"We have an identity now, which is good," NBA Live executive producer Seann Graddy tells me on the phone in the run-up to E3.
Graddy and new Madden executive producer Carlos Guerrero are there to lay out their visions for their respective franchises heading into NBA Live 19 and Madden 19. Both are recent additions, with Graddy shifting to NBA Live from Madden, and Guerrero joining EA from Blizzard in 2017. Of the two, Guerrero has the easier task of working with an established franchise, even if it's a franchise with notoriously prickly fans. Graddy has a much taller order—reestablishing NBA Live as a true competitor in the basketball space for the first time in a decade.
Last year offered true progress on that front for the first time since NBA Elite notoriously killed the franchise in 2010. After a year off, NBA Live 18 returned with a new feature called "The One"—a narrative mode based around getting a created character drafted into the NBA. It was a straightforward career mode that told its story through ESPN First Take segments and text messages, with progress taking place through skill trees.
The One drew natural comparisons with NBA 2K18's well-established MyCareer, its most popular mode. But for once EA wasn't the studio getting raked over the coals for abusing microtransactions. Instead it was Visual Concepts suffering backlash for making accelerators a prominent part of MyCareer's progression, virtually ensuring that hardcore Pro-Am players had to pay up to enjoy their favorite mode. Some disaffected fans responded by turning to NBA Live, giving EA's series a nice little boost.
Reviews were ultimately lukewarm, but they were still considerably stronger than they were for NBA Live 16, which was an abject failure. For a series desperate to rebuild its audience, it was a win.
The One ended up being the key to NBA Live 18's relative success. Where Ultimate Team and franchise were heavily criticized for being simplistic and buggy in comparison to their more refined counterparts, The One garnered praise. "We're on to something with The One. It's our most played mode by a pretty wide margin," Graddy says.
Graddy thinks of The One as NBA Live's flagship mode going forward, pitting it head-to-head with NBA 2K's MyCareer. But achieving parity will be a tall order for EA's upstart series. Despite the recent controversy, NBA 2K has ridden MyCareer to considerable success over the years, earning notoriety for high-profile PR moves like bringing aboard Spike Lee to direct its story mode. It was an early pioneer in terms of immersing players in the culture off-the-court, allowing them to have the experience of hanging out with virtual representations of their favorite players. Other sports sims have since introduced narrative modes like Longshot, but none of them have managed to replicate the feeling of being an actual NBA player in quite the same way as NBA 2K18.
In fact, even with all the backlash, NBA 2K18 was the franchise's most successful entry to date. Sales at launch were up 20 percent from NBA 2K17, and recurrent consumer spending was up 57 percent. And it was all thanks to MyCareer.
NBA 2K18's dominance puts NBA Live in a tough spot. On the one hand, MyCareer is so well-known that NBA Live risks looking lesser by comparison. On the other, it's a proven formula—if NBA Live doesn't have it, fans will complain. Such is the lot of a comparative minnow stuck competing against a dominant market leader. You lose either way.
NBA Live's Battle Against the NBA 2K Juggernaut
All EA can do is keep marching forward while continuing last year's momentum. After close to a decade of false starts, NBA Live finally has something approaching a foundation. Now it has to build on it. In terms of The One, that means building up the off-the-court experience. Graddy says, "I think we're getting to a good place of simulating an NBA player on the court, but the entire lifestyle that comes with that—the culture. We want to simulate all the aspects that come with being a celebrity basketball player."
The social element is another key building block for the series. "We think playing a game with someone you either know in real life or online is something we want to foster. And the ability to achieve something. We think people play sports games to achieve something, whatever that might be. Whether it's winning the Super Bowl in Madden, or getting your player up in OVR in NBA Live, we want to give people the ability to achieve something and share that with the NBA universe."
And, of course, Graddy wants to keep building up NBA Live's gameplay, which was well-liked in some quarters and criticized in others. This is what I wrote about it last year:
NBA Live is more forgiving in some ways, more punishing in others. Defense and dribbling are pleasingly intuitive and enjoyable to pull off, and running plays is actually quite easy. However, as it's balanced right now, NBA Live has way too many blocks, and defense is arguably overpowered. The power of contested shots basically demands that you run screens that are guaranteed to get your players wide open.
Graddy acknowledges that fans want a "smoother" experience. "I want to put it both to our team and our fans and ask what they want from an NBA game," he says. "[Like] what are we missing. And then doing our best to prioritize the right things while providing a product that differentiates itself."
NBA Live has a long way to go to catch up with NBA 2K. The decision to tear down and rebuild the series after its most successful entry to date will go down as one of the most consequential in sports game history. It ceded the market to 2K just as basketball was about to go to another level in terms of popularity.
NBA Live will likely never match the heights it achieved in 2009. But in a space where competition is vanishingly rare, it has a chance to be a welcome counterweight to the otherwise unfettered dominance of NBA 2K. And it all begins with The One.