In a year where there have been plenty of head-scratching moves by video game publishers, EA's decision to sit out yet another NBA season is perhaps the most baffling.
It is nothing short of a colossal failure on the part of the company that has historically been the leader in sports games. The company's inability to put together a high quality (or even remotely competitive) product in the ample time budgeted to do so has given Take-Two de facto exclusivity in a lucrative field for the third consecutive year. And barring a miracle or some extraordinarily savvy maneuvering, it may have just ceded the category forever.
Certainly, EA earns some high marks for not shipping a half-assed title. Given the stock pressure the company has been under recently, there must have been some temptation to recoup part of its investment before cooler heads noted the long-term impact that would have on the larger brand.
That said, EA had a lot of time to right the ship with its NBA product. By canceling the game two years ago under very similar circumstances and riding the bench for the 2012 season, the new team at EA Tiburon had an incredibly long window to assess what had gone wrong in the past and to put together a product that would be competitive with NBA2K.
In announcing the decision to sit out another season, EA Sports EVP Andrew Wilson said "I'm disappointed that we have not yet met our high expectations with NBA Live, but I remain motivated about where we're going. We're committed to delivering new innovation in online, and our progress in the visual presentation of the game continues to take big strides. We also know that a great game starts with great gameplay, and this remains a huge priority for us"
Admirable words – but they're very reminiscent of what we heard in 2010. And what Wilson might be overlooking is that no matter how great the next game is (assuming EA actually manages to get it out the door in the first place – their credibility is kind of low at this point), it might not matter.
Sports gamers are creatures of habit. They tend to gravitate towards the franchises they know, since they're familiar with the controls and their friends play the same game. EA's inability to create a viable NBA game in this long timeframe has helped further cement Visual Concepts as the go-to developer for basketball simulations.
Wooing back those players isn't going to be easy – and barring an epic stumble on the part of 2K Sports, it may not be possible. The only way EA might have a chance at turning heads, ironically, is by taking a page from Take-Two's playbook.
Think back to 2004. The two publishers were battling to win the hearts of NFL fans – and Take-Two, in an unprecedented move, priced NFL2K at just $20. It was risky, but it worked – and worked well. Fans flocked to the game, lured by the bargain price and the critically acclaimed gameplay – and it wasn't long before EA found itself having to slash the price of that year's Madden.
That was a move made in the heyday of retail video games, though. Take-Two shares held more than twice their current value. (And EA shares were about 4.5 times higher.) Investors were willing to bypass the profits of a AAA game for one year in order to gain market share. It's uncertain if they'd stand for that today, with shares in the $10-$12 range for both companies.
And as for contractual exclusivity, like EA won with Madden, forget that. The NBA has made it quite clear it wants multiple brands in the market.
Despite the Job-like troubles the publisher has had with the games recently, senior EA officials said they do not foresee the company staying out of the NBA field permanently.
"We're a company that does not believe in giving up," said chief operating officer Peter Moore in a conversation during this year's E3. "We have the wherewithal to stick to things that are hard and make investments in technology. This is our 17th year as licensee of the NBA. … I cannot imagine a future of EA Sports without an NBA game."
That may be. The question is: Even if the company does finally manage to get one out, will anyone care?