The case for NBA Live, the series, is also the case against NBA Live 15, the game hitting stores in 10 days. Sean O'Brien, the game's executive producer, knows this.
"I'm not selling you, or anyone, this game," he told me. He knows NBA Live's embarassing history, knows that everything he says sounds self-interested, knows that any claim he makes is pfft-worthy, especially with this year's game delayed three weeks past its announced launch date.
Here is the guarantee O'Brien will make, though: NBA Live 15 will be better than NBA Live 14 by about this much, he says, holding one hand about a foot above the other. And then NBA Live 16 will be here, he says, sitting up to reach higher.
"So, you're guaranteeing there will be an NBA Live 16," I say.
"Guaranteed." O'Brien says. "We've already started development on 16. We're staffing up. We're actually increasing investment on what 16 — and 17 — look like."
I have heard the water cooler talk, and so have others I talk to, some of whom worked in the studio where NBA Live is built, some with very desirable offices in that building. They have all said EA Sports is in the final year of its deal with the NBA and its players association, and once Live 15 launches, EA Sports will GTFO of a poker game dominated by 2K Sports, even with the online troubles facing its game.
Not so, says O'Brien, who has gone through hell with NBA Live before. Thirteen years ago he was a producer on NBA Live 2001, which limped to a release on PlayStation 2 after the holiday season, and more than three months after the league's opening day. "It was a disaster, the game was terrible," he growled to me in another conversation in April.
Two years ago, NBA Live was in the same despair, following a thoroughly disastrous closed-doors showing at E3 2012. What the press saw had the chance of doing irrevocable harm if it ever released. O'Brien was working in independent development in Vancouver that summer and EA rang the batphone, asking him to right the ship. O'Brien, mid-40s with a wife and kids, was in a take-it-or-leave-it posture. He agreed to move his family to Florida for this project on one condition: Shitcan NBA Live 13.
"I'm not selling you, or anyone, this game," says the man making it.
Not that NBA Live 14, published under his leadership last November, was some messianic work. It was awful, as any simulation sports game made in a year would be. It needed six major post-release updates to stabilize into some kind of understandable playability. The plasticky player models reeked of vinyl action figures and their animations looked like something out of Monty Python. A title update three months later was celebrated simply for the fact it added a tutorial.
Then the rumors came that NBA Live 15 would try to chisel as much as it could off the eight figures EA guarantees to pay the league, maybe roll a couple patches after Christmas for all the kids who got the game from grandma or Aunt Betty, then fire everyone and walk away.
"Part of me wishes people could hear the conversations I'm in," O'Brien said. "I wish I could snap my fingers and it would be two years from now. Right now, you're saying, 'Really, you guys are going to keep spending X dollars a year, to make X dollars a year? The math doesn't add up.'"
It doesn't and it does. O'Brien described NBA video games as a $350 million addressable market. More importantly, it's global, like FIFA, not a niche, North American-only sport like Madden NFL, baseball or ice hockey. EA Sports, despite its calamitous mismanagement of the license going back to NBA Elite 11, still has a strong relationship with the NBA, O'Brien says, and it also has strong ties to ESPN, whose broadcast package provides a huge shot of legitimacy. China, where the NBA has significant inroads and which recently opened up to Western-manufactured game consoles, is as much an opportunity as it is an unknown (though Xbox One going to Shanghai did not by itself save NBA Live's bacon, O'Brien said directly.)
The potential is apparent, which is why EA Sports' squandering of it has been so exasperating. O'Brien knows this, which is why he is trying to stay away from direct sales pitches until he knows his game has brought the goods. He thinks NBA Live 15 will. It won't be better than NBA 2K15, because god damn, that is just a great video game — when it works right — regardless of genre. But the controls, the visuals and, most importantly, the online experience, will make a respectable showing that earns the chance to improve next year.
"We're a work in progress," O'Brien admits. The three-week delay this year, embarrassing though it is, basically means the game can ship with a bunch of stuff that would have to be polished in a day-one patch anyway, O'Brien said. That's probably why there is no pre-release demo, which is rightfully held against the game, but it's not a statement of no confidence from the developer. It's just an admission the thing needs all the time it can get before release.
Without the tuning, O'Brien said, defense was too difficult given the level of ballhandling control Live 15 offers to players. And, yes, on day one, there will be another patch polishing even more things the team is uncovering right now, O'Brien admitted. NBA Live 14 launched with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in November 2013, meaning this edition's gestation is shorter than 12 months. Some of O'Brien's optimism for future years of NBA Live is knowing that it will get a full one-year development cycle before hitting the court.
I ask how it sits with his bosses — Andrew Wilson, the CEO of Electronic Arts, and Patrick Soderlund, the boss of EA Sports, both came up through development — to acknowledge the elephant in sports gaming's living room, and say next year's game will be better than this, which effectively means don't buy this year.
"It's a long-term strategy," O'Brien said. "Building a high-definition game is not easy. I think the game we're creating is different, and I think as we mature as a product, you'll see that difference come out more and more.
"The analogy is, I envision what Sam Presti [general manager of the Thunder] said when they moved to Oklahoma City. Is he selling season ticket holders on the promise that they will win a championship this year? Or is he selling them on the vision, what they want to do, and do you want to be a part of this," O'Brien said. "In our case, it's building a game, not a team."
The Thunder had a sad first year in Oklahoma, but have been to the playoffs every year since, including a Finals appearance two years ago. They have Kevin Durant, the best player in the league, who stars on the box of NBA 2K15. He was also on the cover of NBA Elite.
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears weekends.