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NBA Live 18’s show-don’t-tell presentation earned it another second chance

But series makers know it’s shut-up and put up

NBA Live 18 - LeBron in The One EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

When NBA Live opened its portion of yesterday's EA Play keynote, I nearly groaned at first. They were going with a dribbling demonstration again? At E3 2013, EA Sports led with this for NBA Live 14, the last time this game had to come back from an abrupt cancellation. Please, I thought, please don't do a poetry slam again.

This time, though, I caught a different tone. Contrition. "Instead of talking about it, I'd like to show you," executive producer Sean O'Brien said, and the presentation for NBA Live 18 did. Contrast that with 2013, when he and Kyrie Irving had a two-minute discussion about dribbling and player data that featured no gameplay.

NBA Live was so lacking in substance at E3 2013 that it was little surprise the game that launched the following November appeared rushed, confusing to players, and lacking even basic amenities like a practice mode. Yesterday, we got an unexpected sign of life for NBA Live on consoles, the first in more than a year.

O'Brien's presentation seemed to acknowledge the series has run out of gas with its audience. If there's any hope of being taken seriously, NBA Live had to show concrete things that will be delivered. It did. Let their utility and execution be judged later, but there was, finally, the kind of twin-stick, movement-and-dribbling concept that this series has wanted to put in place since the ill-fated NBA Elite 11 and never quite pulled off.

O'Brien promised a free demo in August; that's a pretty big commitment. EA Sports has to know they'll be judged harshly all over again if they miss that date. And then there was the explanation of a new career mode, that appears to make use of the Pro-Am mode introduced the last time the series launched, in 2015.

All of this was illustrated with in-game footage. The 2013 presentation featured nothing from inside the game.

To be fair, this is a game that has more than a year to be built — again — and that has meant little in the past: One cancellation (NBA Live 13) and one product that was effectively incomplete (NBA Live 14). It's still a competitor to NBA 2K in name only, unless and until it starts doing things that franchise doesn't. Even if "The One" executes its vision shown yesterday, NBA Live 18’s career mode still looks a lot smaller than NBA 2K’s MyCareer suite, which also incorporates pickup games and has also done a story mode since 2013.

But it wasn't just what EA Sports did at EA Play 2017, though. It's what they didn't do in the run-up to it. No promises, no just-trust-us, no closeups of player faces or teaser trailers that were little more than a title card. No premature cover star announcements. The kinds of things that tell and don't show.

In fact, I don’t think I heard anything about this game between February and yesterday, except for the standing promise of a return to consoles, which I openly questioned.

And while there was the usual interstitial hype in some of the presenters' banter on Saturday night, the overall tone was subdued, particularly O'Brien's. No one expects him or anyone at NBA Live to wear a hair shirt to their own party, after all, and NBA Elite is ancient news.

In a subtle way, I felt that the NBA Live 18 presentation acknowledged my frustration with it, and the things shown are worth putting that aside, and not grudgingly.

Roster File is Polygon’s column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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