 19 and hope it delivers on all our wishes. It remains to be seen if EA can, or is willing, to keep up with the stiff competition - especially with NBA2K making hefty moves to turn its basketball sim into a legimate esports arena with an impressive prize pool.