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EA drops the ball with NBA Live cancellation Exclusive
EA drops the ball with  NBA Live  cancellation
September 28, 2012 | By Chris Morris

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?

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Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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To answer that question, look at Soccer/Football. Despite a very long dominance by PES, it only took a few years for FIFA to overtake them in sales once they had the better product (as generally recognized), and without slashing the price.

Americans tend to think of Madden as the biggest EA Sport game but FIFA sells massively more. Something over 12 millions copies each and every year, all SKUS together, according to public numbers.

When and If they ever manage to come back with a superior NBA game is a completely different matter.

Christopher Thigpen
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Funny thing, even the image is way out of date. Arenas hasn't played for the Wizards since 2010.

Just saying...

Alan Rimkeit
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All that EA needs to do is come out with an NBA game of Madden 13 quality and Take Two is hosed. Nuff said. Madden 13 is GOLD.

Sean Davis
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you say that as if it's as simple as pie to do..

Alan Rimkeit
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Never said it was simple. But EA has the cash to do it. All it takes is time after that.

Freek Hoekstra
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because big budgets always translate into better games ;)

but honestly I do think it is a very courageous decision to cancell the game and put more work into the sequel, and I hope this risky move does get rewarded.

Amir Sharar
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It is noteworthy that it took years after having the exclusive license for EA to have a product comparable to the NFL 2K series.

It is also noteworthy that the NHL series (in which the 2K series dominated in terms of quality) was turned around in one year through revolutionary controls.

Perhaps EA attempted the latter approach in terms of attempting to revolutionize the genre, but needed another year to polish. NHL 07 began a revolution, but was missing many elements that made the 2K series a complete game. By NHL 09, the game was clearly superior in every area. (It's interesting to note that in NHL 13 that they were still grabbing ideas from the 2K series, but that's unrelated to my point here.)

Adam Shields
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When I read this my initial reaction was, "How unfortnate." After some time thinking about the situation, I'm wondering if this isn't a blessing in disguise. I recall someone stating they were going to be continuing with this engine and keep tweaking it. This would give EA a jump start on Next Gen readiness. If they take this time to continue integration to a new system, rather than stacking onto an older one after their team is cut in half to maintain the current product, they would be in a position to have the better product come Next Generation. This would mean a larger percentage of sales based on visual perception, let alone the mechanical tweaks they did not bring out this year. This could very well place EA as the head NBA title, and in a high enough position that catchup wouldn't be for two more years simply due to perception and time with hands on.
It is true that the smart publishers start taking stock early on. It's also true that if you have a title shipping NOW, that you have to do a little maintenance on the back end, leaving potential key players of your dev team working on "old business". I'd also wager this decision wasn't overnight, nor was it an easy one. I could simply be thinking optimistically, but it WOULD be the smart move for the next generation of sales. -Adam

Justin Sawchuk
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I wouldnt even care if EA cancelled all there sports games.

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The first year they canceled, they had already made the game so I won't count that year, but they've had two full years to work on a title and still can't get it done. Take Two is cranking these bad boys out in one year and making a product so much better than EA's they don't even want to compete despite having double the development time.

It's a wrap. How do these devs still have jobs? They aren't competent and haven't been for three release cycles now. Why are they still being paid? The shareholders need to say, "enough is enough," and demand some new blood because it's clear that the people there now don't have the capacity to get it done.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Your comment is disrespectful in the extreme. First, its already new blood, as the title was transfered from EA Canada to EA Tiburon after '11.

You obviously know nothing of the developpers, the conditions in which they have to work, the management they have to work under, the ressources they have to work with, the constraints they have to work under or the challenges that they are facing.

Yet you allow yourself to be so disrespectfuly judgemental and go as far to question their employment?

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@Mathieu All of that is completely irrelevant and I don't see how it's disrespectful.

These devs may be awesome and talented but their skill set is one that just isn't getting it done when it comes to making basketball games. Sadly, they are employed to make basketball games. This is a major conflict that EA needs to address.

Craig Timpany
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Lack of developer skill isn't the only way a project can fail. Life would be so much simpler if it were. Can I live on your planet, Captain Capslock?

Robb Lewis
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One tactic EA could try to regain NBA customers upon their re-entry could be do a bundled pricing deal with their other sports franchise titles. Most sports gamers play multiple sports games anyway so as a sports gaming fan I might be enticed with an offer to buy EA's NBA, Madden, MLB, etc. for a bundled deal discount.