NBA Live has burned me before so many times that this week's news of its cancellation — no, it's not a postponement or a delay — made me smirk instead of grimace.
I was burned, along with everyone else, by NBA Elite in 2010. I was burned by what I thought I saw in a Portland, Ore. hotel room before E3 2012; burned by NBA Live 13's closed doors showcase in Los Angeles the next month; burned when the project was canceled the month after that, and now burned by the executive producer's guarantee to me, in my own living room, that the series would launch with this NBA season.
None of that, really, is inside my disappointment. My despair more is this: If the biggest publisher in video games — sports or otherwise — cannot mount any kind of competitive product with a full league and players association license, then sports fans can truly pack it up. By whatever trends and market forces over the past 12 years, sports video games have now hardened to one title per league, even when you account for soccer, where EA Sports controls the Premier League license, and Major League Baseball’s only meaningful presence is on PlayStation 4.
This lack of variety is more proof that sports have run out of things to say in the video games conversation, despite the enormous contribution they make to the annual sales picture. A competitive video game has to tell a story to an attentive public before launch. A monopoly does not. What a dispiriting realization on Super Bowl Sunday.
It's probably idealistic to view sports licenses as some kind of public commodity. Electronic Arts has had dibs on Star Wars since The Old Republic in 2011, and no one howls about Star Wars games made or unmade since, they way they did with Madden and NFL 2K5 a decade ago. The view of sports licenses is likely shaped in the public consciousness by the multiple broadcast partners of professional sports leagues. Indeed, EA Sports' license with the NFL is rumored to second-richest to the league's broadcasting agreements. And the first Super Bowl was carried by two networks 50 years ago.
But basketball, soccer, baseball, ice hockey or American football are not whole-cloth, canonical creations owned by a filmmaker or author. They're played in gymnasiums and high schools, on frozen ponds and public commons all over the the world. They're well designed games refined over more than a century. Video games get to adapt them with half of the homework done already.
To my knowledge, Arena Football, which has no amateur presence anywhere, is the only professionally played sport claiming a rule set and field markings as copyrighted intellectual property. Even Quidditch, a game of broomsticks and enchanted balls originating in the multizillion-dollar Harry Potter canon. is played on college campuses today. (But I'm sure there would be a problem if someone wanted to make a video game out of it.)
Taking all of this into consideration, one sees why NBA Live, or any truly competitive work in sports video gaming, is doomed. A league and its players confer legitimacy. Permission to use both costs millions before the first line of code is even laid down. Twenty-five years ago, when leagues and their players unions couldn’t get their heads together on licensing, they may have viewed video game deals the same as slapping a logo on a beer can and cashing a check. Today, they understand the power of that brand, and are collectively invested in improving it. Additionally, they have to employ people to monitor and approve things made in their name, which cuts into the pure profit realized by granting a license. This is why the National Football League, beginning in the last decade with ballcaps, beer sponsors and video games, moved to an exclusive licensing model. Not only could they command a premium, but also they could minimize the internal costs of managing a license.
The de facto exclusive — eliminating a competitor without paying for it — was always a goal of 2K Sports, expressed to me by their representatives six years ago, when NBA Live was still a legitimate concern. 2K certainly cannot be blamed for Electronic Arts' intransigence or incompetence in launching an NBA title on consoles. But if the exclusive license EA bought for Madden NFL defined sports video games development on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation, then 2K Sports perfected that model by wiping the floor with EA Sports in basketball ever since, without paying any premium to the league. Undoubtedly, that freed money to Visual Concepts to try all kinds of other developmental expeditions, practically all of which hit big.
The Jordan Challenge in NBA 2K11. NBA's Greatest in NBA 2K12. Jay-Z and The Dream Team in NBA 2K13. The first story mode in a sports franchise in NBA 2K14, and two since. Spike Lee in NBA 2K16. Only this year did EA Sports pick up the bit and introduce a story mode for FIFA. NBA Live has now been canceled in three of the preceding seven years, and in the games it has launched, has struggled to fulfill the basic expectations of career suite and online multiplayer.
This is why nobody took EA seriously when it said, in May, that NBA Live would be held back on consoles, like an overgrown kindergartner, for a winter 2017 launch, presumably around the NBA All-Star break. I scoffed at it openly. So did others. The last time EA Sports tried this kind of midseason launch with a basketball title, the download-only March Madness 09, it didn't go so well. And that game wasn't facing any direct competition.
This is why NBA Live's console cancellation was met with a dismissive shrug nine months ago. We have heard it all before. We have heard every excuse EA Sports could possibly make for its inability to produce an NBA game worth a damn. And those who have resented Madden's exclusive license, which nullified the NFL 2K series, forced Sega to sell its sports division to Take-Two, and remade and shrunk the entire sports video game catalog for a decade, get their revenge every time NBA Live admits its latest disappointment.
Their righteous validation isn't in Visual Concepts stepping on EA Sports' throat. It's in NBA Live still trying to get up, when everyone else has given up. Long ago.
Roster File is Polygon’s column on the intersection of sports and video games.